Is that a light at the 
end of the tunnel?

Perhaps we’re turning the corner. Maybe we’ll still find a way to “Say Yes for Grand Junction.”

It may be a little early to get too excited, but there are encouraging signs. And one or two things that might be cause for worry.

Let’s start with the City Council’s decision last week to sign on to a Department of Local Affairs grant application at the request of the group seeking to build a community center in Grand Junction. If successful, the DOLA grant would match $25,000 that PLACE (People for Local and Community Enrichment) has raised for a feasibility study.

The council vote, coming a year after requesting PLACE to demonstrate community support for a center, is important for several reasons. If DOLA funds are granted, the resulting study will provide important information necessary for future decisions. More importantly, it’s a small and tentative step by the council into engagement in the community center discussion, one that’s not without some risk to those elected officials.

What the PLACE folks have done, necessarily and in part at council direction, is build a grassroots effort that brought 100 supporters to last week’s council meeting, bringing with them 2,000 signatures gathered at community events and a survey in which 800 people voiced approval for a community center. That’s resulted in pledges of $5,000 from the Rocky Mountain Health Foundation and $20,000 from the Colorado Health Foundation that would match DOLA money.

The feasibility study will help determine if the community center idea has longer legs. The risk for the council, which so far has no financial skin in the game, is that it might. Then there’d be pressure for city help with financing and construction, an iffy prospect given current financial constraints and recent history ignoring constituent desires expressed at the ballot box regarding improving local broadband services.

Council member Phyllis Norris compared the challenges facing the PLACE group with the failed events center proposition defeated overwhelmingly in the last city election. There’s an important difference. That was a top-down effort brought by city staff and supported mostly by the Chamber of Commerce and its allies while the community center effort is very much bottom-up. If we end up with a community center, that’ll be the reason.

Other encouraging news came from last week’s summit sponsored by the Grand Junction Economic Partnership and others. There K-12 education and a plan to grow Colorado Mesa University drew the strongest responses in a final GJEP poll asking what’s most important for local economic growth.

GJEP actually did two surveys, one before the summit to prioritize discussions and a second one at the event last Tuesday which continued online through Sunday. Priorities differed slightly in the two polls.

In the pre-summit survey with 485 respondents, priorities in order of ranking were supporting CMU expansion, adding direct daily flights, growing the tech industry, establishing a hub for outdoor recreation and related manufacturing, K-12 education and revitalizing North Avenue. That survey was sent to GJEP investors, Chamber of Commerce members and distributed via social media.

By the time the second survey closed, those priorities had been rearranged. Nearly 400 responses came from 85 summit attendees and from others via social media. Top priorities were K-12 education (34 percent), CMU expansion (22 percent) and growing the outdoor recreation industry (15 percent). Other single-digit priorities included focus on the technology industry, increasing commercial flights and creating an arts and culture district.

On the surface, 56 percent support for K-12 and higher education might be good news for proponents of the expected District 51 ballot issue and for the partnership that’s promoting support for CMU and expanding its enrollment. But there’s a caveat — a danger in acting solely on the results of the GJEP polling.

Respondents to both surveys, especially the initial one, were mostly what have often been termed “grass tops” folks: community leaders in business, politics and other fields. Their opinions are vital but, as we experienced in the events center debacle, sometimes not reflective of the entire community. For broader buy-in, it’s critical that “grass roots” folks, the rest of us, be invited into these discussions if we’re expected to support economic development and other community-building efforts.

Jim Spehar’s spent time being mowed, trimmed and otherwise scarred in the grass tops but now happily resides beneath the surface. Comments are welcome at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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