Less than a month before election day, Durango’s seven City Council candidates outlined their tools, strategies and priorities for addressing the city’s economic goals.
Three of the seven candidates will join the council after the April 6 elections, just over a year after the coronavirus pandemic threw an economic curveball at communities around the country. The new councilors will immediately jump into leading the city’s economic recovery efforts while deciding how to invest in Durango’s long-term growth with limited resources.
Many of the candidates said the local economy presents a challenge.
In the pandemic’s first months, city councilors managed the city’s economic policies while deciding city priorities that will have a long-term impact on Durango’s economic future.
If elected, candidates will take on the same responsibilities. Six are political newcomers: Olivier Bosmans, Jessika Buell, Seth Furtney, Frank Lockwood, Lisa McCorry and Harrison Wendt. Melissa Youssef is seeking re-election to a four-year term on the council.
In describing their approach to economic issues in Durango, some offered precise tools and strategies to address the city’s needs, while others shared broad priorities.
Candidates aligned in support of the city’s pandemic response, particularly the bump-outs for businesses program, which allows businesses on Main Avenue to conduct commerce outdoors in the public right of way. They also supported encouraging community members to follow public health practices, such as wearing masks.
That’s where the similarities in their approaches ended.
Candidates honed in on varied priorities, focusing on following the strategic plan, supporting low-income earners first, investing in tourism, building partnerships or leveraging diverse tools.
Here are the candidates’ economic strategies, based on interviews with The Durango Herald.
Olivier BosmansIf elected, Bosmans, an international project manager and environmental consultant, said he would advocate for the city and community to support local businesses by buying local. The city’s resource list is also helpful to businesses, he said.
These efforts are important for recovery and maintaining Durango’s unique character and identity, Bosmans said.
“On the City Council, I’d promote local businesses, support them. Local first, buy local,” he said. “Trying to find tools that can apply to local businesses – I could say bump-outs, but there are many tools that are available to us.”
For long-term economic development, he emphasized investing in housing and businesses.
“I do not have pet projects. I’ll line up with the city goals and the strategic plan,” Bosmans said. “I strongly believe that we need to encourage local businesses as well as affordable housing for the workforce.”
Jessika BuellWhen it comes to economic recovery, Buell, a local business owner, focused on getting creative and keeping small businesses busy, she said.
During the summer, that would mean keeping businesses open and people healthy so Durango can take advantage of what will likely be a busy tourism season, she said.
“In terms of what my action items would be, it’s just continuing to be creative and pushing for small businesses to stay open so we don’t come out of this without a vibrant downtown,” Buell said.
In the long term, the city’s investments will depend on community values, Buell said.
For example when the 2005 half-cent sales tax for parks and recreation ends in 2026, voters could choose to approve an equal sales tax to meet the city’s needs.
“If the community really does value attainable housing and economic development, will they renew it to pay for affordable housing and growth?” Buell said. “Or will they want to put it back into parks and rec?”
She said the city needs to support its public transit service, even though it’s not “glamorous.”
It needs to encourage customers to buy locally to respond to “the Wayfair sales tax issue that’s coming up” and avoid losing sales tax revenue from online purchases, she said.
The 2018 U.S. Supreme Court South Dakota v. Wayfair decision allows states to require and collect in-state sales taxes on online business transactions. Taxing districts in Colorado began collecting those taxes in 2019.
Seth FurtneyFurtney, a commercial property owner and former engineering contracts manager, said the pandemic has offered Durango an opportunity to think flexibly. For example, bump-outs were considered for a decade before being implemented in two weeks, he said.
“With that in mind, it’s kind of an exciting time,” he said.
The city should continue seeking and responding to business needs and encouraging public health practices, he said.
“We’ve done a great job of that. Now, it’s a matter of weathering this for another six months or whatever it may be,” Furtney said.
In the long term, the first goal is don’t “kill the golden goose,” Furtney said.
“Whether anybody wants to say it out loud, our quality of life, natural lands and the rest is our golden goose. That is why we exist and why we continue to be successful,” he said.
That means protecting, resourcing and reinvesting in the city’s natural lands. Then, the city should invest in regional partnerships to make progress on mutual interests.
“We’re all in the same hub together, so let’s go ahead and learn to cooperate because we’re going to do better together,” Furtney said.
