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Visions, summits, conferences … to what end?

Essay by Martha Quillen

Growth – June 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

Visioning conferences. Smart Growth Summits. Meetings. Committees. Symposiums. Seminars. Last month, Ed and I attended three conferences concerning growth — and thereby missed dozens of similar gatherings.

The first such event (for last month, only, since Ed and/or I have actually, over time, gone to dozens of them) was the Governor’s Smart Growth Summit in Alamosa. Marcia Darnell agreed to cover that event for us, and her article appears in this issue.

But I’ll gladly share what I learned.

First, the campus at Adams State College is much larger than I expected it to be.

Second, Alamosa has very reasonably priced restaurants and motels.

And third, there is a difference between the problems caused by growth in agricultural and industrial towns, and the problems caused by growth in resort communities.

Monte Vista is a marvel these days. A dizzying array of farm equipment, implement dealerships, and unidentifiable machinery fills the surrounding landscape. There are huge grain elevators, new manufacturing plants, new faces on the downtown buildings, an obvious patina of prosperity, horrendous traffic, and trucks larger than trains turning onto the highway.

At every growth conference I’ve attended, including the one in Alamosa, everyone touts diversity, and says our communities need to embrace multifold economies. Everyone talks about the importance of relying not on a single industry, but upon developing an economic mix of retail sales, manufacturing, agricultural enterprises, tourism and recreation in order to create communities that can survive slumps in any given sector.

But clearly that isn’t happening.

Actually, a lot of things don’t seem to be happening.

Ways to provide affordable housing remain elusive. Awesome commutes to work are becoming a norm. Unlike the minimum wage, the cost of living in our region is rising faster than the Arkansas River during spring run-off.

Thus, it wasn’t surprising that several people at the Headwaters Conference at Western State College in Gunnison expressed disillusionment with the Governor’s Smart Growth Summits. “What good are they doing?” someone asked.

“Well, they probably give the Governor better standing in the polls,” I thought.

But then Randy Russell, an economic planner formerly of Colorado, but now working in Price, Utah, pointed out that these were actually the third series of Colorado growth seminars. Apparently, the first were primarily for community leaders and were started by Governor Lamm way back when. Therefore, Russell also questioned the efficacy of such meetings.

And I was left with the uncomfortable realization that, since more and more people seem to be questioning Romer’s motives, the summits aren’t even a very good political strategy, (which is what I had generally assumed them to be).

THE ANNUAL Headwaters Gathering at WSC was the second conference Ed and I attended last month. It’s a three-day event that grapples with the issues and challenges facing rural mountain communities. This year, panel discussions were staffed by environmentalists, ranchers, small town officials, artists, realtors, economic planners and various other community players, including Ed Quillen, journalist extraordinaire, State Senator Linda Powers, Eric Johnson of Club Twenty, Ray Christensen from the Colorado Farm Bureau, Montrose Mayor Tricia Dickinson, Arden Anderson, a BLM Recreation and Wilderness Specialist, Laura McCall, an historian, Jon Schler from the Colorado Center for Community Development and many, many others.

But no one at the Headwaters Conference talked about trucks big enough to ground highways into dust, or the need for bypasses to reroute heavy equipment. Nor did anyone seriously address a need for more tourists. Yet those were common enough concerns at the Governor’s Smart Growth Summits in Pueblo and Alamosa.

At the Smart Growth Summits it’s apparent that, while some places are growing like weeds and devouring the countryside, other towns are merely hoping that Colorado’s new popularity will give them the means to hold on. In Gunnison, however, most people seemed to come from places that are growing like crabgrass.

At almost every growth conference someone says that uncontrolled growth is a cancer, and then points out the need for control. Last month, I heard this somewhat clich├ęd comment at both Headwaters and Smart Growth, which stands to reason, since finding ways to control growth is presumably one of the purposes of such get-togethers. But the metaphor strikes me as darkly ironic.

Who controls cancer? You either eradicate cancer or you learn to live with it as best you can. You can’t tell cancer to move into organs where it will be less disruptive. Cancer doesn’t follow rules, and it doesn’t cooperate. And unfortunately, that may also be true of migration.

Although our state-wide boom has only been with us for a few years, cities like Boulder have been sparring with growth for decades. But Boulder has not, as yet, found a way to provide affordable housing, nor to prevent suburban sprawl.

And in actuality, the concept of the citizenry directing growth may be a delusion. Since historically, mass migration into an area has seldom been at the invitation of the native population, it could be assumed that the citizens don’t direct growth, but that instead, growth directs them. In the long run, growth, or the lack thereof, may be the factor that decides who and what we are — and what we will become.

So maybe that’s why I keep hearing ominous paradoxes beneath all of this talk about growth.

Several speakers at Headwaters mentioned that more than fifty percent of Coloradans don’t want more growth, and most of the Headwaters audience didn’t seem to want more growth either. But almost everyone wanted better communications, better telephone service, more affordable housing and live theater. Tourists weren’t particularly popular, but galleries, art shows and festivals were acclaimed.

