Episode V: The Center Strikes Back
Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of interviews with Sarah Shrader (left in the photo) and Robin Brown, two women from opposite sides of the political divide who are active in efforts to improve the Grand Valley’s economy and quality of life.
This project was inspired by a recent Bloomberg News Service story, “Friends Across Party Lines, United in Dismay.”
Intrigued by the ability of friends to carry on a civil political discussion, The Sentinel showcases these conversations as an example of how the push-pull of reasonable debate can help us find common ground.
Sentinel: What is holding us back as a community?
SS: We have little investment in economic development. There is no vision from our leadership, and there is hardly any funding for economic development. When your tourism budget is four times your economic development budget, you’ve got a problem.
RB: I think tourism is economic development, so that’s a piece.
SS: Agree, but if a business was deciding to move here versus a move to Provo (Utah), Asheville (North Carolina), Ogden (Utah) or Bend (Oregon), they would have four to five times the amount of economic incentives to move there than we have here in Grand Junction. So, we don’t have the opportunity to compete. The last two companies we lost, they said ‘thanks for that offer, that’s cute; but I got a real offer somewhere else.’
RB: I don’t think we have people sitting around saying ‘of course we’re not going to offer those incentives.’ I think there is a lack of understanding on what other communities are providing. So what we’re offering isn’t helping us. There is a lack of understanding of what’s required to move forward in different areas.
SS: Economic development is not our strong suit. In the county commissioner debates (on Monday), we heard again and again the proper role of government is not to be check writers and not to be creating incentives —
RB: Which is a conservative viewpoint. This community is very hesitant to take on debt to fund big projects like Los Colonias or a rec center. But there are a lot of very sophisticated funding mechanisms they refuse to even consider that would get these things done. Union Station in Denver, which is a phenomenal success, was paid off way early and it was all paid for with a TIF (tax increment financing). So, when you look at those kinds of things that are out there, and the feeling locally is that we can’t even present those options because we refuse to take on any debt, we’re shooting ourselves in the foot.
Sentinel: Why do the people who have this view keep getting elected to local office? Where is the disconnect?
RB: First, we don’t have a directly elected mayor. I’m not talking about a strong mayor, but a directly elected mayor that puts someone in a leadership position. Right now, we don’t have a leader who is accountable to the people. Our City Council makes $500 a month? So, that’s not nearly enough to attract a small business person or someone with a family. It doesn’t justify the time that’s required… So we either limit the amount of time required for that job by putting more responsibility on the city staff and letting council make the long-term planning decisions. Or we pay them more. And then we get a better round of applicants for that job and not just the retirees who are just looking for something to do.
Sentinel: What is the proper role of government in economic development? Is it providing business incentives or is it building parks and trails and cultural amenities?
RB: When you go to these amazing small towns with a new water park, amphitheater or rec center, they didn’t pay cash for those amenities. They figured out a funding mechanism. Bend did not build their waterfront park out of pocket.
SS: That’s right. Neither did Asheville. Asheville is interesting. They gave New Belgium (brewery) $8.5 million worth of incentives — land, building, cash, etc. — to expand their business there. They only provide 115 jobs, but because the community wanted to develop the other side of the river into this whole river arts district ... and when New Belgium expressed interest in coming, and Asheville was like, ‘Wow. Yes. You’re going to be our anchor’ to the redevelopment.
RB: There’s a second piece to this. New Belgium sought out Asheville for a reason.
Sentinel: Is there a lack of cool here?
RB: Total lack of cool. We are it (gesturing to Shrader and obviously kidding).
SS: There is a pervasive amount of pessimism in this town, and it’s not just from the right who distrusts government and hates incentives for economic development and is so cautious and fearful and worried that ‘we can’t make this investment because what if it doesn’t work? But it’s also from the left who thinks ‘we will never get it done. Nothing will ever work. We should just get our house in Aspen or Crested Butte or travel to Denver every weekend because nothing is ever going to change here and I’m just going to stop fighting it.’
RB: Do you know how many people live here because they can leave here? That’s OK. We travel a lot. But all of our trips are around Colorado because there are so many cool things to do. And again, that’s one of the great things of living here.
RB: I was at the governor’s tourism conference. Five hundred some attendees. Every time I met someone, I said, ‘I’m Robin Brown from Grand Junction.’ And literally everyone responded: ‘Oh, Grand Junction is so cool.’ One lady said ‘Isn’t Grand Junction hip?’ I almost spit my drink out. There is definitely a view from the Front Range that Grand Junction has gotten cooler.
SS: This is why I think it’s changed: It’s changed because of the Avalon Theatre. That redesign of that theater is exactly what Main Street needed. I feel like it’s the start of all sorts of domino effects.
RB: I think it changed because of the Outdoor Recreation Coalition and the voice it gave that community.
Sarah Shrader is a Democrat who started a successful zip line manufacturing company in town. Robin Brown is a Republican who served eight years in the military, did two tours in Iraq and who now owns a local public relations company in downtown Grand Junction.