Senator Cory Gardner's legislative assistant and counsel, Brian Wannamaker, came to Delta May 1 to discuss rural economic development matters with local stakeholders.
Housing was the first subject raised.
Tom Heurkamp, a business owner and vice president of the Delta County Economic Development board, said there is a severe shortage of affordable worker housing, and repairs are needed to the affordable housing that is available. Many people are living in hotels, he said.
Realtor Bert Sibley explained, "It's the market." He said since October 2016 housing has been a seller's market; houses are sold within hours of being listed. People are living in fifth wheels for months because there are no houses to buy. "There is a lack of inventory from Durango to Grand Junction," Sibley said.
Elyse Casselberry, community and economic development director for Delta County, added, "Housing is a challenge. There are no housing starts, no building permits. Development is just not coming to Delta County."
County Commissioner Don Suppes said there is no funding available to attract developers to build housing.
Wannamaker said a banking deregulation bill passed the Senate (and is now in the House) which provides an Opportunity Zone for a number of census tracts which meet economic criteria. The bill's intent is to create a fund to be used as an incentive to invest in an Opportunity Zone and enable a business to move in or a developer to build housing. If the land appreciates in value, the business or developer can sell the property within five years without paying capital gains tax.
Casselberry noted that in Delta County the banks are locally owned and do not have access to capital assistance. Suppes added that local banks have access to some capital assistance, but not enough.
Wannamaker said the bill parallels some of those circumstances. "It will take a little time for that to unwind," he said.
There are several farmers in the area who want to cultivate hemp. Betsy Bair, Senator Gardner's regional director, said both Senator Gardner and Senator Michael Bennet have signed on to legislation to end the restrictions on growing hemp.
She said letters of support from the local community to the senator would be helpful.
Wannamaker said the discussion of ending NAFTA is scary to Senator Gardner. Ending NAFTA would be a serious blow to our economy. Strengthening trade with Mexico and Canada is very valuable to our country.
Casselberry brought up the subject of overlap when a product or program must be reviewed and signed off by many federal agencies for different parts of that product or program.
One attendee said there was an astounding number of permits required, 20 to 30, from the federal and the state on safety and transportation. Why not streamline the process by having one agency in charge of the permit, and the other agencies defer to that agency in charge, she asked.
Wannamaker acknowledged the problem.
Steve Schrock spoke of the importance of water on the economy, citing the Colorado River Compact which deals with drainage upstream and downstream. He said farmers are not planting as many crops as they have historically because there is not enough water.
Bair said Gardner and Bennet are working together on this matter.
She added, "Senator Gardner worked for former Colorado Senator Wayne Allard before becoming a senator himself. He is fully informed and committed on the subject of water."
Jason Cleckler, CEO of Delta County Memorial Hospital, brought up the high cost of health care and insurance.
He said consumers are paying more out of their pockets.
Cleckler said, "We don't value how important health care is to a city like Delta. Having a health care system attracts other businesses and retains businesses. Economic development must include access to health care. Washington needs to be aware of this serious impact.
"Medicare and Medicaid account for 85 percent of patient care at Delta hospital. That is a big impact. Hospitals in rural communities are all running on a negative margin now.
"We have a health crisis, an opioid crisis. We are teetering on the edge," Cleckler said.
Wannamaker said he recognizes that health care and insurance are real concerns.
Those attending expressed their appreciation for Senator Gardner's understanding of rural Colorado, his help in the past, and his continuing concern and actions on behalf of rural Colorado.