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Broadband funding bid denied

The chance for more than 40 new high-paying permanent jobs (and an additional 400 temporary jobs), as well as a massive technology upgrade in the Four Corners area, appears to have slipped away as the U.S. Commerce Department announced Monday that a company seeking to locate in southwest Colorado would not be awarded $27 million in stimulus funds.

The company, Southwest Colorado Broadband (SWCBB), announced this summer that it would pursue money allocated from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, part of $7.2 billion set aside in the stimulus package by the Obama administration, to develop broadband Internet infrastructure in unserved and underserved rural communities.

In early August, SWCBB announced it would seek ARRA funds for expanded broadband Internet services throughout the Four Corners area, much to the dismay and opposition of existing Internet Service Providers (ISPs), as well as La Plata County commissioners, the Durango city manager and the Bayfield town council.

However, other businesses in southwest Colorado provided letters of support for the SWCBB proposal, as did various other local governments — including the Archuleta County Board of County Commissioners, the Pagosa Springs Town Council and the Pagosa Springs Community Development Corporation (CDC).

Had SWCBB been awarded the ARRA funds, Pagosa Springs was one of two locations where the company had proposed locating a large data center along with 42 support jobs for the enterprise. Cortez was also listed as a possible location.

However, CDC Executive Director Steve Vassallo said that Monday’s Commerce Department decision was not the end of the story and that the CDC would work with SWCBB in attempt to secure additional funding.

“I’ve been talking to Michael McHale (the CEO at SWCBB) and we’re looking into other ways to make this happen,” Vassallo said Tuesday.

How the CDC intends to pursue, with SWCBB, anything close to $27 million in additional funding remains murky. Unwilling to give up on a project that could have had a significant economic impact on Archuleta County, the CDC appears willing to go to some lengths in order to sustain a project that, for all intents and purposes, has stalled at the starting line.

The CDC has reason to grasp at whatever straws have been offered. With commercial properties currently at a 60-percent vacancy rate, countywide unemployment hovering near 9 percent and sales tax revenues remaining well below 2008 levels, the town and county face an economic climate that is anything but vibrant.

Furthermore, with the recent closing of the downtown City Market, another downtown restaurant closing and the imminent closure of First Southwest Bank’s downtown location, the core area of Pagosa Springs is at a distinct risk of appearing to be a shuttered ghost town.

Although Vassallo reported two weeks ago that a “large grocery retailer” had approached the CDC regarding a downtown location, he announced at last week’s CDC meeting that the retailer’s “initial market study was not favorable,” indicating that a new grocery store in the core Pagosa Springs area was not going to make good financial sense for that company.

At press time Wednesday, however, Vassallo reported that he would be “meeting with another grocery prospect ... in Durango,” today.

All was not doom and gloom at the CDC’s board meeting. Without releasing many details, Vassallo indicated that several prospects were looking at the area as a potential new location for their businesses. Indeed, Vassallo expressed optimism for a new start-up dealing in sport apparel that was “very interested” in setting up shop locally. Vassallo added that two more prospects had recently expressed interest in establishing businesses in the area.

Beyond enticing businesses to develop store fronts in the area, Vassallo reported that Janice Moomaw had been working diligently with several Nashville music industry players in order to create a two- to three-day Nashville songwriter’s festival and symposium.

As Vassallo described the potential event, Nashville songwriters and musicians would compete for prizes and recognition by performing at the venue on Reservoir Hill. Furthermore, several locations throughout town would also host workshops and symposiums for musicians and songwriters.

Vassallo said that, if the pieces fall into place, the event would most likely make its debut next July.

“That’s a ball that’s in motion,” Vassallo told the board.

Yesterday, Vassallo told SUN staff, “I’m really encouraged about this. This could really turn into a real world-class event.”

Vassallo indicated that Nashville representatives would visit during the first week in November to further investigate the possibility of Pagosa Springs hosting the (hopefully) annual event.

Nevertheless, the 800-pound gorilla remains that more businesses are moving out of the area than are moving in. More than that, the biggest hope for new jobs and new industry to appear for quite some time — the proposed SWCBB project — looks to be dead on arrival. Although Vassallo hopes to meet with McHale next week in Denver and determine the next course of action, hopes for expanded broadband in the region seem to have dwindled with Monday’s announcement.

Helping SWCBB move forward with some part of its project, as well as securing necessary funding, will require bold thinking on the part of the CDC. Positioning Pagosa Springs as a viable place to conduct business, while more and more storefronts see padlocks and boarded windows, will require not just bold thinking, but a creative and determined approach in order to convince potential investors that the town is indeed open for business.

jim@pagosasun.com