Summit County officials focus on rebuilding the economy after the pandemic
Officials discussed economic recovery efforts taking place throughout the community during a virtual town hall Wednesday evening, emphasizing that while programs thus far have focused on helping businesses cope with COVID-19 restrictions, they’re now turning their attention to rebuilding the economy after the pandemic.
“We know we need to build back the tourism economy,” said Blair McGary, executive director of the Summit Chamber of Commerce. “It is such a critical part of our infrastructure, of our community, of our economy. And it’s something that we do not want to lose. So we’re focused on that, but we’re also focused on how do we build back better? How do we build back more resilient, more sustainable and more inclusive so that everybody who lives and works in Summit County can truly thrive?”
During the meeting, officials discussed the work that has been done to help support the business community since the onset of the pandemic, including the development of a Community Planning and Economic Recovery Committee — made up of stakeholders in widespread industries in the county — to serve as a resource for the business community to navigate its way through the myriad impacts of public health restrictions.
Community Development Planning Director April Kroner lauded the group for its work in helping to set up the 5 Star State Certification Program and to give direction with regard to county business grant efforts. As officials begin to look toward the future, Kroner said the group is working on more long-term recovery initiatives, including partnering with the chamber, the Summit Prosperity Initiative — the economic development arm of the chamber — and other stakeholders to apply for a grant opportunity with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, which would provide technical assistance to create an economic development recovery action plan.
Kroner also noted ongoing efforts to create a county economic development partnership, which she described as a nonprofit that would bring together county governments, private industry partners and others to lead the charge to better situate Summit County economically.
Among topics the group would look into are how to create more economic resiliency in the community. Currently, about 70% of the county’s workforce is employed in the tourism industry, according to Commissioner Tamara Pogue. That creates challenges during periods of economic downturn, or in this case, a global pandemic.
“We do need to diversify,” Kroner said. “We do need to look at jobs that provide for other opportunities and for people to grow from moving beyond the tourism industry to perhaps some other creative industries or other positions that maybe offer higher wage earnings as they go through life and grow families within our community.”
But there are hurdles in the way. McGary said wages in Summit County have been historically lower than in other areas of the state, and that while other communities have seen wages rebound since the 2008 recession, Summit never did. McGary went on to say that the self-sufficiency standard in 2018 for Summit was about $30 an hour for an adult with an infant child, a number she said was “not a sustainable model for our community long term.”
As the issue was compounded by the pandemic and the reliance on a single industry as unemployment rates jumped to among the highest in the state, McGary said the focus should be on identifying ways to build a stronger economy. While Summit County’s high cost of living isn’t news, McGary said the conversation needs to shift to the other side of the coin, namely creating a more resilient community by increasing the diversity of industry, age and wage dispersion, and infrastructure.
“The good news? It is in the works,” McGary said. “The Summit Prosperity Initiative has already created a foundation for economic development and has begun the work. Planning and creating a vision for our community is arguably the most important component in (Summit Prosperity Initiative’s) unique challenge of planning while also creating unique programming.”
McGary said the Prosperity Initiative has emphasized data collection since the beginning of the pandemic and has created a dashboard using economic impact surveys to provide better information to the community and Summit Board of County Commissioners to make more educated policy decisions moving forward. She also mentioned direct support provided to businesses in the county through bimonthly coffee meetups and work groups that covered topics like tax incentives, child care issues and more.
Officials also discussed the Co.Starters Rebuild program, which offers entrepreneurs tools to support startups and changes that business owners have made to their business models during the pandemic. Officials said Summit County was the first in the nation to launch the program and that 25 residents have graduated.
The county is now switching gears toward the Summit Biz Core Program facilitated through Co.Starters, a 10-week course offered for $50 that will help local business owners and entrepreneurs with support to grow their businesses. The sign up for the program is already live, and the course runs on Wednesdays from April 14 to June 16.
“You think about structure and systems and the financial side of things and how you plan to grow,” said Corry Mihm of the Prosperity Initiative. “So while it’s really hard to sometimes motivate yourself and sit down and force yourself to do a business plan … this will help you through all of that. So we promise that at the end of the 10 weeks, you’ll actually walk away with a plan, with resources, with a support network. And you’ll be well on your way to making the changes and getting unstuck in your business.”
Toby Babich, a volunteer on the Summit County Economic Recovery Committee, said that as the committee begins looking at the post-COVID-19 economy, they’re trying to provide businesses with better tools to understand what things might look like a few months down the line. Specifically, the groups is compiling a timeline of reopening benchmarks and industry capacity allowances to provide businesses with a better forecast of customer volumes and staffing needs.
“When we pushed reset and really started to explore what our business community needed to succeed moving forward, we came to the conclusion that the most impactful economic tools we can provide … are going to come in the form of information,” Babich said. “So each of us can make the most informed and beneficial decisions possible for our businesses as we come out of winter and enter summer.”
Officials also discussed some larger problems facing the community, such as a lack of affordable housing and a lack of workforce to fill vacant roles. The experts agreed there wasn’t any “silver bullet” for either problem but that they would instead take on widespread data collection efforts to better understand the issues and prioritize honest communitywide conversations about how they can be remedied.
“I think it really goes back to we’ve really got to come together as a community,” McGary said. “This is our opportunity. We did get a reset with this pandemic, and the only way that we’re going to kind of overcome some of these issues is really coming together and having these hard conversations.”
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