Garfield County looks to further economic goals this year despite energy downturn, COVID-19 impacts
Airport, fairgrounds improvements, solar potential among priorities
Budget impacts due to the ongoing downturn in the natural gas industry are driving Garfield County’s policy directives for 2021, with an eye toward diversifying the county’s economic base.
County commissioners recently adopted their “Directives and Action Plan” for the year, giving weight both to the realities of running a county with fewer revenues and looking to some new areas for economic development potential.
The county this year made across-the-board budget cuts of 5%, including eliminating 18 jobs through attrition and cutting programs such as the Sheriff’s Office animal control division and the Youth Conservation Corps outdoor projects summer employment program.
“We’re cutting out things we’ve done for years that we’re not going to be able to do anymore,” said County Commissioner Tom Jankovsky, who sits on the county’s Budget Team committee.
“The most critical issue we have to deal with right now is our loss of revenues, and that’s going to be front and center for at least two more years,” Jankovsky said of likely additional budget cuts over the ensuing years.
But, “Even though we’re in a tough budget cycle, we have some great goals out there,” he said. “These policy directives come out of our business plan and there are many things we will get done in 2021.”
Among them is a long list of infrastructure investment, from county roads and bridges and broadband capabilities, to continued improvements at the County Fairgrounds in Rifle and implementation of a 10-year master plan for the Rifle Garfield County Airport.
“It’s nice when we have departments that pay for themselves, and the airport is one of them,” Jankovsky said.
This year, the county’s fixed-base operator, Atlantic Aviation, is planning to build another $9 million hangar to keep up with the growing demands of the facility. The airport doesn’t offer commercial passenger service, but is a major regional hub for air freight, private jet and small plane services, and serves as a base for wildland firefighting and unmanned aerial vehicle (drone) training.
At this point, the county plans to proceed with the Garfield County Fair and Rodeo in early August, depending on where things stand with COVID-19 limits on gatherings.
Even if that event has to be scaled back, the county continues to invest in the fairgrounds with recent adjacent land purchases to help accommodate a new 4H outdoor education center.
The county’s policy directives for the year also touch on mental health support needs in the county, working with the city of Glenwood Springs and health care providers to build a detox center locally and ongoing COVID-19 vaccination and economic recovery efforts.
One bullet point under the county’s economic development goals for the year “really should be in bold print,” Jankovsky said.
That’s the goal to continue the county’s work with the inter-governmental Garfield Clean Energy coalition and its administrative organization, Clean Energy Economy for the Region (CLEER) to further renewable energy development in the tri-county region.
“If there are going to be new federal or state grants for solar development, we need to be at the forefront to try to bring those to Garfield County,” Jankovsky said.
CLEER is nearing the conclusion of a project to map out potential solar energy sites in Garfield and neighboring Eagle and Pitkin counties, and the potential is huge for western Garfield County in particular, he said.
While not likely to fully replace the loss in county tax revenues from natural gas and other extractive industry, it’s something the county must embrace, Jankovsky said.
And, while President Joe Biden’s new climate crisis plan directives shut off federal lands for new oil and gas leasing, there is the potential for leasing to occur for solar and wind sites, he surmised.
As with natural gas, solar facilities still cannot be situated too far away from infrastructure such as electric transmission lines, he noted. And, there is potential for some jobs replacement, he noted.
Also perhaps cushioning the blow to the natural gas industry is the strong residential real estate market.
“At some point, I believe our revenue situation will level out,” he said.
But, the high demand for residential properties in the mountain-resort region with the boom in the “work-from-home” market also presents some problems, he said.
“It definitely affects a lot of our other issues … with the cost of housing, the cost of transportation and quality of life,” Jankovsky said.
Still got gas
Though the natural gas industry has been hit hard by a combination of current low gas prices and new state and federal regulations, a major priority for Garfield County continues to be to fight on several fronts to maintain energy development as a viable economic sector.
The county plans to continue its involvement with the 23-member Western and Rural Local Governments Coalition to analyze the socio-economic impacts of the state’s new Senate Bill 181 rules and regulations.
Government coalition efforts to advocate for continued federal Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILT) reimbursements, mineral leasing, and rural schools funds also continue to be a priority for the county.
And, with the Biden administration’s climate objectives, the county expects renewed battles over natural resource development and multiple uses of federal lands, wildlife protections and infrastructure for export of natural gas, such as the Jordan Cove project in Oregon.
Those will likely be topics at the Garfield Energy Advisory Board’s upcoming West Slope Energy and Environment Symposium, where operators and local governments will gather to talk about those impacts.
“One thing Senate Bill 181 is going to do is turn oil and gas regulation in Colorado into a patchwork of different rules and regulations, where every county and municipality is now coming up with their own rules and regulations,” Jankovsky said.
He said the new 2,000-foot setback from homes, schools and other occupied buildings for well pads will make it hard for future natural gas wells to be developed in some areas, including tapping into the deeper Niobrara geologic formation that holds vast natural gas reserves.
“There are some ‘off-ramps’ to that setback that can be considered, and that’s something we have to look closely at,” he said. Once the price of natural gas comes back up, development of that resource will become viable, he said.
In the meantime, Jankovsky said the county also continues to support efforts to grow the outdoor recreation and tourism industry in the region.
“When I look back at my 30 years in tourism here, the amount of growth in the tourism sector is really amazing,” Jankovsky, the former general manager and still part owner of Sunlight Mountain ski resort, said.
However, while tourism might offset job losses in the energy sector, the pay is not comparable and the tax base is not nearly the same, he said.
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