February 27, 2009

Economic assessment sees promise for Fairplay area

Tom Locke,
Flume Editor

What Fairplay Beach has to offer Attendees at the Fairplay Economic Development Commission Forum get a briefing on the Fairplay Beach Recreation Area. From left to right are: Gary Nichols, Park County director of tourism and economic development; Rachael Edwards, a board member of the Fairplay Sanitation Department; Nate Emswiller with the Governor’s Community Economic Development Assessment team and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade; Charles Pisano, attorney and chairman of the Fairplay Economic Development Commission; Keith Wortman, a Fairplay trustee, and Steffany Steffens with CED and COEDIT. (Photo by Bernie Nagy /The Flume)

A team of three people from the state of Colorado spent much of Feb. 23 and 24 visiting the Fairplay area and receiving input from the community in order to help develop a strategy for economic development, and among its initial recommendations, still in draft form, are an emphasis on branding, building on the town's historic assets, conducting a market assessment to determine the business needs of the town, and figuring out a way to tackle the town's property tax situation.

"This is really a great little community with a lot of assets," said Stephanie Steffens, southcentral Colorado business development representative for the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

"The town has some amazing infrastructure in place. They've got some great opportunities," Steffens said.

Chuck Pisano, chairman of he Fairplay Economic Development Commission, said the assessment process was "terrific, outstanding," and he has a four-page preliminary report with "about 100 different suggestions."

"We had an excellent turnout," said Pisano. About 65 people were at each of the evening sessions on Monday and Tuesday nights, and about 35 people each were at the afternoon session on Monday and the morning session on Tuesday. There were many people from the business community, community leaders, and others, he said.

"Definitely help is going to come out of this," said Pisano.

Among the suggestions that are now in draft form is an emphasis on "branding," which entails several possible efforts. One would be to get more people to stop on their way down U.S. 285 or Colorado Highway 9 by making them more aware of the South Park City Museum, the recreation center, and Front Street and Main Street. Cleaning up the intersection of U.S. 285 and Colorado Highway 9 and adding a significant display there would be a move in the right direction, according to Steffens.

Another idea is to get building owners and property owners together on Main Street and Front Street and see about changes to the buildings that would emphasize the heritage of the town and "capitalize on that historic draw," she said.

Another idea is to stress the non-skiing activities that are available in the area, such as hiking and biking and fishing.

Stretching the calendar so that there are more events occurring in the late spring and early fall, instead of just the summer, would help businesses by stretching out the busy season, according to Steffens.

The team is also suggesting that the Fairplay area conduct a market analysis to see what businesses might be complementary to the area and enticed to do business there.

The process

Steffens and Nate Emswiller, a business development specialist with the same office, and Christy Culp, community development specialist for the Division of Local Government of the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, teamed to create a Community Economic Development Assessment, which is expected to be presented in a final written form in about two weeks.

It tackles three categories,: business development, downtown development/tourism, and infrastructure.

After the formal community assessment is received in two weeks, the next step in the process will be the development of a Community Action Plan, or CAP, which will bring together the parties who participated in the community assessment as well as others, and they will break into three groups, each group tackling one of the three categories in the assessment. They will then set out priorities within each category and develop an action plan. That is tentatively scheduled for March 23. The next day, a draft report of the action plan will be presented and the participants will walk through the plan.

Then six months later, Steffens and Emswiller will come back and see what's been done and recap the progress made. That tends to "reenergize people," said Steffens, because it gives them "an opportunity to realize how much they've gotten done."

If the community wants, she can continue to revisit every six months.

That's what she has done with Custer County, which she cites as an example of what can be accomplished through such a process. Two years ago, an assessment was conducted there, and since then the secluded county has "accomplished quite a few things," said Steffens. That includes a communication mechanism whereby monthly meetings have put the community in greater touch with resources available to them, including the Small Business Development Center and local colleges. Indeed, the county has pursued adult education classes through Pueblo Community College and Colorado State University-Pueblo, she said. It has also surveyed citizens and visitors to identify what's available and what's needed, and established "a very, very successful 'buy local' campaign," she said.

Property taxes "a huge issue" and "out of whack"

Property taxes in Fairplay are "slightly higher than the state average," said Steffens, and "the tax burden does seem high for a rural community." But it's not so much that the absolute level of property taxes are high, it's that they're "out of whack," she said, with more than normal devoted to the sanitation district and less than normal devoted to schools. The state average for total property taxes is 72 mills, with half of that going to schools, she said. Because so much is going to the Fairplay Sanitation District, the ability of the school district to raise money to build new schools is limited, she said.

She says her team is going to work on trying to figure out if there is something that can be done to redo the debt on the sanitation district, but it's a "really tough" issue.

"There's not an easy fix," she said.

The property tax issue is a "huge issue," she said, partly because business people who are upset about the taxes might discourage other business people from coming into the area with their own businesses.

Nevertheless, she believes her team helped calm some business people about the tax situation, since the total amount in property taxes is only slightly above the state average. "I think we've helped change the mindset of some of the business owners," she said.