Fighting the Aspenization of Durango
Group searches for ways to create a sustainable, viable economy

Main Avenue bustles with activity Tuesday morning. A group of civic and business leaders met last spring to discuss ways that Durango and La Plata County can grow in a sustainable fashion – economically, socially and environmentally./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

As Durango heads into an era of unprecedented development, a group of local business and community leaders is implementing a novel approach to ensure future growth takes place sustainably.

Spearheaded by Operation Healthy Communities, a group of 13 residents began meeting last April in an effort to devise ways in which La Plata County could grow within its means while remaining economically and socially viable.

“Long term, you simply have to have economic development that doesn’t destroy the environment and deplete natural resources,” said Joe Colgan, a Durango City Council member who was part of the group.

The group was an offshoot of Operation Healthy Communities’ 2002 Community Summit, which centered on growth. One recommendation from the summit was to convene a sustainable economic development study circle, a unique process that brings diverse community members together to talk out pressing social and political issues.

Colgan said he joined the study circle because he was intrigued by the concept.

“The study circle lends itself to resolving differences and reaching a consensus by reaching as broad a spectrum of the community as possible – and it’s a civil way to do it,” he said.

Laura Lewis, director of Operation Healthy Communities, said she decided on the study circle format based upon the urgings of board members. While the idea is relatively new to Colorado, study circles have been used for almost 15 years in the East. The study circle movement is headed up by the Connecticut-based Study Circle Resource Center, which trains communities in the process.

“The Study Circle Resource Center was started by a philanthropist who wanted more alternatives to dialogue,” said Lewis.

According to Tami Graham, the study circle’s facilitator, the group met for four three-hour meetings between April and June 2003 to discuss sustainable economic development.

“One topic at the 2002 summit was how to avoid the ‘Aspenization’ of Durango, i.e. how do we keep Durango affordable for all of us,” she said. “The summit recommended a focus group look at the issue.”

Graham said the study circle was advertised and members chosen from a pool of applicants who came from all walks of life. “It was a diverse and interested and committed group of community members that included environmentalists, business owners, ranchers and builders,” she said.

And while they all came from different backgrounds, they were entrusted with the task of coming up with a common definition of what sustainable development is as well as guiding principles for achieving it. To reach this consensus4

Graham said the group was first asked 4

to envision how it would like to see Durango in 2020 under the auspices of sustainable development.

Terri Oliver pulls a customers change from the cash register at Maria's Bookshop early this week. According to a study group convened by Operation Healthy Communities, buying from locally run stores
helps keep the local economy self-sustaining./Photo by Todd Newcomer.

“That was a way of just starting the conversation, envisioning all these great things that could happen,” said Graham. “And a lot of what they saw was their kids and grandkids being able to afford to live here, have good jobs, health care and education, and good opportunities.”

Then, the group was asked to come up with ways to achieve this goal. But first, it had to agree on what exactly sustainable economic development was.

“We need to realize that there’s not a single vision of sustainability,” said Lewis. “There’s growth, concern for the environment, health care, transportation – all these come into play.”

In a nutshell, sustainable economic development was defined by the group as “a system based on diverse businesses that foster 85 social, economic and environmental balance while providing opportunities to prosper.” The group also came up with guiding principles in achieving sustainability such as educating the public about the local economy and the importance of spending money locally; developing a diverse and interdependent population; and providing affordable housing, health care, good jobs and public transportation.

Study circle member and business consultant Tim Wheeler used an analogy of a water-filled bucket with a hole in it to illustrate the concept of a sustainable economy and how people can play a role in it.

“The bucket is the economy, and the water is money,” he said. “Every bucket leaks, but how big of a hole is in our economy depends on us. No hole can ever be entirely eliminated, but we can make it smaller to hold that pool of water or we can pour more water into the bucket to keep up with the loss.”

People can help fill the bucket, thus sustaining the local economy in many small ways, he said. For example, money spent at locally run establishments recirculates in the bucket longer that money spent at big box retailers, which “leak” out of state.

“Even when you buy something from a business that employs a lot of local people or the owner is local, you’re helping the local economy incrementally,” he said.

Other small ways people can work toward sustainable development is by buying locally produced goods, which require less fossil fuel in their transport; buying wind-generated power, thus taking the pressure off local coal-fired power plants; and biking to work, which helps alleviate pollution and car traffic.

“There’s a lot we can do locally,” Wheeler said. “Little things like that don’t have a huge impact on your lifestyle but have a huge cumulative impact.”

However, group members caution their findings are a work in progress, merely a jumping off point. From here, they would like to take their message to the community at large. The group already has made presentations to the La Plata Economic Development Action Partnership as well as the Green Business Roundtable and has plans to present to the Durango City Council and La Plata County commissioners.

“This is a working definition; we didn’t come down from the mountain with 10 things cast in stone,” said Wheeler. “We’re trying to create this dialogue and widen the circle. We’re putting the strawman out there to be poked.”

From there, Graham said she hopes to go back to the drawing board, with the city and county’s help, to continue the process, not just for sustainable development but in other areas as well.

“I would love to see this process continue; I would love to see a whole other round of study circles with 20 different groups,” she said.

She also said she would like to see some real action come of the process.

“A lot of people say it’s ‘all talk, no action,’” Graham said. “I would love to see that not be the case.”

Colgan said he is optimistic, both for the prospect of the city adopting the guidelines and the study circle process in general.

“I’m looking forward to when they present to city council,” he said “As new development occurs, having those guiding principles is something to keep in mind.”

He continued: “I wish we would have gotten to this before Grandview or any of these major developments. We’re sort of all in this together, and when you are able to talk out your differences, you find out they really aren’t that great.”





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