Economic Resilience Program could bring workforce training, research center to Grand
A nonprofit is asking Grand to support a program that could diversify local jobs and innovate wildfire mitigation in the county.
On Tuesday, two representatives of the Wireless Research Center outlined the ambitious Grand County Digital Economic Resilience Program before county commissioners. There are three related projects at the heart of this proposal from Wireless Research Center, a nonprofit focused on “technosocial” solutions to create jobs and improve communities.
The Grand County Broadband Workforce Development Center is one part, which will be a training program for digital career paths. The Advanced Mobility Collective ForestTech Center is the second part and will focus on forest management and wildfire mitigation through an integration of existing technologies.
The third part, the Connected Communities Open Access Network, will act as a backbone for the other two projects by expanding broadband access in the county.
Matthew Bauer, executive director of Connected Communities, and Todd Spain, executive director of Advanced Mobility Collective, gave a proposal that focused on the first two parts on Tuesday.
The Broadband Workforce Development Center would provide residents training for digital career paths and work with existing businesses to train current personnel.
“This is an opportunity to create higher paying jobs and bring more companies and more of a year-round economy to the county,” Spain explained over the phone Wednesday.
Spain explained that more than a million technology jobs went unfilled last year in the US. Most of these jobs can be done remotely, including in Grand.
The Wireless Research Center projected that, in 10 years, the broadband workforce training would create $368 million in new wages, bring 46 new businesses, and increase the current workforce by 30%.
The ForestTech Center would integrate technology for a number of stakeholders in forest management — from land managers to FEMA to local partners. Spain outlined the challenges firefighters faced during the East Troublesome Fire, like the difficulty of seeing the fire through the ash and smoke and the struggles with communications in such a remote area.
In partnership with Ben Miller, director of the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, the ForestTech Center would work to create solutions to these types of problems.
“Nothing new needs to be invented, it just needs to be integrated and deployed,” Bauer said to commissioners. “That really hasn’t been done before.”
The group is asking Grand County to contribute $250,000 for each of these two projects, or a half-million dollars total. Spain and Bauer said they believe the county’s money could be reimbursed through the American Rescue Plan.
Grand County government received a total of $2.8 million from the most recent COVID-19 relief bill, which has a number of stipulations for how it can be spent.
Because the project invests in the local workforce and broadband infrastructure, the group felt that the county could reasonably invest in this project using federal dollars. The American Rescue Plan is complex and still fairly new, so the county finance director wasn’t quite sure that would work.
Commissioners agreed that further due diligence is needed to make sure that the spending would qualify.
Bauer explained that financial backing and support from the county is necessary to get the projects off the ground. Specifically, the group believes the county’s contribution could leverage millions more dollars for the ForestTech Center from places like FEMA, NASA and a number of interested corporate partners like insurance companies.
The group wants the ForestTech Center to make Grand a place where fires are mitigated sustainably through the integration of smart technologies, and Bauer thinks this could be the first of many similar programs.
“Everybody in the world is going to want to take a copy of that and put it in their county to do X, Y or Z,” he said.
The enormous undertaking has been years in making, and Economic Development Coordinator DiAnn Butler explained why the time is right for this project.
“I think one of the biggest challenges I’ve seen in my 11 years here is diversification. Creating primary jobs is a real challenge,” Butler said. “We have a unique opportunity here — that will be this window of opportunity due to COVID really — that we’re able to leverage other funds.”
Commissioner Merrit Linke felt the project made a lot of sense for Grand, not just because of last year’s fire season, but because of county’s unique challenges and location.
“We’re so tourist driven and that is a little fickle,” Linke said. “It’s not always as sustainable as we’d like it to be sometimes.”
Butler explained how diversifying the economy could help with housing in Grand by using the example of a two-person household. One person could work in the tourism industry but have the support of a spouse with employment not reliant on the uncontrollable factors that make a good or bad season.
“When we start talking about affordability of living here, some of the ways we can start balancing that is creating diversification and primary jobs,” Butler said.
Bauer said that both projects are ready to go except for the kickstart funding requested from the county and local towns.
As proposed, the broadband workforce center would have a $1.17 million first year budget with a big portion of those funds expected from the Economic Development Administration and corporate donors following county and town support.
For the first phase of the ForestTech Center, the group has budgeted $500,000 with half of that coming from the county, a quarter from towns and the last $250,000 from corporate partners. In the first phase, the plan is to secure $10 to $20 million in additional federal funding for the project.
The group added that it would be willing to provide regular updates to the county on the project as it moves along.
County commissioners directed staff to review the plan for funding to ensure that this project is something the American Rescue Plan could cover. An answer could come as early as next week following further discussions.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated with the correct name of the Wireless Research Center.
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Evidence of the destruction of the East Troublesome Fire is clearly visible just across the road of the Grand Lake Lodge, yet the flames never touched the building thanks to the dedication of the fire…