Top o’ the World reached out to Laura Puckett Daniels and Richard Evans, the Democratic and Republican candidates for Gunnison’s District 3 county commissioner seat. District 3 represents Gunnison County north of Round Mountain. The two will square off in the midterm election on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Puckett Daniels, who lives in Mt. Crested Butte, is currently the chair of the Gunnison County Planning Commission, as well as the secretary of the School District Accountability Committee. She works at the Crested Butte Nordic Center as the director of marketing and development, and coaches cross country and track up at the Crested Butte Community School.

On her website, Puckett Daniels describes herself as a “community leader in both the nonprofit sector and the schools.”

Laura Puckett Daniels

Evans, a Crested Butte resident, is now retired after three decades of service in the Navy special forces, although he still substitute teaches in the valley. After his military service, Evans went on to work as a safety instructor and a financial specialist.

On his website, Evans writes, “I am running for County Commissioner because I believe in serving our community and working ‘through, by and with integrity’ for our neighbors.”

Rich Evans

In the uncontested primary back in June, Puckett Daniels racked up 1,782 votes, while Evans tallied 1,537.

We asked the two candidates six questions via email, and have presented their respective answers below.

  1. How do you see the role of Western within the greater Gunnison community? How can Western become more integrated within the city and the county?

Laura Puckett Daniels:

I see Western as an essential anchor institution and an amazing asset to the greater Gunnison Valley community. Western’s population of students, faculty, and staff brings energy, expertise, and ideas to every conversation being had in the Valley.

Western’s programming, from concerts to conferences, creates excellent opportunities for the community to engage with students and faculty, and improves our quality of life. Western has served as a convener for a number of summits and coalitions that are tackling big problems in the County, and this role is essential to our ability to move forward, successfully, together.

Additionally, Western provides important research, data, and expertise that helps us understand and solve the problems we are facing. For example, Western has been a key stakeholder in our community’s efforts to protect the Gunnison Sage Grouse.

Western has proven itself essential in helping local residents advance their own interests and career aspirations, as well as creating the educated workforce we need for many professional jobs. Many Western grads go on to become important members of our community, making a difference on everything from our schools to our policies.

I experienced this first-hand. I was able to become a teacher and continue to live in the Gunnison Valley because of Western. I know many other people who have been able to build a life here because of Western’s undergraduate and graduate programs.

I think it is important that folks, up and down-valley, know about Western and celebrate Western. I am excited about the Gunnison Valley Promise, and I hope that it will help more families choose Western and help more students go to college without crippling debt.

While I think Western has done a great job integrating into the community in the city of Gunnison with programs, partnerships, and job opportunities, I see room for growth in how Western engages with folks in the Crested Butte area.

There are opportunities for Western to engage more robustly with up-valley groups, like the Center for the Arts, the Public Policy Forum, and others to broaden the relationships that folks in Crested Butte have with Western’s programs, faculty, students, and staff.

One example of how Western is already doing this is through the “immersion days” that the Outdoor Industry MBA students spend in Crested Butte. These kinds of direct outreach and intentional partnerships would help grow support for Western valley-wide.

Rich Evans:

I believe the role of Western is to continue to educate and develop our young Americans. Integration with the students of Western would be community involvement, whether that be volunteer involvement or students applying and working within our community. 

  1. What is your vision and strategy to address the chronic housing shortage in the Gunnison Valley? What opportunities for collaboration exist in the housing realm between the county, the city, and the university?

Laura Puckett Daniels:

It is important that we address the housing shortage by working collaboratively with all the municipalities, as well as with private businesses and nonprofits. We have a housing needs assessment; the next step is a housing plan that addresses the needs that have been identified.

We need to determine what kinds of housing (apartments, townhomes, single family, etc.) we need, and where it makes the most sense to put them (Gunnison, CB South, CB, etc.). We need to consider innovative ways to create housing so that we are attending to our essential workers, working with businesses to help them catalyze housing, and paying attention to the “missing middle” — those folks who don’t typically qualify for subsidized housing but also cannot attain housing on the open market.

I don’t think it’s the county’s role to provide housing for everyone who wants it, but it is our role to convene stakeholders, to drive planning, and to help our partners find solutions to the housing problem so that they can have essential workers that are the backbone of our community.

We have a fluid flow of people up- and down-valley for work, play, and essential services, so I would like to see the Regional Housing Authority be a leader in convening stakeholders to create a valley-wide housing plan and take action on housing.

I would like to explore the possibility of adding Western and other key stakeholders to the Regional Housing Authority board so that more diverse perspectives are at the table, as well as more resources, ideas, and opportunities.

Collaboration requires a structural commitment: an investment of time, money, and energy, including compromise and bold action. I believe that, together, we can be more efficient in our use of land, human resources, and financial capital, but we need a structure like the RHA to make this happen. 

Through all of these processes, it is essential to have Western as part of the conversations and solutions. The county, the city, and Western can continue to work together to build more housing by capitalizing on opportunities that arise.

