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The perspective from down on the ground

Column by George Sibley

Economic Development – October 2000 – Colorado Central Magazine

I GOT INTO “local economic development” here in the Upper Gunnison region of Central Colorado by the back door. The stage door.

In 1988, we started doing an annual “Sonofagunn” drama here that was basically a spoof on whatever had or hadn’t been happening in the valley in recent years — or decades or centuries for that matter.

Other than raising funds for the Gunnison Arts Center, the Sonofagunn’s purpose was to make people laugh hard enough to loosen up a little and to start thinking a bit about what’s outside of the boxes of their daily lives.

But as one of the Sonofagunn-addicted writers, I realized that a recurring theme was developing — something that we kept going back to year after year: the subject of economic development.

We always seemed to have a group of movers and shakers trying to figure out what we could be doing for economic development that would relieve the mixed boredom and uncertainty of whatever the global economic masters of the universe were imposing on us. Some strange braindrizzles came out of those scenes.

After a runway expansion made the Gunnison County Airport the third longest in the state, a Sonofagunn poobah proposed plowing the snow off the runway into a big pile and installing ski lifts on it.

When it was discovered that seepage through the uranium tailings piled near the confluence of Tomichi Creek and the Gunnison River was polluting the water in the river, a Sonofagunn businessman invented the Dos Rios Microbrewery, featuring “the beer that gives you a buzz that’ll register on your Geiger counter.”

And always the Sonofagunn production featured that arch-foe of local economic development: AMUC, the Amalgamated Megalomanic Universal Corporation, the last merger of all the merged trans-nationals.

“What are “the guys who run AMUC” doing to us now?” we’d ask. And then we’d shamelessly run counter to all the prevailing wisdom of the mainstream media by creating giants from outside Gunnison that really did intend to devour us. It’s an economic inevitability, of course, and all very legal. But at least we could metaphorically moon those giants in the last act, even if we couldn’t beat them.

Our dramatic creations are just an effort to think a little mythically, or paranoically if you prefer, about where we are as a community in the universe. We’ve been looking for the tectonics, the larger moving parts that underlie all the petty tremors and disturbances of our daily lives.

BUT ALL OF THIS NONSENSE actually led to an invitation to join the economic development effort of the Gunnison County Chamber of Commerce — that’s how desperate the situation is.

I am not a big player there; I’m occasionally useful because I’m a decent writer — although chamber writing is never as much fun as writing for the Sonofagunn economic development mavens. But working with the chamber has reinforced my sense that there is no work more important at the local level, or potentially more creative, than intelligent economic development.

Not that we’re doing a whole lot of that yet. The Chamber’s efforts led, after a couple of false starts, to the creation last fall of a Gunnison Valley Economic Development Corporation, relatively independent of the Chamber of Commerce, and striving to eventually be independent of public underwriting.

We’re also striving to get beyond all of the old unresolved baggage that the local governments and business interests want to offload onto us. Those issues and problems need to be resolved, for sure, but we haven’t really had a moment yet to just sit around (like the guys in the Sonofagunn do) and think about what people in the Gunnison Valley really want down the road a way.

Meanwhile, the heavy weather from the larger environment keeps pelting down on us: a dry winter here, a drying up of investment capital there, hotter summers, economy-cooling interest rates.

Soon AMUC might bring in a superstore that’s so one-stop convenient that we won’t even have to go home at night — and the old inconvenient community may just dry up and go ghost.

What can we do from here, down on the ground, to control any of these forces that run our lives? Or at least to adapt more creatively to them?

I’m glad of the opportunity (I begged a little) to write regularly about this stuff for Colorado Central. I want to write about people down on the ground, scratching their heads and trying to figure out how to reclaim the world from money — in order to give it back to people.

If this kind of thing interests you — check out the ad in this issue for the 11th Headwaters Conference at Western State this fall: that’s our topic.

George Sibley, a former sawmill operator and weekly newspaper publisher, writes and teaches in Gunnison.