Creating Carbondale’s future
The subject of economic development has drawn large crowds to Carbondale town meetings, cost the town a large amount of money and strained friendships between small-town neighbors. A new citizens’ committee, working with a hired consultant, represents the town’s latest effort to wrestle the beast. “The devil is in the details,” said Russ Criswell, the town trustee representative at the committee meeting. “And the fun is in the details.” Those details are the concern of the town’s Economic Roadmap Steering Committee, which met for the first time on Aug. 24. Town trustees each selected two members for the group of 14 from a pool of interested Carbondale residents. It is charged with creating a vision for the community and its economy, while getting as many people as possible involved. The committee’s origins trace back to the controversial and rancorous July 2003 election, when voters killed a proposed big-box development along Highway 133. The 125,000-square-foot store had been approved by the town trustees. The issue played out over two years and left the town divided and exhausted. “The town said what it didn’t want – it didn’t want a big box. Now it has to say what it does want,” said Criswell.Committee member Wendy Anderson thinks it’s about time she and others in town have a chance to say what they want. She is the only member of the road map committee who also sits on Carbondale’s Economic Development Council, formed several years ago to help boost business.”Some people thought it was jumping the gun,” said Anderson, of the decision to hire a town director of economic development before having a clear vision. “There was no directive for the Economic Development Council, no guiding principles to navigate the discussion about the economy.” Anderson said the trustees promised a road map to guide the council, but, “we’re still in that holding pattern. As the town is really divisive, the EDC is really divisive and couldn’t move forward.” In June, the town eliminated Director of Economic Development Jo-an Barnett’s position after just two years, saving $100,000 a year, according to Criswell. Her job had been to work with the EDC to shape the town’s economy. By all accounts, the effort was unsuccessful.With four of nine seats empty, and after losing three members in the last three months, the Economic Development Council is in a state of disarray. Trustee Criswell described the council as “frustrated.””We took $80,000 and threw it at a problem,” said Anderson. “It was a failed experiment. It concerned me at the time, and where we are now makes me think we should have moved a little slower and thought about it more.” In its first meeting, the new Economic Roadmap Steering Committee moved cautiously, delaying a round of interviews and an open house with a consultant the town recently hired. The consultants are “technical resources to the committee,” according to Tom Baker, who officially began his job as Carbondale’s town manager on Thursday. Economic and Planning Systems of Denver will be paid $35,855 for an economic development plan.Striving to be a “reflective body” of the entire community, the steering committee is devising ways to reach as many people as possible. It is considering a series of small neighborhood meetings and house parties during the next month or two; neighborhoods and interest groups, the Clay Center and KDNK will be targeted along with the usual economic entities such as banks, restaurants and developers.The steering committee itself reflects both sides of the divide that opened over the big-box proposal. Criswell calls it “a wide range of people,” from Ted Reed, president of the Carbondale chamber, to Laurie Stone of Solar Energy International.Anderson seems undaunted by the paralysis of recent years: “It’s literally people from the two sides of the mall debate in the same room again. It should be fascinating.”The steering committee operates under a specific mandate to create a document outlining the direction of economic development for the town within the next six months. The committee will then disband. The document will be “the guiding document for all others: the EDC, the chamber,” said Anderson.Town trustees will use it as a basis for zoning changes and new ordinances, according to Criswell. “If you want to go with homegrown business, we should start an incubator and put money into it. If you want national chains, you should go after them.”Ten members present at the first meeting agreed to agree. Establishing ground rules, the road map committee decided to proceed within a consensus framework rather than majority rule. “It didn’t mean that everyone had to say ‘Yes,'” Baker said. “It meant you could live with it.”Baker said he suspects there are still bruised feelings about the big-box development. “But I’ll bet there are a lot of things in common. It’s easy to forget that in the middle of a political battle.”We are going to act in the best interest of [Carbondale].”The Economic Roadmap Steering Committee meets tonight at 7:30 p.m.”The devil is in the details.” Russ Criswell, Carbondale town trustee
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