This can take a number of different shapes; for example, if Western has land that can be developed, they could contribute the land, the city could commit to providing infrastructure for utilities, and the county could invest some of the linkage fees it collects, so that together they could work to secure a private builder that would then put in the housing.

These kinds of partnerships have already borne fruit in the Paintbrush housing project, and Gunnison Rising is another opportunity where all three could work together to make more housing come online faster than each entity could do alone.

Western is a critical component of any housing collaboration that is established, and so I’d like to see a more formal commitment to this partnership via an organization like the RHA, in addition to other project-by-project collaborations that arise.

Rich Evans:

There is no doubt that there is a huge housing problem in our valley. Property owners that rent need to take the AMI (Average Mean Index) into consideration and try and adjust accordingly. It may be possible that Western subsidizes local parcels when students who are on a low income and qualify for such programs.  

  1. How can we work to retain more of our recent Western graduates, and other young professionals in the community? Going off of that — how can the county best advance sustainable economic development?

Laura Puckett Daniels:

To retain more recent Western grads and other young professionals we need to ensure a diverse housing stock is available as soon as possible. Right now, there are a lot of jobs in the Valley —from service industry jobs to entry level professional jobs to experienced leadership positions.

But even when people have 2-3 jobs, they are having trouble making it work here because the cost of living has gotten so high. If we can provide diverse kinds of housing at attainable prices, we can make a dent on overall cost of living, which can help more young people stay and start their careers here. 

Looking further down the road, I think it’s important to continue to diversify our economy so we’re not solely reliant on tourism. While tourism has created a lot of jobs in the Valley, many of those jobs are low-paying and subject to volatile ups-and-downs in the market. I’d like to start thinking creatively about ways we can make the tourism economy work for everyone.

The County should also continue its work with the ICELab to cultivate local businesses that offer steady, high-paying jobs. I’d like to see us focus on helping existing, locally-owned and operated businesses flourish so that they can provide opportunities for locals, Western grads included, to grow professionally and build a sustainable life here.

The County should also continue its work with its partners to expand telecommunications and broadband infrastructure so that our businesses can function more reliably. Additionally, I think it’s important we talk about how essential childcare is to economic development. We have a shortage of childcare spots in the Valley, and childcare is prohibitively expensive for many families.

These barriers are keeping people out of the workforce and making it harder for businesses to thrive, as well as adding to the pressure working parents face to make ends meet. I am not sure yet what role the County could or should play in supporting opportunities for more childcare in the Valley, but I think it is critical we look into this issue so that we are approaching economic development holistically.

In my opinion, a sustainable economy would be one with a healthy diversity of industries, a robust housing stock with options at multiple price points, and opportunities for individuals to make a sustainable wage. The County is a key partner in working with private industry, nonprofits, and regional partners to facilitate these pillars of a healthy economy.

Rich Evans:

There are people here that are third generation being forced to move due to unaffordable housing. Until this huge problem is tackled I don’t see a solution. Sustainable economic development is there for the taking. It will be those that see their vision and future but it is those that go forth and conquer. 

  1. How can we balance our public lands and growing tourism pressures? How do we best preserve our public lands for the future?

Laura Puckett Daniels:

The County needs to continue the long-standing partnerships with our land agencies, including the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, Colorado Parks and Wildlife, and the National Park Service. These entities have worked together very effectively on issues like the sage grouse and designated camping.

The GORP Act (also known as the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative, or GPLI) is now making its way through Congress, and is a stellar example of how the County, land agencies, nonprofits, and diverse user groups came together to make a plan to better protect our public lands going forward.

We need to continue this robust collaboration as we turn our attention to how to protect our public lands from tourism impacts. The first step is to continue and expand efforts to educate visitors to our county about how to “leave no trace” when they’re recreating.

I think any marketing should also include education about what it means to be a good steward of the land, putting the same energy behind educating visitors as we have put behind getting them to come here.

I’m interested in exploring the idea of reinforcing “priority zones” for recreation — understanding that a majority of visitors go to only a few trailheads or trails, how can we improve those “hot spots” so that they are more resilient to tourism impacts?

This could include paid parking, bathrooms, paving, permits, and shuttles instead of private vehicle access. Thus far, the cost of tourism on our public lands has been borne by the land agencies and local entities.

I’d like to explore ways to ensure that these costs are borne by the users who create the impacts. Being proactive about working with our partners to determine what kinds of uses and numbers are appropriate on our public lands is the only way we’ll be able to strike a balance between the needs of wildlife, ranching, industry, and recreation so that we can protect and enjoy our public lands for many years to come.

Rich Evans:

As County Commissioner, I intend to fight to preserve our public lands with oversight and NOT overreach. I will ALWAYS be on the side of protecting our forest and trails. I know that tourism is growing and that’s great for our valley’s tourist industry however, there are stipulations (which I support) that protect our National Forest and lands. 

