Western San Luis Valley Resiliency and Recovery Roadmaps reviewed

Photos by Patrick Shea James Russell, the Regional Resiliency and Recovery Project Manager representing the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), recapped 14 months of groundwork and planning for development. Center Town Manager Brian Lujan leads the Western San Luis Valley Roadmap team and ran the meeting at the Ski Hi Complex in Monte Vista on Nov. 2.

MONTE VISTA — As soon as officials announced the 16 Colorado teams for the state’s Rural Resiliency and Recovery Roadmap in mid-2021, a coalition of government officials and economic developers in Center, Saguache, La Jara, and Del Norte began laying the groundwork immediately.

Meeting at the Ski Hi Complex in Monte Vista on Nov. 2, the group represents four municipalities, Saguache County, the SLV Housing Coalition, Action Lab 360 (Governor’s Office), economic development, and the Center School District.

The Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) run and fund the statewide resiliency and recovery program with local legwork. Scattered throughout rural Colorado, local business owners and municipal administrators represent 169 different communities.

Center Town Manager Brian Lujan leads the Western San Luis Valley Resiliency and Recovery team. Lujan kicked off the meeting at Ski Hi and facilitated presentations from DOLA and other partners.

Fulfilling his role as the Regional Resiliency and Recovery Project Manager for DOLA, James Russell recapped 14 months of groundwork and planning and introduced Phase 3: Implementation.

At this turning point, Russell said, “We wanted to make an actionable plan that doesn’t sit on a shelf.”

With the discovery phases complete, the group targeted two primary concerns. They looked at creating workforce housing and growing entrepreneurship through the school system and with local guidance.

Presenters echoed the cost-burdened threshold when a family pays more than 30 percent of their income for housing. Adding expense, some older, inefficient housing structures cost as much as $600 to heat each month. Moving to another home is not an option when the inventory is low, and rent remains high.

What looks like a “fixer-up” to a drive-by analyst likely includes generations of history. After significant decline, housing assets become liabilities. An estimated 30 percent of properties in Saguache are abandoned or vacant. Roughly 22 percent of Del Norte fits the same description, followed by 16 percent in La Jara and 14 percent in Center. When assessed values and cleanup costs conflict, properties tend to sit.

Bonnie Asplin, former force behind the Upper Rio Grande Economic Development agency, emphasized updated codes to improve regulations and increase the housing inventory. Bonnie’s husband Marty Asplin followed with ideas for helping property owners rehabilitate dilapidated structures that would otherwise be condemned.

One idea Asplin proposed for housing rehabilitation addressed long-term vacancies with absentee owners who pay their taxes and maintain utilities, but the structures need work to be habitable. He said that some houses in Del Norte have been abandoned for 60 years. An anonymous “Vacant Housing Registry,” Asplin explained, would list dilapidated properties. The registry would levy an annual fee for continued disuse and decline, but Asplin said, “We don’t want to put an oppressive burden on them with a high fee.”

Asplin emphasized how working with owners to fix up properties is better than simply condemning buildings. An audience member asked about house-flipping. Anticipating speculation from fix-and-flip developers, Asplin said strict deed restrictions for rehabilitated properties can prevent sale profiteering.

Short-term Rentals (STRs) also entered different parts of the conversation. Considering the price-per-night, STRs are too expensive for permanent residence on prevailing Valley wages.

Presenters shifted to entrepreneurship after discussing the housing dilemma. The environment dictates possibilities.

For example, many business operators in the 17 major municipalities across six San Luis Valley counties pay double-freight. They pay to receive materials, and they pay to export products. They face a similar challenge with their workforce. They may need to cover moving costs or otherwise invest in recruitment. Meanwhile, they watch students grow up in the Valley and then move away.

Speaking for Action Lab 360, Mikela Tarlow is in her second year working with Center. Tarlow noted how roughly 40 percent of the Valley jobs are in the public sector.

Although the job positions have been filled, government entities have endless projects to tackle. Imagine a town administrator who spends significant time repeating a required task using methods scripted decades ago.

“Is there an app for that?” Tarlow quipped, only half in jest. High school students looking for experience might have skills that work for government projects — software programming or tree planting, for example.

Some business philosophies mirror secondary education when young people discover their talents.

“You might have 100 failures for one success,” Tarlow said. “Let the kids fail. Throw it all against the wall until something sticks.”

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