Governor receptive to economic suggestions

Governor John Hickenlooper
Governor John Hickenlooper

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper says he’s mostly receptive to a wide range of ideas for improving the economy in Western Colorado.

Establish a permanent staff position to address the effects of federal land decisions in the state? “That’s an easy one. I’m happy to say yes,” Hickenlooper said.

Consider the possibility of transferring ownership of federal lands to the state? “I don’t have a problem looking into it.”

Invest more in promoting tourism, in particular agri-tourism? “You don’t have to twist my arm.”

Hickenlooper also acknowledges more divisive issues, among them state and federal regulations on energy development. “I understand it and I’m sympathetic.”

The question is whether a long-awaited meeting between the governor and Western Slope officials leads to results, said State Rep. Ray Scott. For now, Scott said he’s optimistic. “It was an excellent first step in getting attention focused on the Western Slope.”

Hickenlooper met with a total of more than 50 state lawmakers, county commissioners and other state and local officials at an economic roundtable conducted at Colorado Mountain College in Glenwood Springs.

Scott, a Republican from Grand Junction, wrote a letter to Hickenlooper in December inviting him to meet with regional representatives to talk face-to-face about ways to improve the West Slope economy.

Club 20 — a Grand Junction-based coalition of businesses, governments and individuals in the region — worked with Scott and other state lawmakers to arrange and conduct the meeting.

While other areas of Colorado, the Front Range in particular, have recovered from the recession, the Western Slope has lagged behind, said Les Mergleman, chairman of Club 20.

The region has lost 70,000 jobs and high school and college graduates have to leave the area to find work, Mergleman said.

More than a dozen issues related to the economy were covered during the two-hour session as well as addressed in a 10-page letter presented to the governor afterward.

The management of federal lands that account for about 70 percent of all land in Western Colorado and constitute a major economic driver in the region, was a central issue.

State Rep. Bob Rankin, a Republican from Carbondale, praised Hickenlooper and his administration for efforts to develop a state plan to avoid a listing of the sage grouse as an endangered species and the potential land use restrictions that could result. The selection of John Swartout, a land use expert, to serve as the point man on the grouse issue, points out the need for a permanent staff position to address the effects of federal land decisions, Rankin said. Legislation or an executive order could be needed to keep the position in place in subsequent administrations, he added.

“I am happy to commit to that,” Hickenlooper said.

Dave Ubell, a former Montrose County commissioner who belongs to Club 20, asked the governor to study the feasibility of transferring federal lands in Colorado to state ownership. More than

36 percent of all land in the state is controlled by the federal government, most of that on the Western Slope, he said.

A task force comprised of one commissioner from each county with federal lands could study the issue, Ubell proposed.

Hickenlooper said he was willing to look into the issue, although he said he’s seen no inclination on the part of the federal government to support such a transfer. The governor also questioned whether or not Colorado has sufficient resources to manage what are now federal lands.

Rankin also asked Hickenlooper to support increasing funding to promote tourism in Colorado, in particular agri-tourism. While the state enjoys a strong return on in its investment in promoting tourism, more could be done, Rankin said.  “We think there’s additional opportunity here.”

Hickenlooper said he agreed, but added that Colorado also should strive in its promotional efforts to attract entrepreneurs to rural areas of the state. “I think we should already be looking at the next step.”

In addition to issues related to federal lands, a large portion of the discussion during the economic roundtable was devoted to uncertainty related to energy regulations.

Susan Alvillar, a community affairs representative with WPX Energy, told Hickenlooper company operations in Colorado compete with those in other states for capital to fund exploration and production activities. Federal and state regulatory uncertainty makes it more difficult to compete for that investment, she said.

A timeout on additional regulations governing the oil and natural gas industry would help, Alvillar said, as would the governor’s advocacy on behalf of energy companies involved with leasing on federal lands. Hickenlooper also was asked to work with federal lawmakers to promote energy exports from Colorado, including liquefied natural gas (LNG).

Hickenlooper said he believes Colorado is moving closer to a more stable regulatory environment for the energy industry, although a proposed ballot measure for the November election could call for a statewide vote on granting local government control over energy exploration and production. At the same time, such controls could infringe on private property rights to develop natural resources. “It’s a fairly difficult position we find ourselves in,” he said.

While Hickenlooper said he’ll try to encourage them, LNG exports alone won’t raise natural gas prices sufficiently to encourage increased production. Meanwhile,  Hickenlooper said he’d also push for efforts to convert government fleets to compressed natural gas.

Jerry Nettleton, environmental manager at the Twentymile Coal Mine in Routt County, said regulations also present challenges to the coal industry, including regulations limiting access to reserves. A new federal plan to reduce carbon emissions from power plants also could affect the industry that supplies coal to those plants, Nettleton said.

Hickenlooper said he supports an “all of the above” approach to energy production as well as efforts to clean coal to make it a more competitive fuel.

At the same time, the potential risks are too great to dismiss the possibility of climate change or efforts to reduce emissions believed to contribute to climate change, he added. “There’s just too much at stake if you’re wrong.”

Still other discussions at the economic roundtable focused on ways to bring businesses and possibly government operations to Western Colorado.

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, said incentives could help, including increased tax credits for companies that locate in targeted areas of the state. A program that matches the needs of manufacturers with suppliers in the state also could help, Schwenke said.

Hickenlooper said a sliding scale for tax credits could be developed to promote job creation in those areas with the worst long-term unemployment.

Scott said the state government also could help bolster the Western Slope economy in moving some of its operations to the region. The headquarters of Colorado Parks and Wildlife, for example, could be moved from Denver to Grand Junction. The current headquarters hasn’t been updated since 1979 and sits on nearly 15 acres of prime real estate in Denver. That property could be sold and the proceeds used to construct a brand new facility in Grand Junction, Scott said.