Sonoran Institute works at the intersection of community, commerce, conservation
Post Independent Contributor
As the western United States continues to face rapid growth and change, conservation and sustainability issues often clash with those of economic development. The Sonoran Institute, founded in 1990, is one organization that helps communities build bridges and turn potential conflict into cooperation.
The organization’s Colorado office opened six years ago in Glenwood Springs and is led by Clark Anderson, who said it works “at the intersection of community, commerce and conservation.”
Some of the Sonoran Institute’s projects, such as its involvement with the Middle Colorado Watershed Council, are clearly focused on environmental concerns. The institute helped start this organization, which now functions on its own to tackle watershed issues between Glenwood Springs and De Beque.
The institute’s mission, though, is broader. “If we really care about conservation outcomes,” Anderson said, “we have to care about people and their need for livelihood.” The Institute helps towns and cities in the West understand that respect for the land and sustainable use of natural resources can work in harmony with smart development and economic opportunity.
It accomplishes its goals through four avenues: training, direct community assistance, research and communication.
The institute’s training seminars bring together representatives from government, business and nonprofit sectors. Anderson explained that participants in these programs develop action plans for their communities while honing leadership skills and learning how to collaborate effectively.
One of the organization’s direct assistance projects is its work with the city of Glenwood Springs and the Downtown Development Authority on the Confluence Redevelopment Project. The institute’s involvement is promoting smart growth by helping Glenwood focus efforts to create new housing, connect the community to the river and invest in existing infrastructure.
Anderson explained that the Sonoran Institute is best known as a convener and a catalyst. The Community Development Academy it presented in Glenwood Springs over a year ago is an example. The eight-week seminar series brought community leaders together to plan for the city’s growth. The group, Partners for Glenwood, grew out of it and remains active.
For the last two years, the Sonoran Institute has been working with the city of Rifle on its mission to create a more resilient local economy, one that is less dependent on the cyclical nature of the oil and gas industry. Anderson said this work has also assisted Rifle in “becoming a more self-sustaining community, less of a bedroom community.”
Nathan Lindquist, Rifle’s planning director, said the Sonoran Institute helped the city with training and public outreach and acted as an “explainer,” helping people see — and get excited about — the big picture. Lindquist added that the Institute “lit the fire” that got more of Rifle’s citizens involved in planning its future. Results include downtown building renovations, in-fill housing, the new Centennial Park and cultural offerings such as Rifle’s summer concert series.
The Sonoran Institute has recently started two initiatives that further its mission. Community Builders helps cities and towns plan development in line with local values and provides advice in areas such as building design and land use.
Another initiative, New Mobility West, focuses on the relationship between transportation and community development. This initiative helps cities and towns of the Rocky Mountain West use capital resources efficiently and effectively to create transportation systems that support strong cores and connect neighborhoods. Another of the initiative’s goals is to assist cities in revitalizing crumbling commercial corridors, such as North Avenue in Grand Junction.
Anderson explained that as a nonprofit organization that does its own fundraising, the Sonoran Institute “brings resources to communities.” It often works with a financial partner, but its training seminars are free to participants. Communities can apply for direct assistance for various projects, and the institute also offers free webinars that are open to the public.
The Sonoran Institute’s research provides information that is valuable for community planning. Examples include reports on housing markets, changing trends in economic development and the value cities and towns can realize from investing in their downtowns.
The institute and the Glenwood Springs Chamber are planning an October event to mark the release of its latest study, Place Value, which it conducted in cooperation with several chambers of commerce across the West. Data from the study, much of it from Glenwood Springs, back up the idea that sustainable economic development depends on being an attractive place to live. This brings us back to the Sonoran Institute’s mission of promoting communities that respect the land and its resources while creating economic opportunity.
The institute’s work shows how people on all sides of development issues find common ground in the desire for strong communities. Stakeholders can then look at economic development through a different lens. As Anderson summarized, the usual approach has been for cities and regions to prove that they are “open for business,” but the Institute helps people discover that the real need is to show that they are “open for community.”
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