June 2009

Why local economic development doesn't succeed

By Galen Larson

For 30 years I’ve been living in Montezuma County, and I’ve seen our local officials drive this county and city downhill with closed-minded, shortsighted decisions. Progress doesn’t seem to be their governing position unless it suits them or their friends.

In the time I have been here we have lost more than 20 important businesses from Cortez and have become a proud home to five secondhand stores, empty buildings on Main Street and a few junk stores masquerading as antique shops.

We struggle with an anti-government, anti-environmental attitude, not realizing our local government is the second-largest employer in the county, and our beautiful environment is the reason many people move here.

Very few entrepreneurs and civic leaders have any original thoughts. Someone comes up with a creative idea and 10 copy-cat businesses jump in, and all struggle for survival, not realizing they are strangling the golden goose.

This community that is so attached to the flag and patriotism welcomed with open arms a company that ardently supports a Community country we fought and lost two wars with: China. I couldn’t believe it when the great slayer of small communities approached our city fathers and local business people and they groveled before the vultures, giving them a large tax break while they slyly grinned as door after business door closed.

In the 1980s, Cortez, a small but thriving town, had a tremendous number of business possibilities. But gradually, with no leadership or vision, just excuses, we have dwindled to our present state. And then there’s our old-fashioned pigheadedness. Some store owners in downtown Cortez won’t do the simplest things to improve business, like stay open after dark during tourist season (when the folks are leaving the Indian dances and “Black Shawl” play at the Cultural Center, one of the city’s best features). Nor will they open up on a Sunday when we have special events coming through like the Ride the Rockies bike tour, which appears here every couple of years. There’s a golden opportunity to show off our local businesses and area, but instead these visitors wander around downtown and find nearly everything closed except, thank heavens, eateries like Blondies and Mainstreet Brewery.

What about economic development in the county? It’s still boom-and-bust and kissing the backside of the oil and gas companies, terrified they will leave — and leave they will, as they have before.

Everyone seems to look down on agriculture as a viable business, but maybe we are thinking of the wrong type of agriculture. Ask most people here about agriculture and it is hay, beans and large herds of cattle. My question is: What about flowers, bulbs, seeds, fruit trees, berries, herbs, garden greens, and so on? Almost anything will grow here — chickens, ducks, geese, game birds. We should take advantage of niche markets and work together instead of jealously competing with one another.

The two self-defeating phrases I hear are “it won’t work” and “it can’t be done here.” With that attitude, people are guaranteed to be 100 percent right.

We are also hampered by our lack of land-use planning. A little background:

Some time back the county’s citizens pressured the commissioners to come up with a land-use plan. A non-partisan working group was chosen to come up with the plan. Eighteen months later “LIZ” was unveiled. Landowner-Initiated Zoning allowed each landowner to designate the use of his land be it agriculture or residential. Industrial or commercial uses required county approval.

It is interesting that such an important piece of local legislation, LIZ, was never voted on by the people at large. The people voted to advise the commissioners to come up with a plan, which they did, but the people were never allowed to vote directly as to its acceptance or refusal.

Now we are in a mess from confusion about what should be allowed where. The commissioners are in a quandary over some of their decisions and losing a series of lawsuits. But the citizens are equally to blame. Most people in the county only rise up and complain when their particular ox is gored and something is about to happen next door to them that they don’t want. If these different groups ever joined forces they could over-ride the minority that rules.

Truth is, there is a paradise to be had here. But without effort or ingenuity, we will continue to be like the proverbial dog sitting on a burr, howling dismally but too lazy to move off our asses.

Galen Larson writes from rural Montezuma County, Colo.