Eagle, Gypsum see increase in participation in local government
Growth, current events have motivated residents, creating the potential for towns to shed their ‘bedroom community’ identities once and for all
Something is stirring downvalley. Whether it be the rising stakes of current events or migration, Eagle and now Gypsum are reporting strong rates of participation in municipal government.
More civic engagement in local government is undoubtedly a good thing, and could be reflective of Eagle and Gypsum residents no longer seeing their towns as “bedroom communities” that provide housing for people who work in upvalley jobs, local officials said.
“It’s good that people want to serve and want to make that connection,” Eagle Town Clerk Jenny Rakow said. “To me, it’s community service, serving on the board … it’s like a civic duty.”
Rakow has been Eagle’s town clerk for seven years. Before that, she held the same role for the town of Gypsum for a decade. For a long time, she felt lucky to be able to live and work downvalley as she saw many others take on lengthy commutes and bus transfers in order to maintain employment and affordable housing, she said.
Now, things have changed, she said. Certainly in Eagle, but in Gypsum as well.
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Historically, municipal elections in Eagle and Gypsum have been a bit of a mixed bag, Rakow said. Sometimes municipal elections have solicited a good crop of candidates; other times, elections were canceled after towns received only as many bids as there were open seats, she said. This was the case for the town of Minturn in advance of its upcoming spring election.
Gypsum and Red Cliff will hold odd-year elections on April 5 this spring.
Spring municipal elections and special district elections are not conducted by Eagle County, but rather are conducted by the towns or districts under their codes or laws, according to Eagle County Clerk Regina O’Brien. However, these elections still use the same voter registration lists maintained by the county, so she urged voters to check their voter records to ensure that their information is current.
Voters can do so at GoVoteColorado.gov and can contact the county’s elections division at 970-328-8715 or firstname.lastname@example.org for additional assistance.
In Gypsum, five candidates are running for three available seats this spring, according to Town Clerk Becky Close.
Incumbents Lori McCole and Bill Baxter are running for reelection. Scott Green, David Fiore, and former Council member Marisa Sato are seeking three seats.
More remarkable, though, is that Gypsum Mayor Steve Carver is being challenged for the first time in more than 20 years, Close said.
“People are showing up more to council meetings,” Close said. “I think the pandemic gave us all a lot of time to reflect on where we live and our communities and changes that we want to see. And I just think that, coming out of the pandemic, people are thirsty for getting to work.”
“Gypsum is full of hard-working people. So, if people want to see something change, they’re going to go after it,” she added.
Rakow said she is “not really sure” why local participation in government has been trending upwards, but she theorized that it could be an increased level of community allegiance and engagement.
In other words, more than ever, residents are thinking about Eagle and Gypsum as their hometowns — not just as the places where they live, but places worthy of their time and investment.
“I think people really love the downvalley experience,” Rakow said. “I think they really do, and I think they want to keep it that way.”
This is not to say that this investment did not exist before, because it did, but perhaps that the towns are reaching an ideal mix of the wisdom of longtime residents and the renewed energy of newcomers, Rakow said. At least, this is the case in Eagle where the views of seasoned veterans like Eagle Mayor Scott Turnipseed or Town Council member Mikel “Pappy” Kerst counterbalance those of newer residents like Town Council member Janet Bartnik.
“The relationships here have grown to the point where (newer residents) are making the connections with people that are on the board and getting maybe talked into it too like, ‘you should do this, you have great ideas,’” Rakow said.
The slate of candidates in Gypsum is full of candidates who have been around town for a long time, Gypsum Town Manager Jeremy Reitmann pointed out, leading him to believe that population growth has not had a direct impact on their decision to run.
“All the people running, to my knowledge, have been here a decade or more or their whole lives, so I’m not seeing turnout from people who have newly entered the community,” Reitmann said.
Tina Medina, the mayoral candidate going up against Carver, spent a portion of her childhood in Gypsum but lived elsewhere for much of her adult life before moving back about seven years ago.
