By Robert Kiesnowski

Colorado Senator John Hickenlooper made an unannounced visit to Gunnison on Thursday, Sept. 2, where he and his staff members toured Western Colorado University and spoke with leaders of the Gunnison community. 

Members of the local community in attendance included Western’s Interim President Nancy Chisholm, Gunnison County District 2 Commissioner Jonathan Houck, Stantec Corporate Sustainability Analyst and Gunnison City Councilman Diego Plata, and local business owner Noah Schum of PACT Outdoors, an outdoor bathroom kit company, among others.

Hickenlooper addressed concerns about the state of affairs in the Gunnison Valley and answered questions from constituents, as employees from the ICELab (Western’s business incubator) showed Senator Hickenlooper’s team the University’s various buildings, professional spaces, and commons. Despite the gloomy weather, the meeting was convivial.

Hickenlooper stated that the main reason for his visit was to encourage the introduction of legislation to Congress following the INVEST in America Act being sent to the Senate.

The Colorado Senator is advocating for a budget reconciliation package that would boost America’s infrastructure with an eye towards strengthening the economy. 

In a letter to Democratic colleagues on August 16th, Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Chair Peter Defazio said “The Senate’s Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act falls short on many priorities of the House carried in the INVEST in America Act, including meaningfully addressing climate change.” 

John Hickenlooper
Sen. John Hickenlooper

The proposed reconciliation package would provide investment for infrastructure including the maintenance of roads, energy, education, and internet, among other things. Notably, it would also include plans to reduce carbon emissions. In a virtual town hall on Monday, August 30th, Hickenlooper said “The thing I’d like more than anything is to get a price on carbon.”

And there is certainly a desire to see these policies enacted on a local level. County Commissioner Jonathan Houck wants to see an increase in affordable housing and a thriving economy brought to the local community. City Councilman Diego Plata mirrors Houck’s interests in the development of the community and hopes to attract students to start up their businesses in the Gunnison Valley. 

The business owners in attendance were in agreement with these broad proposals and would like to see funding from the local government going to boost local businesses and expand housing and employment opportunities in the Valley. 

However, On Sept. 1, Gunnison Country Times reported that some business owners were dismayed over the City Council’s proposal to award $75,000 in funding to lure an outside company, the Vermont-based women’s pants company SheFly, to Gunnison, instead of boosting local businesses. 

SheFly participated in ICELab’s Moosejaw Acceleration Program, which aims to boost business development in the outdoor recreation space. An ongoing partnership between the City of Gunnison and the ICELab sees the City give $40,000 to the business development entity, which functions as a subset of the Tourism and Prosperity Partnership (TAPP) program. Further tension between existing local businesses seeking funding to aid expansions and the ICELab’s goal of recruiting outside is likely inevitable.

Relocating SheFly to Gunnison would create an estimated 12 local jobs over the span of two years. However, the apparel company is also fielding calls to relocate to communities in Vermont and Washington State. An excess of Covid-related funding issued to local governments has contributed to a bidding war between localities looking to boast another local business. Further discussion on the SheFly relocation is expected at the Sept. 14 Gunnison City Council meeting.  

On the national level, the proposed infrastructure bill has met stiff resistance in Congress from prominent Democrats such as Joe Manchin, a longtime senator from West Virginia. Manchin released a statement on Aug. 11 rebuking the bill: “Given the current state of the economic recovery, it is simply irresponsible to continue spending at levels more suited to respond to a Great Depression or Great Recession – not an economy that is on the verge of overheating.”

Despite disagreements at the national level, Gunnison leaders are largely in agreement that increased infrastructure spending is needed to address community issues like affordable housing and to continue to grow the local economy by attracting employers. But for now, the fate of national policies that could see significant investment trickle down to the Valley remains in limbo amidst national political divisions.