Will All The Real Topophiliacs Please Stand Up?

Originally published August 28, 2017 by The Montrose Daily Press

We’ve all been infected by Topophilia. Some have far more severe cases than others. Defined as a strong sense (or love) of place, topophilia often becomes mixed with the sense of cultural identity among certain people and a love of certain aspects of such a place.

Look around Montrose. You will see new businesses opening and homes being built and sold in rapid succession.  The greater world beyond has “discovered” Montrose and things are pretty good right now. Our economy has finally recovered from the recession and it is a desirable time to be in Western Colorado.

However, what goes up must come down. The market will correct, the economy will again take a downturn, and the question now becomes: Will we have prepared enough during the good times to endure the bad, or will our community suffer many of the same hardships as we did in 2009-2013?

Last Thursday, I traveled to Telluride for a gathering with Gov. Hickenlooper. He and his staff discussed ‘economic resiliency for rural communities’. The presentation was based around a 2016 study completed by CU’s LEEDS School of Business.

As a nerdist of all things economics, I immediately devoured the study upon returning to Montrose. (If you’re interested, Google “CU LEEDS School of Business Economic Resilience Report”. It will be the first hit that comes up.)

The study gathered data from rural communities in Colorado. Its conclusion offered five categories key for (rural communities) weathering the next economic storm:

1.  Quality of Life — Alhough intangible, quality of life and a sense of passion for one’s community are two major driving factors tethering people to any given place. Though many professionals may have superior career options in other areas, often quality of life in smaller rural communities creates a sense of loyalty and rootedness they wouldn’t otherwise have.

We are “winning” in this category as people in Montrose enjoy our naturally breathtaking landscapes and outdoor activities on a daily basis. Yet, this does not give us a “hall pass” for foraging forward in our continual quest for intentional placemaking and overall community improvement.

2.  Industry Diversity- As no great surprise, the study revealed that communities heavily reliant on one industry had economic uncertainty, especially during times of economic downturn. The study sites, “Unlike the metropolitan cities that have employment spread among many different fields of business, many rural communities in Colorado are focused heavily on industries such as mining, energy, tourism, or agriculture. A key theme highlighted by respondents was that to be resilient, the assets and talent within a community must have multiple industries in order stay strong during an economic downturn and have a solid rebound.”

The Montrose Workforce Center reports the following breakdown of Montrose County industry in its 2017 Q3 numbers (only top five categories listed):

• Government — 21 percent

• Retail — 14.5 percent

• Health care — 13.5 percent

• Manufacturing — 8 percent

• Hospitality and Restaurant — 8 percent

Two of these categories (retail and hospitality) are driven by tourism and are also comprised of lower paying jobs. As a community, we can challenge ourselves toward cultivating other more sustainable, higher-paying job categories like technology and manufacturing. Also see point No. 5 below on “untethered” workers.

 3.  Community Leadership — According to the study, community leadership must be forward-thinking and open to change. Aside from quality of life, current leadership in Montrose is one of our strong areas. Over the past five years, these leaders have paved the way for some remarkable community assets and in turn, a renewed mindset. These legacies will last for generations to come.

Our leaders have had vision for the Rec Center, the Water Sports Park, PIC Place, Sharing Ministries, Proximity Space, Columbine Middle School, the new County Events Center, and so much more. Though there still may be a healthy resistance to change in many areas locally, people from both sides of the political fence come together in support of important issues when it really matters.  This cannot be done without superior leadership.

Further, we at the Chamber and the City have identified the need for continual cultivation of these innovative and thought provoking leaders which is why we’ve implemented “Montrose U” (formerly Leadership Montrose) as an effort toward “bringing up” these new leaders and encouraging their voices in the community.

4.  Education and health care- As we are all well aware, quality healthcare and schools are not only imperative in attracting new families and professionals to an area, but they also provide a very large employment base for rural communities. These types of jobs are also more easily maintained during times of economic struggle.

Education and healthcare are both topics far too complex and deserving to cover in a short column. Suffice to say, Montrose like most rural and even urban communities has great education and great healthcare and also has areas in both categories in need of significant improvement.

5.  Transportation Access- The study states, “Another important asset that numerous communities believe contributes to resiliency is transportation, including the proximity to highways, access to rail lines and airports, and public transportation options. Accessible transportation networks allow for easier access to the community for tourists, as well as an indirect impact from those who pass through to nearby destinations. Transportation (especially rail and air) helps create more opportunities for industry in a community as farms are able to export their goods, and convenient transportation is available for their employees.”

The study specifically names Montrose as a model community for our airport and the accessibility it provides for tourism, especially those using our air system for access to Telluride.

 Broadband was also a hot topic of discussion in the Governor’s talk on Thursday.  Many people believe access to broadband is as important as access to electricity and water. As more of the workforce relies on a dependable connection to the Internet for their daily functions, the responsibility rests on the shoulders of the community in providing that connection. Further, studies show nearly 40 percent of today’s workforce is comprised of “untethered” workers, meaning people who can work from anywhere. Broadband will help a community retain these talented and often highly paid workers because many of them choose to live in rural communities for the quality of life (and now we’ve come full circle).

Montrose, specifically the City of Montrose, DMEA (Elevate Fiber), and Region 10 understood this need early on and began taking steps toward implementation of what will soon be known as a “gigabit community.” Better said, all of our citizens and businesses will soon (if not already) have access to fast and affordable high speed Internet. This accomplishment is something that will help sustain our economy and workforce in times of economic challenge.

Many rural communities do not have the advantage of a thriving airport combined with ease of access to broadband. We are leaders in the state and regionally in these areas.

 So here we are, a bunch of topophiliacs…over here just killin’ it in Montrose. Things are thriving, we love our community, and we are excited by what the future holds. The challenge is not what to do now that things are on the upswing, but rather how we come together as a community in preparation for when things aren’t so rosy. And the time is now.

Chelsea Rosty is the executive director of the Montrose Chamber of Commerce and director of business innovation for the City of Montrose. She can be reached at chelsea@montrosechamber.com.