He also expects the phenomenon of “Zoom Towns,” places where housing markets are booming as more people turn to remote work, will continue to benefit Durango.
Frank LockwoodLockwood, a retired attorney, said the top priority is controlling COVID-19 cases. When those go down, business improves, he said.
In the near future, Durango leaders should gather more detailed financial projections for different sectors of the city’s economy to guide its future economic recovery response, he said, referring to similar practices in other countries.
“That’s highly logical, and we’ve never done that,” Lockwood said.
Durango could also follow Israel’s example and allow certain businesses to open for vaccinated customers, he said.
When it comes to long-term economic development, Lockwood supported tools like the lodgers tax, a tax paid by guests in lodging establishments, and the city’s urban renewal authority, which incentivizes public-private investment in underused areas.
The proposed lodgers tax increase, if approved April 6, could fund conference or performance art facilities. Tourism marketing, which receives lodgers tax revenue, provides a “remarkable” return on investment because it draws revenue into the community from other areas, said Lockwood, who is also the former Durango Area Tourism Office director.
“That’s a really efficient economic development (tool), as long as it’s measured properly,” Lockwood said.
Lisa McCorryMcCorry, a landscaper, said managing economic recovery is a “tough question.”
“It is hard to watch our friends and neighbors close the doors of their businesses,” McCorry said. “I don’t know what the solution is.”
If elected, she would rely on guidance from city staff members to identify solutions. She would also focus on creating partnerships with organizations working on economic recovery, such as the La Plata Economic Development Alliance and Region 9 Economic Development District.
In the long term, McCorry said the city should invest in infrastructure and broadband internet.
“It could be roads. It could be utilities. Helping to bring new things in, so that places where we want development, business or residential happening,” McCorry said.
Better broadband would help entrepreneurs. She proposed saving on costs by attaching fiber-optic cables to power lines instead of running them underground. She said the big challenge is cost, both for infrastructure and another city priority, affordable housing.
“It’s too costly. There’s too much being asked,” McCorry said.
Harrison WendtWendt, a youth camp coordinator, was the most critical candidate concerning the city’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think the response has been adequate. I’m not going to say it’s been great,” Wendt said.
He was discouraged that it took until November to have strict enforcement on masks. That delay said a lot about the city’s response, he said.
The city passed its mandatory mask mandate in May – one of the first Colorado cities to do so – and added enforcement measures, such as $50 to $500 fines, in November.
Wendt said the council missed an opportunity to support local businesses by dedicating a portion of revenue from the proposed lodgers tax increase to go toward businesses.
“Whether it was a COVID impact fund or not, that should have played a role within that new lodgers tax,” Wendt said. “Because we’re going to see the impacts of this (pandemic) for years to come.”
Considering the years to come, Wendt said economic development starts from the bottom up.
In the long term, the city needs to invest in low- and middle-income earners, transportation, workforce housing, fire mitigation and partnerships focused on mental health and addiction-crisis services, he said.
“It starts with the foundation, which is the working class,” Wendt said. “Yes, our businesses need help, but so do our people. We need to pull our people out of the trenches and embrace a diverse economy.”
Melissa YoussefRegarding economic recovery from the pandemic, Youssef, an incumbent candidate, relied on her experience as the City Council liaison for the restaurant and retail sector group of the La Plata County Economic Recovery Task Force.
“We’ve looked at several different approaches to try to help and support our businesses,” Youssef said. “What is the most important initiative we can do right now to support them? This bump-outs for business program.”
Other businesses have been helped by temporary changes to parking and signage requirements, utility bill relief and business relief grants.
“Those are strategies we will continue to do if resources become available,” Youssef said.
To promote long-term economic development, she focused on the urban renewal authority, real estate opportunities, the creative economy and the airport.
“The most effective tools that we have identified now, that we can implement now to address challenges related to economic development have been the urban renewal authority,” Youssef said.
The city also needs to consider opportunities related to the recently vacated, 81,380-square-foot FIS Worldpay building. The city could try to attract a business for the location, or it could make an offer and leave its downtown facilities to consolidate staff in one space, she said.
The airport and creative economy contribute to economic development and diversification and need the city’s attention, she said.
“The arts and creative economy will ... help us decrease our seasonal fluctuations around tourism,” Youssef said. “We are very focused on tourism. We need to try to moderate that reliance.”