Town of Eagle rethinking economic development
EAGLE — Conventional wisdom has dictated that communities interested in economic development should concentrate on building infrastructure to attract largely retail operations.
But what if the best way to attract new business is to make sure your town is cool? What if the most effective form of economic development is to have the type of community where people really want to live? What if economic development is a bigger-picture goal than simply increasing sales tax revenues?
That’s the premise proposed by Clark Anderson of the Sonoran Institute during the recent Eagle 20/20 presentation.
As a native of Edwards, Anderson said he has long been interested in the greater Eagle community. The Sonoran Institute, where he works, has been studying the area for the past few years, ever since the town was part of a Sonoran Institute report about communities in the mountain west region of the country.
According to its website, the Sonoran Institute is a nonprofit organization founded in 1990 to work “across the rapidly changing West to conserve and restore natural and cultural assets and to promote better management of growth and change. The Institute’s community-based approach emphasizes collaboration, civil dialogue, sound information, local knowledge, practical solutions and big-picture thinking.”
In that big picture, Anderson said Eagle’s best bet to build a resilient economy is to find the balance between commercial, job and community development. He said Eagle needs to make sure it invests in maintaining a great lifestyle for its residents because that is what attracts people, who in turn develop business.
“People don’t follow jobs, jobs follow people,” said Anderson.
Big ideas, little towns
To illustrate his premise, Anderson pointed to Altos Photonics, based in Bozeman, Montana. It’s an unlikely location for a company that specializes in lasers and laser products for research and industrial clients.
“I am pretty sure there isn’t a huge demand for lasers in downtown Bozeman,” said Anderson.
But the folks who came up with the business idea liked Bozeman, so that’s where they located their operation. Similarly CityPASS, the company that produces and sells discounted ticket packages to top tourist attractions in various North American metropolitan areas, is headquartered in Victor, Idaho.
“Places that are making smart decisions involving their assets are starting to see a pay off,” Anderson said.
He noted that in Colorado, communities involved in economic development initiatives are most often focused on the goal of increasing sales tax revenues. That’s because communities are largely reliant on sales tax for their operating funds. But he said by focusing solely on retail development, communities are missing the bigger picture. To build resilient economies, towns such as Eagle need to also think about good jobs and attainable housing, said Anderson.
“People involved in economic development need to work more closely with people involved in community development. They both need to be on the same page,” he said.
Residents want to live in communities that are authentic and have character, Anderson said. They want their communities to have a sense of place, and they place a premium on pedestrian access and historic downtown areas. But meeting those desires usually isn’t an easy proposition.
Look to Rifle
Anderson said the community of Rifle is providing a road map for other towns struggling with downtown development challenges.
“One of the reasons they are focused on their downtown is because of the oil and gas cycle of boom and bust,” said Anderson.
Rifle is also taking on the challenge of finding balance between a traditional downtown core coupled with big box development on the Interstate 70 corridor, Anderson added. The community’s solutions aren’t perfect, but they reflect the twin goals of preserving the historic downtown while still functioning as a regional retail center, he said.
No big mistakes
In looking at Eagle, Anderson said the community hasn’t make any big mistakes.
“Eagle has some great assets to build on,”he said.
But there are plenty of challenges for the community as well.
“Eagle needs to decide what it wants to be,” said Anderson. “And once you decide what you want to be, you need to put all your energy into making it happen.”
Anyone who has lived through the past decade in Eagle knows deciding what the community wants to become can be a scrappy process. Eagle has both denied and approved a regional retail center, only to see that proposal fade away in the wake of the Great Recession. In the meantime, the community is checking off various infrastructure improvements — such as the Eby Creek roundabouts, the entry to town and replacement of downtown water and wastewater lines — that will position the community for redevelopment options or new business. Eagle has also developed a river corridor plan that contemplates both recreation uses along the Eagle River through town and future residential development that would provide housing options close to downtown. Anderson said these projects are examples of a more comprehensive economic development effort.
“It’s time for a fresh approach to economic development,” Anderson said. “It’s a garden, not planting a single tee. We have to start thinking in terms of economic development as a garden.”