Group searches for ways to create a sustainable,
| 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
“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
“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
“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
“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.”