|Custer County: The good, the bad and the ugly.
These various elements of the county were addressed and compiled last week during a three-day community assessment evaluation coordinated by several state economic development leaders.
The project was sponsored by the Custer County Economic Development Committee. Leading the exercise was Danielle Lendriet of Denver, regional coordinator and analyst for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
Others on the assessment team were Meridith Marshall, manager for regional development for the COEDIT; John Hall, Economic Development Director for the City of Westminster; and three officials with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs: regional manager Christy Doon, regional assistant Chelsea Stromberg, and economist Chris Akers.
The three day exercise consisted of three elements: public discussion on Wednesday, May 10; a series of focus groups for local business and civic leaders on Thursday; and a final presentation on Friday evening. Members of the assessment team also visited a number of local businesses.
All activities took place at Tony’s Pizza in Silver Cliff.
After compiling comments from the public and from the civic leaders, the assessment group said Custer County is doing well in a number of areas:
--There’s a strong commitment to volunteerism.
--The community is committed to the preservation and stewardship of our scenic beauty and natural amenities.
--There’s a strong sense of community, a positive small-town feel, and there’s a strong willingness among businesses to work together.
--There continues to be progress in making improvements to Main Street in Westcliffe and the Valley’s business district.
Among the concerns addressed were the following:
--Educational opportunities, health care access and transportation availability appear to be limited.
--Local nonprofit organizations sometimes duplicate services and stronger partnerships are needed.
--There’s a lack of affordable housing, a situation that will continue to plague the county.
--One severe problem – the “ugly” element – is fairly widespread issue of youth and childhood poverty.
Since the overriding theme of the assessment is how to improve the economic viability of the community, some of the recommendations from the team were as follows:
--While the county has an active and close-knit business community, more needs to be done to retain existing businesses and attract new ones.
--Efforts need to be taken to grow the “shoulder” and “off-shoulder” seasons.
--Local businesses need to develop succession plans so those businesses continue after the current owners retire or die.
--Current vacant buildings need to be maintained and not neglected; there are opportunities to create historical, artistic or promotional displays in vacant shop windows.
In addition, the EcoDev team said the county needs to develop branding and marketing opportunities to attract more visitors to the area. Potential opportunities include the great successes of the Dark Skies organization; the ranching heritage here; greater promotion and access to hiking trails and Fourteeners in the Sangre de Cristos; and promoting the county’s large veteran population, which makes up about 20 percent of the population.
The team said that some residents who appreciate the quiet lifestyle here don’t want additional economic growth. But they pointed out that with Colorado’s expanding population and economy, a certain amount of growth is inevitable here, and if it’s not directed and controlled from within it will soon overwhelm the county.
All of the team members said they were impressed with the county’s strong appeal, its assets and vibrancy, and its potential for the future, with the overriding theme that the greatest thing about Custer County is its people.
Members of the evaluation team will continue to monitor Custer County for the next two years.