THE HEADWATERS CONFERENCE is not just a growth seminar; it’s also a cultural event that opens every year with an evening of poetry and prose presented by regional authors. This year the themes of many, if not most, of the selections dealt with coming to Colorado and thereby embracing fresh beginnings and starting anew. Several poets passionately evoked images of their new homes, replete with wildlife, mountains, forests, streams, canyons, blue skies, and hay meadows. Good poets, they expressed the sentiments of a lot of people — they want to live here so they can mingle with the wilderness.

But isn’t wilderness by definition an uncivilized place?

TWENTY YEARS AGO, I went to a Cowbelles luncheon in Kremmling, and almost no one else showed up — except the Cowbelles. At their luncheons, the Grand County Cowbelles demonstrated different ways to cook beef, so I figured the attendance problem was due to that day’s menu of brains, tongue and heart. But most of the other women blamed the new cable company.

Things were better before television, they told me. Families were closer. People didn’t waste their time on soap operas.

Well, in retrospect, I think the Cowbelles were right; it probably wasn’t the tongue.

But more importantly, I think one of the reasons those women still lived in relative isolation in the middle of the 1970s was because they had made sacrifices. By the time I met them, however, their stories of babies delivered on kitchen tables, overturned wagons, snowed-in winters, unplowed roads, and stranded neighbors were already turning into folklore.

There were certainly some families in Grand County who still lived that way, but quite a few of the local ranchers had taken to wintering in the Caribbean. Which leads me to the third event Ed and I attended. The Colorado Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects (CCASLA) called their program, “Amenities Migration, Stewards or Promoters.”

By “amenity migration” I assume the conference directors alluded to people who are moving to places because they like them, instead of moving to places because the mines are hiring.

But since I like the phrase (which was actually a term coined by Laurence Moss, the opening speaker at the CCASLA Conference), I’m going to borrow it for a minute — because I think it describes the real problem.

The amenities are migrating — and they’re swamping us.

But what can I say? I want INTERNET.

By the time I went to the Landscape Architects’ conference, I didn’t think I could possibly hear anything new about growth. But keynote Speaker Evan Vlachos provided a refreshing variation on the usual speech by focusing on the entire world.

A Sociology Professor at CSU who also serves as NATO Chairman of the Advisory Panel on the Environment, Vlachos assured us that the whole planet was in chaos. He talked about the bewilderment caused by the new global economy, instant communication, disintegrating nations, and millennial prophecies, and asserted that it wasn’t just our imagination, everything was getting more complicated, confusing and uncertain, a phenomena he called, “complexification.”

Vlachos did, however, contend that we shouldn’t get too depressed since, as things went, we didn’t have it so bad. But that concession seemed almost obligatory at a fancy resort where everyone was sipping wine and eating chocolate mousse, and I couldn’t help but wonder whether he would say the same thing at a Denver homeless shelter, or at the prison in Buena Vista.

Either way, Vlachos offered a few insights that should be addressed at future growth conferences. First, he said that as Americans we suffer from institutional impatience, and that when faced with complex problems, we call for simple solutions. “It took 200 years to make this mess,” he reminded his audience.

BY THE TIME I got to Vail, I was growth-conferenced out. It was raining and snowing, a twelve-ounce can of Coke at the hotel cost $2.25, and almost everything in town was closed for mud season.

Allen Best, an old acquaintance who now edits a Vail weekly, met us at the hotel. He and Ed started talking, and Allen suggested that growth conferences should last at least five days because, having attended a week-long seminar, he’d noticed that the best suggestions came after people had ruminated and generalized for a few days.

And I lost it. “Five days?” I repeated. “After one day at the governor’s conference everyone decided to go home to rezone. So what happens if some really gung-ho activists from Salida attend? After five days they’ll be so energized they’ll change every zone in the county. I’ll have to go home and move my house. They’ll up the building codes until I need a permit to fix the roof on my shed. They’ll knock down three trailer parks, and put up three subdivisions. Salida will apply for a grant to build a Laotian-American Ethnic Study Center because they’ve heard a Laotian family might move to town. Allen, you can’t possibly want these things to last for five days.”

But in spite of my qualms, the speeches I heard that afternoon were interesting, And Evan Vlachos touched upon some of my concerns. I think we sometimes respond too hastily, as if growth were a time-bomb that had to be dismantled, or else, in the next five minutes.

Both environmentalists and the citizenry of small, financially vulnerable towns, seem especially prone to apocalyptic urgency — even though it can’t help to react with inadequate measures against an exaggerated threat when funds are scarce, and when the real disaster might be lurking right beyond the horizon, as yet unseen.

But at all of the conferences I attended last month, the speakers were informative, and the participants were exceptionally cordial.

As for growth conferences in general, I’m not sure they’ll ever resolve any problems caused by growth. But in this age of televisions and computers, growth conferences do bring people of various backgrounds and different towns together, face to face, with neighbors they might otherwise never meet, to exchange ideas on issues that may be regarded very differently in separate places.

And if that’s all they do — that may be enough.

But I still wouldn’t suggest going to three of them in one month.

— Martha Quillen