  1. How can Gunnison County become a leader on mitigating climate change? What kinds of projects and initiatives would you advance or support to help reduce our county’s emissions? How can Western be involved in these climate efforts?

Laura Puckett Daniels:

Gunnison County has already taken the lead on important efforts to mitigate climate change, though they could and should certainly continue and expand their work in this arena.

The County has been at the cutting edge of green technologies in all of their building projects and their fleet vehicles. 61% of greenhouse gas emissions in Gunnison County come from buildings and 29% from transportation.

The County has tackled this head-on with their own vehicles and buildings. The RTA buses and many other county vehicles have been running on natural gas since 2017, which has reduced greenhouse gas emissions by 900 metric tons annually, and works significantly more efficiently than electric buses in our climate. The new county courthouse is net zero; the renovations to the Blackstock building brought it to net zero. The new airport and library will all be net zero when fully completed.

The county funds the GVHeat program, which helps low-income residences do energy upgrades that make their homes more efficient. The county has taken a strong leadership role in addressing climate change by taking responsibility for its own buildings and transportation’s impacts.

All that said, we can all always do more to tackle the biggest problem of our age. The County has defined climate action goals in their strategic plan, but I think these goals could be updated to be more aggressive and more in-line with what other communities around the state are doing.

I think the County should continue to invest in public transportation, particularly looking at ways to make more routes available and partnering with the municipalities to provide “last mile” transportation.

If we can continue to make the bus system more convenient, then more people will choose public transportation over individual vehicles and greenhouse gasses from transportation will be reduced.

The County has an opportunity to look at revisions to their building code and the Land Use Resolution to promote greener building practices, perhaps with the use of incentive programs for things like replacing grass lawns with drought-resistant native plants or installing solar on your home.

Building housing in and adjacent to our existing municipalities is another important step in addressing climate change. When we prioritize density over sprawl, we conserve natural resources that sequester carbon, while also reducing the environmental footprint of new building projects by tying them into existing utilities and minimizing building materials.

I’d like to see us be intentional about where new housing needs to go and what kind of housing we need so that we are matching the kind of housing we build to the people who need it. In this way, we are reducing the transportation demands and resultant greenhouse gas emissions, while also improving people’s quality of life, because they can spend more time doing what they love and less time commuting. 

I’d like to see the County help convene a Climate Action Committee that is similar to the Sustainable Tourism and Outdoor Recreation Committee (STOR). STOR represents an abiding commitment to collaboration on sustainable tourism, and it has been highly successful at identifying and addressing problems.

I’d like to see a similar, structural commitment to tackling climate action. Then, the County could work deeply and effectively with other entities like the city of Gunnison, the town of Crested Butte, the town of Mt. Crested Butte, Western, GCEA, the RTA, and others to ensure we are leveraging our resources to make the biggest dent in climate change we can. 

Having Western be part of this Climate Action Committee would be essential to its success, and a great way for Western and the County to work more closely on achieving our climate goals. Western could contribute research and expertise, as well as working to make their own buildings and transportation more efficient using technologies that have been proven by the County like ground-source heat pumps.

There are potentially ways that Western could help the whole valley with climate action by providing new technologies, data collection, modeling, and facilities that would be of use to the whole community, whether it’s partnering with the County on methane capture, recycling facilities, a solar farm, or other innovative climate strategies that have not even been conceived of yet.

Western’s robust academic faculty, dedicated staff, and engaged student base is an important asset that could make a huge difference in what climate action looks like valley-wide.

Rich Evans:

Climate change is here and we can mitigate or help by taking public transportation (RTA) more often and utilizing bicycles more often. 

  1. Is there an issue outside of the ones covered above that you believe is particularly important? Why is it important and what is your strategy for tackling your chosen issue?

Laura Puckett Daniels:

This is a thread that has been woven throughout my other answers, but I want to re-emphasize how important I think collaboration is for tackling our most pressing problems. We live in small communities in a remote place. That’s what makes living in Gunnison County so special.

But this also means we simply don’t have all the resources of a bigger metropolitan area. In order to make the most of the resources we do have — in order to take advantage of opportunities that arise, to streamline efforts and reduce redundancy — we need to work together.

The problems we’re facing–housing, a changing climate, and cannot be tackled by one entity alone. I believe we are stronger when we work together and we go farther when we go together. I believe the best solutions aren’t the result of one person, one group, or one party, but are rather arrived at by robust public discussion with a diversity of voices.

While I have proposed a number of ideas and strategies for tackling our problems here, I do not think I have all the answers. I am excited to be able to deepen relationships, expand partnerships, and invite new people into the conversation as a County Commissioner so that, together, we can create the future that we want to live in

Rich Evans:

One of my major concerns is the LUR (Land Utilization Resolution) and its OVERREACH to our Valley patrons. I believe this is important because I don’t believe in OVERREACH but believe in oversight. And our affordable housing is a huge issue but I want to try and help and fix it.