Trails blaze the way to a brighter future

What do bike paths, urban trails, parks and green spaces have to do with economic development?

Quite a bit, actually. Any urban planner can speak to the positive impact that parks can have on residential real estate prices. Appreciation for attractive outdoor spaces appears to be hardwired into the human brain. It can be quantified in a variety of ways, including monetarily.

A Virginia Cooperative Extension study, for example, found that consumers would be willing to pay, on average, a 12-percent premium for goods purchased in stores with quality landscaping.

Against the backdrop of this “greenbelt effect,” the Mesa County Commission’s decision to retire its Urban Trails Master Plan is a bit unsettling because of its potential impact on economic development efforts.

We take no umbrage with the commission’s decision to toss the plan, because it promoted a false public perception that privately owned irrigation ditches and canals are open to public use. However, we encourage commissioners to affirm a commitment to trail development by directing planners to include easements for recreational purposes in the Mesa County 2040 Regional Transportation Plan.

We have advocated the need for a comprehensive long-term strategy — a “vision” if you will — to transform the region and wean Mesa County from a boom-and-bust existence. Yes, energy development is critical to our economic vitality. But that sector of the economy is largely beyond our control. It will flourish or founder based on market forces — price and availability.

Meanwhile, we’ve witnessed an exodus of jobs and people. The workforce has shrunk from 83,000 in 2009 to 75,900 in January of this year. Total wages were down $91 million in Mesa County between 2008 and 2012, and unemployment has risen to 8.3 percent from 3.2 percent in 2008.

Much of the decline can be attributed to the slowdown in exploration for natural gas in the Piceance. A move toward liquified natural gas as a transportation fuel would certainly bode well for the region, but it would only reinforce the notion that we are helpless in the face of drilling lulls.

We aren’t. If we focus on creating an energetic, vibrant city with a growing array of cultural and recreational amenities, we’ll attract young, energized minds — people with big ideas, entrepreneurial know-how and a can-do spirit who want to raise their children here. Their first exposure to the Grand Valley may very well be our world-class mountain biking trails. Let’s give them an assortment of other features and benefits to open their eyes to the vast potential of this community.

That’s why a national park, urban trails, a buzzing downtown district teeming with nightlife, a greater link between Colorado Mesa University and the community, support for the performing arts and high-performing schools are all pieces of the economic development mosaic. It’s not just developing industrial parks and infrastructure to attract business. It’s creating a community with desirable lifestyle options and attractive outdoor spaces.

Those of us who prize our quality of life in western Colorado should feel compelled to develop ways to enhance its enjoyment for others. It starts with the little things — planning for trails — and grows from there.


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