Putting a face on help | VailDaily.com

Putting a face on help

Don Cohen

This is a column on economic RE-development. It begins with one of those moments I never had growing up in a big city. In a city you’re pretty anonymous. Your voice is too easily lost. You know you’re part of a community but are pretty resigned to the fact that your participation won’t make much of a difference. And that’s what I love about living in Eagle County. You can be seen. You can be heard. And you absolutely can make a difference.Whether it’s picking up a long winter’s season of trash on the highway, selling rubber ducks for a Rotary fundraiser, framing a wall of a Habitat for Humanity home, filling popcorn bags at Wild West Days, ringing a Salvation Army bell in front of Wal-Mart or cheering on an academic soccer team for The Youth Foundation, we are all very fortunate that it’s so easy to connect and come together to help our community.This past Tuesday I was fortunate enough to be one of about 40 people sitting at an open square of tables to discuss providing relief efforts to the victims of hurricane Katrina.The meeting was hosted by our three county commissioners, Arn Menconi, Peter Runyon and Tom Stone. Around the table and in the room were county directors of housing, human services and emergency services. Interspersed were leaders and representatives of many of our local non-profit organizations, emergency service agencies, the school district, hospital and major employers.Most of us in the room had received calls and e-mails from our friends and neighbors over the weekend asking about ways they could get involved in the rescue effort. The devastation that Katrina brought to the Gulf Coast was so breath-taking in its magnitude that it became increasingly clear that even though we’re 1,500 miles away, some kind of acknowledgement and response were needed.Two days later, many of us reconvened in a public information session at the Holiday Inn. By that time we had an informational Web site up and several committees made up of government staff and business people were well under way on a variety of coordination initiatives.It was impressive to witness first hand how swiftly and willingly people were coming together to meet the overwhelming challenge of helping the population of the Gulf Coast survive and rebuild.While Eagle County has many things to offer in the recovery effort, the reality is that our distance and size does not position us effectively as a first-response community. That difficult task must fall to many of the major metropolitan cities that have the infrastructure and support personnel to better render assistance.The Eagle County response to Katrina is shaping up as a two-phase effort. The first phase is well under way, with the planning of numerous fundraising and material donation efforts. These programs will help address the critical immediate needs of the displaced population. In many areas, the damage to personal and community property is so profound that it could take a month or two just to identify and prioritize critical projects. Roads will need to be cleared, electricity and water restored and telecommunications re-established. And while the television news has focused on the devastating effect on the poor in the New Orleans area, what has gone significantly underreported is the near erasure of local businesses and the work force in the stricken area.Barry Smith, Eagle County’s emergency services coordinator, put it in very stark terms: “Many of these towns get their revenue from sales and property tax. With businesses and homes wiped out, the property tax vanishes. And without population, the sales tax disappears.” Think about it. This is a much bigger issue than simply drying our the living room carpet and shoveling mud off the driveway.Sooner or later, Katrina will move from page 1 to page 3 and then to page 23. And it’s in that phase that Commissioner Tom Stone feels that Eagle County and all our citizens can make a difference. He’s put forth a great idea that Eagle County should adopt a Gulf Coast county or parish. It’s a compelling idea that is strongly endorsed by his fellow commissioners Menconi and Runyon.A group of us are working hard to identify a likely candidate county and connect with them right away. We believe that putting a face on assisting with a broad and long term effort will have a double benefit of helping another community recover while bringing our own community together in a common purpose.While so many of us have been drawn to Eagle County for its scenic beauty, it is through the lens of a national tragedy that we can see another, even greater beauty – one of a compassionate community that when the need is evident, rolls up its sleeves and gets to work.Don Cohen, executive director of the Vail Valley Economic Council, can be reached at dcohen@vvec.org. This column, as with all personal columns, does not necessarily reflect the views of the Vail Daily.Vail, Colorado