MONTE VISTA—Local pastor and member of the Monte Vista Fire Department Wayne Wittner again addressed city council as the only person to speak during the unscheduled citizens’ comments portion of the meeting on Aug. 3. Wittner this time addressed his concerns with economic development within the city of Monte Vista, especially the downtown areas.
Wittner began his remarks by stating he was going to talk in a small voice, to avoid “being accused of yelling at council and especially at you, Mayor,” he added to Mayor Debbie Garcia, seemingly upset that the volume and aggressive tone of his previous address to council regarding their support for the MVPD was included in the Monte Vista Journal. Wittner added another voice to the perspective that Monte Vista needs to follow in the example of Del Norte and be more like Del Norte’s niche tourism economy downtown.
Wittner pointed out that Del Norte had made a committee of local citizens and business owners to head the project that revamped the downtown area, asking council if they would consider forming a similar committee in Monte Vista, to work on filling the vacant buildings downtown, emphasizing how so many for sale/for rent signs look bleak to travelers down the 160 corridor. Filling the downtown businesses, especially on First Avenue/Highway 160, Adams Street and the surrounding downtown area would make Monte Vista “look like this is a live town” and would be more welcoming. “Let’s get the town to look good,” Wittner stated, asking council, “How do we help people who want to get businesses open?”
Garcia addressed Wittner’s concerns first, pointing out the city’s Economic Incentive Package, readily available on the city’s website, which not only provides tax incentives to local businesses but provides steps on how to open a business. However, Garcia pointed out the problem with the downtown is the majority of the empty buildings are privately owned, adding “It’s hard to force them [landlords] to do renovations or work with the needs of people who want to buy or rent them.” Councilor Matthew Martinez also placed emphasis on the Valley-wide economic development meetings, including the one hosted the same day, Aug. 4 at Adams State University and the times the city has hosted Frank Gray of Economic Development Colorado. Martinez pointed out the difficulty in attracting new businesses to any individual rural town, stressing the greater benefit is working together as a San Luis Valley region to build a base of jobs and attract more businesses. Martinez again expressed disappointment at only one business in Monte Vista utilizing the incentive plan, adding how the example of a business like Quincy’s is very rare; there are not many businesses “willing to invest that kind of capital” into a building. Martinez emphasized supporting the city’s current business owners and working to get more Valley municipalities to sign the economic development Code of Ethics and work cooperatively, but large changes are “…not going to happen today or tomorrow.”
Wittner replied by stating he has followed some of the summits with Gray, but he doesn’t believe someone from Castle Rock or Denver (like Gray) and their plans will work in a small, rural community. “We have a lot in Monte Vista and Del Norte that we can draw on here…are we looking around our community for those people… that have done wonderfully in their business? Have we tapped their expertise?”
Garcia replied, emphasizing how Valley-wide cooperation through the Code of Ethics is already showing positive results. Organizations from Denver were promoting the San Luis Valley at a Dallas Trade Show as a draw for the state for unmanned aircraft. Garcia then emphasized the need for more primary level jobs in Monte Vista, before specialty retail can be successful downtown. “My husband always talks about the difference between ‘needs and wants,’” she stated. “If we don’t have primary manufacturing jobs” (the needs in her example), to give people extra money to spend on retail and to support local retail businesses, “Someone could open a business tomorrow it will open and it will close,” and so will its successors in the downtown building spaces. Garcia also emphasized the research being done into industrial hemp farming and manufacturing throughout the Valley, pointing out how Power Zone Equipment in Center has already developed some of the processing equipment to handle larger hemp operations. Addressing Wittner’s concerns about downtown businesses she added “There are a lot of people looking at what you’re talking about but we need the [primary job] base first.” Garcia added Proximity Malt will be bringing primary jobs but it took two years to be operational, “It won’t happen overnight.”
Wittner countered Garcia’s explanation on primary job development with “That is still not how Del Norte filled their buildings,” stating if the highway area especially looks more inviting then people will stop when travelling through. “What do we have to interest people going through? …Del Norte used to be like Monte Vista is now,” Wittner added they are now a vibrant community. “I love Monte Vista but I want to see it revitalized.” Industrial hemp farming and Proximity Malt might bring jobs, he acknowledged, “But what are we doing to entice people to stop in our community?”
Councilor Joe Schlabach attempted to answer Wittner’s concerns next, starting with advice he heard from SLV Council of Governments Director Kevin Wilkinson, who told him, “We can’t do everything. We have to focus on the right thing.” “We have run-down buildings and bad areas, “Schlabach acknowledged, “but we have beautiful areas too.” Schlabach emphasized the concept of place-making in small communities, using the example of Ski-Hi and Stampede, “where everyone works together to build a community and a sense of community.” Schlabach also pointed out how the Urban Renewal Authority (URA) has worked to obtain a grant to remove blighted properties but the bigger picture in the URA’s progress likely won’t be seen as a whole for another 10 years. Schlabach also dismissed the idea of pitting the communities against each other like Monte Vista and Del Norte, pointing out how Del Norte has done a good job of “making 160 look good, but when you leave the 160 corridor you see a lot of the same things you see in Monte Vista.”
“Each community has a small piece, we need to put these pieces together,” Schlabach said of prioritizing Valley-wide economic cooperation. “Our piece is value-added ag.” Schlabach returned to the Proximity Malt example, pointing out how Gray stated the number of jobs added there is the equivalent of 35,000 jobs in Denver. The city and the Valley are working together to ensure continued economic growth over the next 10 years.
Wittner concluded by stating “Any pastor knows things aren’t done overnight,” and adding he has served on the URA and understands their processes are complicated. “How can we get some mom-and-pop businesses like Del Norte has that are prospering?” Wittner again asked. He emphasized it would have more “eye-grabbing appeal” for downtown and would be more like how the town looked “…when I first came here…I want to see more of these buildings have something in them.”
Later during his City Manager’s report, Forrest Neuerburg answered some additional economic development concerns as well. Neuerburg emphasized the research and grant writing work the URGEDC is doing, looking at the evolution of small businesses over time and the outlook for them in the future, alongside their outreach work and efforts to retain current businesses. Neuerburg also pointed out how much of Del Norte’s success can be credited to the late architect, Mark Jones. “He [Jones] believed in that community,” and along with the buildings he owned, he encouraged other business owners to renovate their spaces and make them available, Neuerburg explained, stating it was a great example to have a private business owner take charge and help lead others and considered the possibility that other business and building owners may have been more willing to hear it from him instead of from a municipal government entity. Neuerburg pointed out how the city has held meetings about their economic incentive options and have approached businesses with it with minimal turnout, “You can lead a horse to water…”
Neuerburg also added to Garcia’s concept of “needs and wants,” adding “small retail is a want.” Neuerburg invited council to go to Wal-Mart during the summer and watch tourists stocking up and sometimes camping there instead of shopping local, “It hurts everyone through South Fork” because big retail is extremely difficult to compete with successfully. Neuerburg also pointed out how economic change has to happen at a reasonable pace because as Gray pointed out the city “could not absorb 400 jobs” and meet those with affordable housing, infrastructure and other needs.