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CDC selects executive director

With the deadline close at hand for bringing an executive director on board, the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation has filled the position with a candidate who appears to have extensive economic development experience and a long list of accomplishments in that area.

On Tuesday, Steve Vassallo signed a contract with the CDC to take the position as executive director. Vassallo is currently the CEO and owner of Global Colors of Economic Successes, “a full service economic development consulting business that considers projects worldwide.”

Furthermore, Vassallo is also the president of the Scandinavian American Economic Alliance which, according to the website www.scandinavianamericaneda.org is “Regional and Global Business Development between the South Central Region of the United States of America and the Scandinavian Counties of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden.”

Vassallo’s experience in economic development stretches back 23 years. A graduate from the University of Mississippi and the Economic Development Institute at the University of Oklahoma, Vassallo was the executive director of the McMinn County, Tenn., Economic Development Authority (EDA) before becoming president of the Madisonville, Ken., EDA. Vassallo went on to become the president of the McKinney, Texas, EDC before taking concurrent positions as the president of the Madison County, Miss. EDA and president of the Madison County Development Foundation. Prior to his current endeavors, Vassallo worked as an economic development specialist with the Austin, Texas, economic development consulting firm Johnson and Associates.

According to the CDC board, Vassallo was unanimously the first choice after an arduous selection process.

By late April, the CDC had secured 95 applications and had started the vetting process for those applications. With the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners having pledged $30,000 as well as staff time to the CDC, County Administrator Greg Schulte and County Special Projects Manager Karin Kohake sifted through the nearly eight dozen applications to narrow the candidate selection to an even dozen.

According to Commissioner and CDC board member John Ranson, a few applications were taken from local residents, with many more coming from throughout the state and others from various parts of the country.

Among the finalists were Jan Rogers from Twin Falls, Idaho, executive director of the Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization; Deana Sheriff from Delta, Colo., executive director of Delta Area Development, Inc.; and Keely Whittington from Pagosa Springs, co-owner of The Springs Resort and board member for the Town Tourism Committee.

“The board really came together and became the team they needed to be,” said Kohake, regarding the selection process.

The CDC was formed in late January after months of discussions regarding economic development in the area. For over 20 years, economic development had been spearheaded by the Archuleta Economic Development Association (AEDA), but by late 2009, some town and county officials, along with some AEDA board members, voiced impatience with the lack of direction and results from the AEDA.

With the resignation of AEDA Executive Director Bart Mitchell in mid-October last year, local officials wondered whether hiring a replacement for Mitchell would be necessary with the future of the AEDA in question. By early 2010, the AEDA board voted to dissolve the AEDA and replace it with a CDC.

The CDC differs from the AEDA in a number of ways. With the CDC, the focus on economic development is broader, as it is designed to create or provide the infrastructure, services and amenities that are not usually the concern of private business, corporations or local governments. For instance, by drawing on revenue provided by grants and investors, the CDC could (among other things), fund commercial development, affordable workforce housing, job training, etc., while providing a return on investment.

On the other hand, the AEDA had, over the past several years, merely provided business mentoring and commissioned studies on “Lone Eagles and High Flyers” as they pertain to the local economy.

Another difference is that, while the AEDA relied solely on funding from local governments, membership dues and donations from year to year, the CDC should be self-sustaining (from grants and investments), actually producing a profit within the first few years of operation, with returns going to investors (as dividends) or reinvested back into the community.

Finally, the structure of the organizations illustrates differences in funding mechanisms between the AEDA and the CDC. Due to differences of tax-exempt status (the AEDA was a 501(c)(6) while a CDC can, by definition, have 501(c)(3) status), the CDC has latitude to apply for grants, with all donations to the corporation being tax-deductible. Conversely, the AEDA could not apply for grants and, while membership dues could be written off as a business expense, donations were not tax deductible.

With the CDC formed and a board selected, the group began its search for an executive director in late February, posting the available position on several websites and in newspapers. Although the two-year contract is dated June 7, Vassallo won’t start until Aug. 2.

Vassallo said, “I can’t wait to get started and hit the ground running. I think it will be a thrill to promote an area that beautiful.”

Among his first tasks, Vassallo said, will be determining the direction of the CDC. “If the board agrees,” he said, “in the first two weeks I want to conduct a community assessment to set up a five-year strategic plan.”

Vassallo also said that he desires to examine the importance of education in the area. “I place a great deal of emphasis on that,” he said, regarding the ties between the quality of education in an area and its effects on economic development. ”I’ll be working closely with the schools and local universities.”

In fact, in his position as president of the Madison County, Miss., EDA and president of the Madison County Development Foundation, Vassallo partnered Tulane University with Madison for an endeavor that brought the town an estimated $8.3 million in economic benefits during the first year of that partnership. Vassallo said he would be looking to initiate a similar scheme in Archuleta County.

Nevertheless, Vassallo stated he was prepared to meet the economic challenges facing Pagosa Country. “I’m just extremely excited about this, to say the least,” Vassallo said.

The CDC will formally announce Vassallo’s appointment as executive director at its 3 p.m. June 7 meeting. Meetings are currently held every Monday at 3 p.m. in the CDC offices, located at 2800 Cornerstone Drive, upstairs in Suite B-1 (the office building across from Sears in Aspen Village). The public is welcome to attend all CDC meetings.

jim@pagosasun.com