Business and community leaders in Delta County’s North Fork Valley say Paonia, Crawford, and Hotchkiss need an economic boost. They recently held a forum on the North Fork Valley’s economy and what can be done to improve it.
About 100 people attended the forum in Paonia last week.
They came to hear different perspectives on the local economy, what’s working and what’s not, and how to make things better.
"We have our farms," says Alexis Halbert, the president of the Paonia Chamber of Commerce. "We have our hunting resources. We have are restaurants, wineries, [and] people who are creating things out of the natural assets of the valley.
Halbert was one of the 13 people who spoke at the forum.
"One of the trends that were are also seeing is that small towns are being swallowed often by the growth of larger cities or small towns are losing that critical population capacity in order to keep and grow jobs," she says.
Halbert says last year the North Fork Valley became one of Colorado’s 12 creative districts.
"We’ve been recognized for our wealth of artists, writers, entrepreneurs, and in particular our heritage crafts and agriculture," she says.
She sees this designation as an economic opportunity.
"This is an incredibly powerful and wonderful, potent opportunity for us to take advantage of here in the North Fork Valley," Halbert says.
But not all speakers painted such a rosy picture. Some pointed out that the valley is falling behind when it comes to necessities like high-speed internet.
"Broadband is important,"Trish Thibodo, the director of Delta County Economic Development, says.
She feels it’s the number one economic issue the area faces.
"As we talk about developing a diverse, robust, resilient economy the creative class is a really important piece of that and entrepreneurs," Thibodo says. "We know folks need access to affordable, reliable internet."
She says she’s working with local governments, organizations, and businesses to figure out how to bring faster broadband to Delta County.
Thibodo says high-speed internet would improve local businesses and attract new ones.
She says new businesses are going to be vital to the local economy.
"Because of the recent layoffs with the mines, we have gotten an economic development grant to look at how do we rebuild a resilient and dynamic, diverse economy," she says.
The North Fork Valley is known for two main industries: agriculture and coal mining.
Nationwide, the coal industry is suffering. And, the valley has felt it too.
Nearly 450 coal miners have lost their jobs within the last two years.
Mike Ludlow, the president of Oxbow mining, spoke at the forum.
He says the future of coal in the North Fork Valley is uncertain.
"Everyone in the valley knows that the coal industry is extremely challenged right now," Ludlow says. "It’s under the gun from environmental groups, government regulations, and an oversupply of coal in the United States and worldwide."
Emily Hartnett, with the Valley Organic Growers Association, also talked at the event.
She says farming is a staple in the valley.
"So what we have going on in the valley is the largest concentration of organic farmers in the state," Hartnett says.
She explains the industry's challenge.
"Our problem would be distribution and delivery," she says. "So if we could get our products to the Front Range, Telluride, Aspen, [and] Crested Butte then there’s pretty much unlimited market."
And in addition to sending produce out of the valley, Hartnett says farmers are looking to agritourism to draw people in.
Most of the speakers agreed it’s important to collaborate.
"When we create structure we might actually get something done," Halbert says. "Structure can really help us figure out what we are doing and where we are going."
At the end of the forum however, it wasn’t clear how the various parties would work together or what would top their agenda. So the Hive Paonia plans to host a series of in-depth meetings early next year to discuss topics like broadband and energy development.
The public is invited to attend.