The recent track record and future prospects for economic development in the county seem shaky when you take a discerning look at the words and deeds of the District 2 County Commissioner candidates.
Incumbent Dem Jerry Mallett has had some wins, mixed results and all-out duds on this front while Republican challenger Frank Holman has never had any direct experience in the realm and hasn’t outlined any specifics on how to shore up or improve on Mallett’s efforts.
Since his election four years ago, Mallett’s efforts on this front have been earnest and consistent but the results have been spotty.
To his credit, Mallett was instrumental in creating the county’s first economic development coordinator position. This office took some baseline snapshots of such issues as housing needs, business/service leakage, and commissioned Colorado State University to produce the recently released Ranchlands Tourism study. More recently, Mallett helped lobby for development of a Small Business Development Council comprised of representatives from the county, chambers of commerce from Salida, Leadville and Buena Vista, the Upper Arkansas Enterprise Zone and Western State College. Most visibly, counselors from the SBDC provide business advice to area small businesses.
Despite these efforts, results of which can be found on the Chaffee County governmental website, vocal critics in the community are asking what the results of these efforts have been. “Zip!” is Holman’s one-word reply, continuing that the above-mentioned studies didn’t reveal anything anyone didn’t already know and were a “ridiculous expense.”
Mallett’s best result in the economic development arena was in fulfillment of his campaign pledge to develop conference facilities. Mallett helped find and apply for serious grant money that helped Salida complete the SteamPlant Theater and Event Center. He also helped steer resources to upgrade the Chaffee County Fairgrounds buildings and grounds, including the installation of solar panels to make the facility more energy efficient and to make that facility more appealing to event organizers.
A less-happy ending met the star-studded economic development committee that Mallett assembled soon after he was elected. The committee, Vision 2020, fizzled into oblivion before it could achieve any of the lofty results to which is aspired. Infused with great optimism and oozing with business acumen, the group – comprised of some of the area’s most dynamic business leaders – operated well under the radar and had many in the community wondering who was on it and what they were up to. What they were up to was trying to turbo-charge economic development for the valley by developing proactive and progressive efforts to recruit new business and industry. The group gradually disbanded, for reasons unknown or undisclosed, although certainly the lack of a dependable revenue stream to fund their outreach efforts probably played a role.
Of all his campaign promises, Mallet’s vision of rolling out the red carpet for a parade of new businesses was surely the most overly optimistic. In campaign ads, candidate forums and and an interview with the Mountain Mail, Mallett spoke confidently of his ability to attract new manufacturing business to the valley, especially from the outdoor industry. “With some encouragement” he predicted he could lure 10 to 15 new outdoor companies, bringing jobs paying $9 to $12 per hour to the area within two years. Yet while communities elsewhere around the West were offering businesses lucrative tax breaks, financial incentives and in some cases, even free real estate, Chaffee County never developed a business recruitment or incentive plan.
Mallett’s answer to his promise to try to “plug the drain” on dollars leaving the valley was a leakage study. The study was developed and conducted in-house and yielded little new information about consumer buying habits. If any businesses did become healthier as a result of information gleaned from the study, such results have not been documented or quantified. Holman found irony in the leakage study since he charges that the county could plug some leaks of its own by purchasing all its road base and equipment parts from within the county instead of from companies in Fremont County.
Having retired from a career with the state highway department, Holman has had little direct experience on the economic development front. Not surprisingly, he does believe a key to economic development is providing good infrastructure like roads as well as the installation of fiber optic cable for high-speed voice and data communications to help local businesses be competitive.
Holman said it also has to be easier for new businesses to take root in the county, saying he knows of more than a few prospects in the past four years that have taken their businesses elsewhere because it proved too time-consuming and difficult to get through the necessary approvals and permitting processes here.
As he has said on other issues, Holman believes the best way for government to play a role is through creating incentives for businesses but was vague on exactly what those incentives might be. While both candidates seem to agree that renewable energy and new, small-scale local agricultural production are promising components of the future of economy here, neither man has unveiled specific economic development plans with tangible action items, timelines, funding and key performance indicators.