“I think that Mayor Carver has dedicated 20 years to this position, and that is completely admirable, and I think he’s an amazing person and I have the utmost respect for him,” Medina said in an interview with the Vail Daily. “I just come from a standpoint of feeling like just a new, fresh view on how I can help facilitate and bridge growth in my community through more community engagement and getting our community involved, while at the same time also bringing diversity.”
Medina acknowledged Gypsum’s history as a “bedroom community,” but said “it’s time for a change.”
“I think that Mayor Carver and I are very aligned in that way. We definitely want to try to create more jobs in Gypsum so that the community can work, live and play in Gypsum and not have to drive to Vail to work, to Avon to work,” she said.
The wheels of that change have been in motion for at least the last 10 years, according to 2020 U.S. Census data.
Over the last decade, the bulk of Eagle County’s growth took place downvalley, while towns in the eastern end of the county reported reductions in population size, according to the data.
The populations of Eagle and Gypsum grew by 15.4% and 24.1%.
“Eagle and Gypsum just have been growing,” said Amy Keeley, who manages Eagle County’s geographic information systems department. “There’s been developments occurring since 2010, new neighborhoods.”
This showed through in Eagle’s municipal election last fall when nine candidates ran for four open seats on the Town Council, many of whom had migrated to town within the last five years or so.
When it comes to this level of civic engagement, “we’ve been strongly encouraging it and it’s finally coming to fruition,” Rakow said.
She, as well as Reitmann and Close, were hesitant to draw a straight line between this trend and the immense population growth the areas have seen in the last 10 years as there are many other factors at play.
With the pandemic, it may come down to “the mere fact that people have had time to read. People have had time to read the paper and get involved in local stuff,” Close said.
“Gypsum would like to create more of a 9-to-5 atmosphere where we have a workforce that stays here locally, that shops here locally and eats here locally…” she said. “We want to grow responsibly and we want to grow in a way where we can serve everyone effectively.”
Regardless, population growth and increased civic engagement are positive signs for the two towns to continue transitioning out of their former identities as bedroom communities, Rakow said. Her hope is that the two trends feed one another in a way that creates new possibilities for the whole area, and she is using her role to make sure that happens.
“A lot more people are working and living down here, so they see more of it. They have more time to do it,” Rakow said. If commutes are getting shorter for more of the population, “it does give you more time to stop by town hall or go to a meeting or watch a meeting. And then you might even think, ‘Well, I can do this, I can attend a couple of meetings a month.’”
“That’s a little more difficult to do if you get home from your job upvalley at 6 p.m. when the (Town Council) meetings start,” she said.
Eagle has seen more people step up, not just this past election cycle, but also for the last two appointments to the Town Council following the deaths of Adam Palmer and Andy Jessen in February of 2021.
The two open seats solicited a whopping 19 applicants last year, although Rakow said the town typically sees more applicants for appointments as the process is not as intensive as running in an election.
This increase in Eagle residents participating in their local government has shown through not just at the level of the mayor and the Town Council, the town’s only elected officials, but also through interest in the town’s other committees.
Entities like the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission, the Open Space and Recreation Advisory Committee, or the Marketing and Events Advisory Committee have received more applicants than ever before. Applicants for these committees are reviewed and then appointed by the Town Council. The advisory committees help Town Council members in making decisions by weighing in based on their respective areas of expertise, Rakow explained.
“I would consider most of (the committees) high interest,” she said. “They’ve even expanded the number of people on these just to include more people because of the interest. I mean, it’s hard to say no to somebody that wants to participate in local government.”
“We want to hear their voices because the worst thing that happens is decisions get made and people say they didn’t know about it or they didn’t get a chance to give input,” she said.
Close and Rakow encouraged residents of the two towns to reach out to them to learn more about the various ways they can get involved to make a change in their community.
“People are feeling empowered,” Close said. “We are lucky to live in a democracy and this is real democracy at work on a small town level.”
Email Kelli Duncan at email@example.com