Economic development strategy presented at coalition meeting

by Eric Mullens
WALSENBURG —  Attendees at the most recent Huerfano County Communications Coalition meeting on March 1, saw a PowerPoint presentation outlining the county’s comprehensive economic development strategy.
The presentation was made by county administrator John Galusha and contained facts about the county and areas identified as important to its economic future.
The information in the presentation also indicated a number of areas of concern, including;
• 2008 Recession Recovery:  The county has not recovered from the 2008 recession and since 2006 wage and salary employment has declined (except in the areas of public administration and health care).  The report also said, while workforce numbers are low, the aging population of the county may also contribute to a workforce shortage in the future.
• Employment Trends:  
The presentation said there are approximately 1,650 jobs in the county; 936 proprietors and areas showing some growth include transportation, information, arts and recreation and professional services.  Some of the bad news included an average decline of 356 jobs per year over the last decade.  Labor statistics show the labor participation statewide is at 55.6%, while the numbers of those employed versus overall population in Huerfano County is at 36.7%, which is nearly 20% below the state participation rate.  Non-participation numbers do include retirees.
The report also said 77% of the jobs in Huerfano County are based in Walsenburg where approximately 45% of the residents of the county live.  La Veta has approximately 16% of total jobs in the county and Gardner and Cuchara make up about 4% of active employment.
• Weaknesses / SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) analysis of Huerfano County were identified as organization of economic development; labor force; lack of broadband access; housing and downtown business vacancies in the county seat, Walsenburg.
• Opportunities:
Those identified in the presentation included indoor agriculture, arts and cultural cluster development, Cuchara Mountain and other development opportunities such as the Walsenburg City Ranch, Northlands, the currently closed private prison, the marijuana industry and workforce training, Walsenburg Downtown Revitalization Committee efforts along with those of the local tourism board.
• Targeted Industries:
The presentation identified health care, ranching, outdoor recreation, retail and lodging and indoor agriculture as targeted industries for economic development groups to look at.
Revitalization of downtowns, increasing of high-level local government services, and improving retail options were identified as important areas.  Under retail options the recruitment of full health and personal care store and pharmacy, improvement of food shopping opportunities, new restaurants, development of microbrewies and encouragement of farm to table operations were identified.
The report encourages local government to tackle issues such as drug law enforcement; an increase of code enforcement in cities, towns and the county to address nuisance and blight issues; maintaining infrastructure to the highest standards possible (within the limits of the local tax base) and modernization of county records and making those records available online.  Development of broadband networks and the implementation of a truck bypass to take semi-tractor/trailers out of the downtown area of Walsenburg were identified as priority infrastructure / capital projects.
• Target industries:  The best potential target industries for the county were identified as warehousing / distribution; food / beverage processing; plant made pharmaceuticals and hemp operation development; energy and forest products and, of course, tourism.
• ED Focus Areas:
Economic development focus areas outlined in the presentation included; quality of life, human capital, job growth in targeted industries and organization.  In the area of organization the report suggested a half-time or full-time economic developer; better defined organizational structure, general outreach with businesses and non-profit groups and overall economic development policy coordination.
Resources for additional information regarding economic development in southern Colorado include, Southern Colorado Economic Development District (SCEDD) whose southern region includes both Huerfano and Las Animas County; Walsenburg Downtown Revitalization Committee, Huerfano County Economic Development, City of Walsenburg, Huerfano County Tourism Board, and South Central Council of Governments.  Contact information for these groups, and others, may be found online.
The Huerfano County Communication Coalition meets on the first Thursday of each month and public participation is invited and encouraged.