Bruell column: Keeping our future in our hands |

Bruell column: Keeping our future in our hands

Debbie Bruell

Local businesses are at the heart of our community. They shape the character of our towns and keep our economy churning — employing workers, providing us with critical goods and services, and drawing in out-of-towners to spend their dollars here.

In contrast to the CEOs and shareholders of mega-corporations who see our county as little more than a location where they could potentially reap a profit, local business owners are invested in the well-being of our community as a whole — because it’s their community as well. They send their kids to our schools, enjoy our local landscape, drink our water, breathe our air and keep savings in our banks.

While we have certainly experienced lucrative boom times when huge corporations have invested in projects here in our county, it’s always a gamble. They will invest in a project when it serves their bottom line but abandon the project as soon as that calculation shifts.

If we want to build a strong, resilient economy, we need to limit our reliance on multinational corporations and build up our local business community. Placing our future in the hands of corporations that care nothing about our community is a risky proposition.

This month marks the 40th anniversary of when Garfield County learned this lesson in a big way: Exxon terminated its Colony Shale Oil project on May 2, 1982, and our community went from boom to bust practically overnight. Over 2,100 people were suddenly jobless, and the local economy was plunged into an economic depression that lasted almost a decade. Banks failed; people’s homes and businesses were foreclosed in droves.

Though Exxon’s decision was an economic disaster for our community, it was great news for Exxon shareholders. The value of their stock increased significantly after the project was axed.

This kind of situation is still business-as-usual and the standard today: Corporate executives make cold-hearted decisions based on profit margins and earnings for shareholders, all while the rest of us are left holding the bag.

Currently, we feel the impact of greedy corporate decision-making every time we fill up our gas tanks — prices have soared since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Higher gas prices mean an increase in the cost of shipping, which increases the price of almost everything. The cost of living is rising across the board.

Meanwhile, the biggest oil and gas corporations have been raking in record profits. Shell recently reported its largest-ever quarterly profit: $9.1 billion. Corporate executives are using these windfall profits to line their pockets and the pockets of their shareholders, when they could be using those billions to lower the price of gas. Or, they could be re-hiring workers who have been laid off in recent years. Instead, they have shown the same disregard for their workers that they have for years. In 2021, these companies laid off 60,000 workers even though they pocketed $8.2 billion in pandemic stimulus funding.

Do we really want to entrust the future of our county to corporate executives that are making these kinds of decisions? It’s time to re-examine how our tax dollars are being spent with regard to the economic development of our communities.

Since 2019, Garfield County commissioners have spent close to $2 million of county funds trying to woo back the multi-national fossil fuel industry. Many of these funds have been spent on out-of-town PR firms and expensive Denver attorneys. At the same time, the commissioners’ record for investing in local businesses is dismal. During the first year of COVID-19, they refused to follow the lead of Glenwood Springs, which provided small grants to help local restaurant owners weather the pandemic.

This past March, the commissioners neglected to approve a one-time $10,000 investment in a regional housing coalition, even though the housing crisis is keeping businesses from hiring needed workers. At the same meeting, the commissioners approved their annual $5,000 fee for a pro-oil and gas development group working on another Jordan Cove-type pipe dream.

There are creative, proactive ways we could be investing county funds to strengthen our local business community. We could develop efforts to convince people to shop locally rather than online. We could work to bring light manufacturing businesses to the county. And we could take inspiration from Eagle County, where commissioners initiated four Early Childhood Provider Support Programs after access to child care was identified as a major barrier to business’ ability to attract and retain employees.

We need our elected leaders to be forward-thinking and innovative, rather than throwing money at the fossil fuel industry while local businesses miss out on real chances to grow. We need leaders who will invest county funds in ways that strengthen our local business community and develop our self-reliance as a community. Let’s be certain that we’re firmly holding the reins to our economic future, confident in the direction we’re heading.

Debbie Bruell of Carbondale chairs the Garfield County Democrats.

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