The connection between energy, recreation and tourism

By David Ludlam

Balance is achieved in relationships not by living in total detachment or close enmeshment. People are most healthy when balance is achieved through interdependence. This fact is true of human relationships but also true of communities and economies.

Historically, western Coloradans chase promises of an “energy future” when natural gas drilling is high. And are then quick to swear off energy altogether when prices are low, shouting “diversification” for diversification’s sake. The best path forward lies between these manic approaches. Unapologetically embracing all economic potential, all the time, based on the resources and talents in the Grand Valley, is the healthiest way to secure maximum prosperity.

Gov. John Hickenloopers’ last visit to Grand Junction resulted in a local business owner crooning in The Daily Sentinel thrilled that, “the governor was here to talk about outdoor recreation, not Jordan Cove.” Either-or thinking detracts from western Colorado’s true economic potential. Snarky sentiment sparks vitriol between business interests that all actually have a lot of common ground. A more thoughtful response might have sounded different: “Gov. Hickenlooper is here to talk about outdoor recreation. We’re glad he’s here to support an emerging economic sector that can thrive alongside existing energy and agricultural businesses.” 

The energy industry brings investment and capital on a scale few other sectors can — just not all the time. During periods of high drilling some companies invest more than $1 billion annually just in capital —not counting jobs, payroll, taxes and philanthropy. These investments bring extraordinary amounts of external investment creating permanent value in the form of community infrastructure. Lasting infrastructure supports future economic diversification. As reported in The Daily Sentinel, western Colorado’s new world-class outdoor shooting complex in Palisade received more than $2 million in natural gas and oil royalties.

In addition, Palisade’s Main Street renovation, Fruita’s downtown beautification, the Avalon Theatre renovation, upgrades to the Mesa County Library, Colorado Mesa University’s library technology, the newly constructed public safety training facility and countless invaluable projects are built with natural gas royalties. In many cases, natural gas revenues are the largest financial contributor. Energy is good at creating the scale necessary to build these amenities then utilized by other sectors like tourism and recreation to attract investment supporting further growth and diversification. 

Cynics are quick to swear off the energy industry. Others roll their eyes at the idea of promoting outdoor recreation. Taking a long view, most people understand these two sectors are interdependent and work well together when eyes are locked on the horizon instead of the ground. 

Western Colorado can avoid tendency toward all-or-nothing thinking during the stress of economic downturns or the exuberance of energy good times. Going back to basics and understanding the resources, skills and talents of the community — and then shamelessly promoting all potential opportunities irrespective of political disposition — is the path forward. Kooks and crazies will always oppose energy development. Curmudgeons and cowards will always hate new ideas. But most people are thoughtful and embrace the concept of developing all viable economic assets. The valley sits on top of the largest natural gas reserve in the United States. The valley harbors a burgeoning university providing economic stability during downturns and national recessions when tourism and recreation spending are reduced. The valley triangulates between deserts of Utah and mountains of the Continental Divide with unmatched natural wonder. The valley health-care sector is world-renowned and for good reason. And agriculture remains as a staple of heritage. 

A community can’t be all things to all people — this is true. But even more true is the fact that a community can be many things to many people. Amenities that are attractive to tourism and outdoor recreation are often built from capital investment during times of energy prosperity. The energy sector needs agriculture and health care to provide a high quality of life for workers and their families. A university needs a strong diverse economy with multiple thriving sectors to sustain placement of its graduates. Western Colorado’s multiple sectors are not to be pitted against each other in cheap political disposition; rather, each is to be promoted in parallel to one another recognizing each sector’s limitations. 

When measured by decades, all the region’s economic sectors can be developed together alongside a healthy and agnostic recognition: Each sector is interdependent and additive to one another — the best way for a relationship to be.

David Ludlam is the executive director of the West Slope Colorado Oil & Gas Association.


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