Economy & Economic Development  November 5, 2010

Group to embrace better future for region

By 2050, it’s projected Northern Colorado will have almost 1 million more residents than it does now.

With looming potential water shortages, transportation gridlock and an uncertain jobs outlook in a rapidly growing region, the future can appear grim.

But there’s a group of Northern Colorado residents who are stepping up to try to steer the course toward a brighter future, and they’re looking for others committed to preserving and improving the region’s quality of life for generations to come.

It’s called Embrace Northern Colorado, and its overriding mission is to find that path to a better future through regional planning and cooperation.

John Daggett, Embrace Northern Colorado’s executive director, said the non-partisan, nonprofit organization’s goal is about moving the region forward together while preserving the identities of its communities that make them distinctive.

“There’s things to celebrate about every community in Northern Colorado,” he said. “This undertaking is trying to move everyone forward in a positive way.”

Daggett, a former planner with the North Front Range Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Embrace Northern Colorado is a spinoff of the MPO.

“The reason they spun us out is the MPO can’t do it all,” he said. “All they can do is transportation. They can’t look at water and housing and health care and all those things.”

Daggett said the model for Embrace Northern Colorado is Envision Utah, an effort that focused initially on improving Utah’s transportation system along the foot of the Wasatch Mountain range where 85 percent of the state’s population lives.

That effort is credited with helping to provide – through two broadly supported sales tax increases – a light-rail transit system that improved transportation and reduced pollution.

Daggett said the key to Envision Utah’s success was a broad consensus of citizen and interest groups behind common values.

“Government wasn’t the key to the process for them,” he said. “I think it was the citizens and business and environmental interests that got together and pushed for it.”

Diverse board

One of the first goals of Embrace Northern Colorado was to assemble a strong and diverse board of directors to lead it. Angela Milewski, a planner for BHA Design Inc. in Fort Collins, is one of two co-chairs.

“I’m a planner and I place great value in planning for where we’ll be in 30 to 40 years,” she said. “Taking that high-altitude view of where we’re headed in the next few decades is critical for making appropriate decisions today.”

Milewski said Embrace Northern Colorado is not just about transportation planning. “It’s about determining what are the common values we have as a region,” she said. “We tend to focus on our differences, but I personally think we share more common values in Northern Colorado than we have differences.”

John Coppom develops property through the Del Camino Junction Development Corp. and serves as the board’s treasurer. Coppom said Embrace’s effort will have to overcome political boundaries and petty jealousies.

“Cities and counties want to defend their own territory and it’s very hard for them to reach across boundaries and do what has to happen, which is regional planning,” he said.

Coppom noted that Envision Utah had “an incredible task” to overcome the divisions of 78 towns and counties to reach a consensus on issues.

“But when they sat down and started to plan, their borders started to disappear,” he said. “They decided their No. 1 problem was smog, and they ended up with a regional transportation system.”

Failure and success

In 2008, local governments in Northern Colorado tried yet again to create a Regional Transportation Authority that would help plan and fund a regional transportation system to relieve growing transportation congestion.

That effort – like several others before it – failed after government officials could not agree on how the RTA should be structured or funded. When the city of Fort Collins dropped out of the RTA process, other potential participants soon followed suit.

Doug Hutchinson, Fort Collins mayor, said he’s a strong believer in regional cooperation and planning but that the last RTA effort lacked the same things all previous efforts lacked: a clear vision of what each participant could get from it.

“These kinds of efforts can only succeed if every participant believes their interest is protected and that it’s to their benefit to be involved,” he said. “It didn’t fit for Fort Collins because it did not meet those conditions for the city.”

But Hutchinson noted that regional cooperation can work. He cited the recent cooperative effort to build a new overpass at Colorado Highway 392 and Interstate 25 as an example. “We worked really hard to cooperate with Windsor on that interchange,” he said. “There’s an example of regional cooperation for two cities with mutual interests. We won a $20 million grant for that interchange because we showed regional cooperation. It’s a challenging thing and takes a lot of effort, but it can be done.”

Glen Vaad, Embrace’s vice chair and a state representative from House District 48 in Weld County, said he understands there are strong local philosophical differences that need to be overcome. “We realize there’s a difference in philosophies between Larimer County and Weld County – particularly in Fort Collins – in how we accept or reject growth,” he said. “But we need to figure out what we can agree on and move forward in a positive way.”

Vaad said real progress won’t happen, however, until nonpolitical groups get behind regional planning and cooperation. “You’ve got to get the people telling local officials this is needed,” he said.

“The state demographer tells us 1 million more people are coming by 2050,” Vaad added. “Just to sit back and let that happen is not the way to go. We want our kids and grandkids to stay here and not leave because we’ve created a mess.”

Embrace Northern Colorado is now working to find potential leaders who “are innovative, collaborative and committed to moving the region forward.” A survey is being conducted by researchers at Colorado State University and the University of Northern Colorado to find a “core group” of candidates from both counties.

Candidates identified by the survey will have the opportunity to serve on a regional task force next year to make recommendations about the future of Northern Colorado.

Daggett said it’s important to remember what Embrace Northern Colorado is not trying to do or be.

“It’s not a run at another RTA,” he said. “There’s no interest in a tax initiative at all. It’s not government and it’s not regulation or ordinances and that sort of thing. We’re not trying to control anything or direct toward any outcome. But together, I think we can create something that’s pretty wonderful.”

By 2050, it’s projected Northern Colorado will have almost 1 million more residents than it does now.

With looming potential water shortages, transportation gridlock and an uncertain jobs outlook in a rapidly growing region, the future can appear grim.

But there’s a group of Northern Colorado residents who are stepping up to try to steer the course toward a brighter future, and they’re looking for others committed to preserving and improving the region’s quality of life for generations to come.

It’s called Embrace Northern Colorado, and its overriding mission is to find that path to a better future through regional…

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