Story by Caitlin Switzer

Photo By Dave Bernier

GUNNISON-They don’t talk about economic development in Gunnison County these days.

Instead, they’re getting specific—the target is prosperity. And while they talk about prosperity and how to build it, they’re also taking action.

The “One Valley Prosperity Project” is a county-wide initiative, according to a news release issued by Gunnison County last week. Organized by the Community Builders Task Force, the initiative includes representatives from Community Foundation of the Gunnison Valley, Gunnison County, the City of Gunnison, Western State Colorado University (WSCU), Crested Butte South Property Owner’s Association, Town of Crested Butte, Town of Mt. Crested Butte, and Crested Butte Mountain Resort.

The task force was inspired by a regional training hosted by the non-profit Sonoran Institute in 2014. The goal of the One Valley Prosperity Project is to strengthen the economy and improve regional collaboration. Gunnison County has contracted with the Glenwood Springs office of the Sonoran Institute to provide technical assistance to the Community Builders Task Force as the prosperity project advances, and to work with community partners to develop the project, offer feedback, and provide guidance and facilitation.

Clark Anderson, Rocky Mountain program director of the Sonoran Institute, said that the non-profit’s involvement with the One Valley Prosperity Project is atypical.

“We work with communities around the Rocky Mountain West,” Anderson said, “we help them achieve their goals—they know what they want, and we help them get there. There is a lot of demand for the work we do. But Gunnison’s Prosperity Project is by far the biggest thing we are working on.”

Anderson said that it has been fun to watch the Gunnison team take what they learned at the training and move forward together.

“It is very ambitious,” he said. “They are defining economic development on their own terms, and what it means to them is prosperity. The right leadership is there; and they have buy-in from people and community groups.

“The parties involved understand that their individual futures and the futures of the community and local businesses are tied together.”

Anderson noted that a common misconception about economic development is that it hinges on out-of-area companies choosing to relocate.

“What happens is that PEOPLE move here for the quality of life,” he said, “they bring ideas, and generate home-grown businesses. Economic development is changing—now we try to grow businesses from within, and grow the jobs that attract the people.

“This project has a chance to ride that wave.”

The first step will be a community-wide dialogue that encourages residents from Gunnison to Gothic to think strategically about building a more prosperous future for the region based on local strengths and resources.  The information gained in the process will be used to create a plan for moving forward.

Historically, communities in Gunnison County have higher poverty rates, lower wages and higher costs of living compared to most cities in Colorado, Gunnison County’s news release states.

“By gathering the valley-wide community to conduct an honest, open and inclusive assessment of our strengths and challenges, we can collectively build a foundation upon which we guide our vision,” Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck said. “This can be a vision that respects our values while actively pursuing opportunities that will increase potential for true prosperity and long-term security for the Gunnison Valley.”

Public opinion and inclusion are at the heart of the project, said Julie Feier, chief financial officer for WSCU and Community Builders Task Force member.

“Community prosperity can be defined in a unique way by each of us and we hope to have a large community turnout to establish a shared definition of prosperity,” she said. “WSCU is honored and excited to be working with such a committed group of valley residents focused on generating actionable outcomes for a more vital community.”

The project’s goals and timelines will be officially unveiled at the project kick-off event on March 4, 2015 in the University Center Ballroom at WSCU. Its ultimate success depends on community engagement, Anderson said.

To learn more about the One Valley Prosperity Project, the photo contest and how to become involved, visit the project’s website, or Facebook page.