Phil Castle, The Business Times
Bonnie Petersen remains hopeful Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper will attend a meeting to talk face-to-face with representatives from across Western Colorado about ways to improve the economy in the region.
The governor isn’t available to participate in what initially was scheduled as an April 23 meeting in Grand Junction. But as of press deadline March 17, his staff was working to come up with an alternative date, said Petersen, executive director of Club 20.
Club 20, a coalition of businesses, governments and individuals in the region, invited Hickenlooper to attend the economic roundtable. Four state legislators from the region, including State Rep. Ray Scott from Grand Junction, joined in the invitation. Scott also wrote a letter to Hickenlooper in December inviting him to meet with regional representatives to discuss the economy.
Hickenlooper is scheduled to come to Grand Junction March 28 to discuss a statewide water plan with the Club 20 board of directors as part of the group’s spring meeting, Petersen said.
While the governor has touted an economic rebound statewide that’s seen Colorado climb from 40th to fourth in a ranking of job growth, the Western Slope continues to lag behind other areas in experiencing recovery, Petersen said.
In Mesa County, the monthly unemployment rate has dropped 1.5 points to 8.3 percent over the past year. But the labor force has shrunk nearly 800 over that span and more than 8,000 since the pre-recession peak in November 2008. “It’s difficult to see that as something positive,” Petersen said.
One difference between the Western Slope and Front Range is the prevalence of public lands and the role that plays in the economy, Petersen said. About 70 percent of Western Colorado comes under government management that affects everything from energy and agricultural production to tourism, she said. Regulations control access to public lands and the activities that occur there. “It’s very difficult to get anything done.”
While nobody supports activities on public lands that hurt the environment, it’s important nonetheless to provide access and allow for the energy development, agricultural uses and tourism upon which the regional economy depends, Petersen said.
Western Colorado — along with other rural areas of the state — also are at a disadvantage in terms of infrastructure, Petersen said, including high-speed, broadband Internet access and well-maintained highways.
“There are lots of these things we would like to have the dialogue with the governor,” she said.
Hickenlooper is uniquely positioned to address those issues, she said, not only in directing policies for state agencies, but also advocating on behalf of Colorado with federal agencies.
It’s important, too, that the governor work with local communities in the process to take into account their views and keep them informed of developments, she added.
Petersen praised Hickenlooper for just such an approach in promoting state-based efforts to protect sage grouse habitat over federal land management policies deemed too restrictive. Hickenlooper met with representatives in Western Colorado to discuss the issue and brought Interior Secretary Sally Jewell to Colorado to assess the situation in person.
That same approach could be used to address other economic issues in the region, Petersen said.
Assuming the schedule can be worked out with the governor’s office, Petersen said she hopes representatives from across Western Colorado counties will participate in an economic roundtable.
“It would be a big meeting,” she said.