What must the city do to maintain Durango’s unique identity and avoid becoming just another Colorado mountain resort town?
That was one of the key questions raised in two Zoom webinar meetings with business leaders, heads of city committees and interested members of the public in anticipation of the creation of the city’s first comprehensive strategic plan.
Patrick Ibarra, a consultant to the city council, facilitated the discussion through a series of simple questions: What do you enjoy most about living in Durango? What are the biggest challenges facing city leaders? In what areas can the city help improve the quality of life for residents and businesses?
The list of answers to the first question boiled down to quality of life, the people and the environment.
The answers to the other two comprised the city’s perennial problems: homelessness, lack of affordable housing, bureaucratic deterrents to business and development, excessive business licensing fees and the like.
Ibarra will host two more such meetings Feb. 2, then compile the answers into a document councilors will use as they embark on writing the strategic plan. He said he believes the council will complete its meetings with staff members about the report, then publish and approve a final plan sometime in March. (The Feb. 2 meetings are open to the public; check durangogov.org for specifics, which are not yet decided.)
Hopefully, the city’s plan will include statements of the city’s vision and mission as well as the values that should guide councilors and staff as they work together to achieve the goals the plan sets out.
Underlying many of the topics brought to the table by participants in meetings this week was the question of whether Durango wants to become primarily a resort town – like Aspen or Telluride – or steadfastly hold onto its identity as a small, friendly mountain town crafted and sustained through the will of its residents.
Mike French, executive director of La Plata County Economic Development Alliance, wrapped it up neatly.
“We’re at this crossroads between committing to a quality of life economy or falling victim to a resort community economy,” French said.
Tom Stritikus, president of Fort Lewis College, summed it up similarly, noting that affordable workforce housing is an important key to promoting sustainable business growth and attracting good jobs for Durangoans.
“We can’t just be a community for people who can buy a really expensive house and a really expensive mountain bike,” he said.
Elizabeth Marsh, executive director of Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs, pointed out that the primary challenges facing the city are deeply intertwined.
“It’s hard to bring down the price of real estate” to create affordable housing, she said. Wages must rise as well.
None of these are new concepts. But a few specific helpful ideas did emerge.
For example, David Moler, owner of Rivertrippers and Four Corners Whitewater Rafting Tours, suggested facilitation of year-round employment for seasonal workers would solve some wage issues and provide a more stable workforce.
Santa Fe is a town that has tangled with exactly these challenges in the past and continues to do so. In the 1980s, discussion there focused on avoiding the so-called “Aspenization” and “Disneyfication” of the City Different. Some would say Santa Fe has failed in that regard.
Our council should remember that it doesn’t have to reinvent the wheel as they develop the strategic plan. Other cities, particularly in Colorado and the West, have faced and continue to struggle with similar problems. Let’s look to them for ideas and solutions.
And let’s stay Durango.