Economic Resilience Program could bring workforce training, research center to Grand

Matthew Bauer and Todd Spain of the Wireless Resource Center presented a proposal for Grand County’s Digital Economic Resilience program to commissioners on Tuesday. The program consists of three related projects including a Broadband Workforce Development Center, a ForestTech Center and an Open Access Regional Network.
Presentation slide for the Grand County Commissioners

A nonprofit asks Grand to support a program that could diversify local jobs and innovate the county’s forest fire fighting.

On Tuesday, two representatives from the Wireless Resource Center unveiled Grand County’s ambitious digital economic resilience program to district commissioners. At the heart of this proposal from Wireless Resource Center, a nonprofit that focuses on “techno-social” solutions to create jobs and improve communities, are three related projects.

The Grand County Broadband Workforce Development Center is part of this, a digital career path training program. The Advanced Mobility Collective ForestTech Center is the second part and will focus on forest management and forest fire containment by integrating existing technologies.

The third part, the Connected Communities Open Access Network, will act as the backbone for the other two projects by expanding broadband access in the district.

Matthew Bauer, Executive Director of Connected Communities and Todd Spain, Executive Director of Advanced Mobility Collective, made a proposal Tuesday that focused on the first two parts.

The Broadband Workforce Development Center would provide digital career path training to residents and work with existing companies to train current staff.

“This is an opportunity to create higher paid jobs and bring more businesses and a year-round economy to the county,” Spain said on Wednesday on the phone.

Spain said that over a million technology jobs remained unfilled in the US last year. Most of these tasks can be done remotely, including in Grand.

The Wireless Resource Center predicted that in 10 years, broadband workforce training would generate $ 368 million in new wages, 46 new businesses, and increase the current workforce by 30%.

The ForestTech Center would integrate technologies for a range of stakeholders in forestry – from land managers to FEMA to local partners. Spain outlined the challenges firefighters face during the East Troublesome Fire, such as the difficulty of seeing the fire through the ash and smoke, and the difficulty of communicating in such a remote area.

Working with Ben Miller, the director of the Colorado Center of Excellence for Advanced Technology Aerial Firefighting, the ForestTech Center would work to develop solutions to these types of problems.

“Nothing new has to be invented, just integrated and implemented,” Bauer told the commissioners. “That has really never happened before.”

The group is asking Grand County for $ 250,000 for each of these two projects, or a total of $ half a million. Spain and Bauer said they believe the county’s money could be returned through the American bailout plan.

The Grand County’s government received a total of $ 2.8 million from the latest COVID-19 relief bill, which includes a number of provisions on how it can be spent.

Because the project invests in local labor and broadband infrastructure, the group felt that with federal funding, the county could reasonably invest in this project. The US bailout is complex and relatively new, so the county finance director wasn’t entirely sure it would work.

The commissioners agreed that further due diligence is needed to ensure that the expenditure is eligible.

Bauer explained that financial support and support from the county were necessary to get the projects off the ground. In particular, the group believes the county’s contribution could raise millions more 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 sustainably mitigated through the integration of smart technologies, and Bauer believes this could be the first of many similar programs.

“Everyone in the world will want to take a copy of this and put it in their county to do X, Y, or Z,” he said.

The huge undertaking took years 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. Main job creation is a real challenge, ”said Butler. “We have a unique opportunity here – this will really be this window of opportunity due to COVID – that we will be able to use other means.”

Commissioner Merrit Linke felt the project made a lot of sense for Grand, not only because of last year’s fire season, but also because of the unique challenges and location of the county.

“We’re so touristy, and that’s a bit moody,” said Linke. “It’s not always as sustainable as we sometimes want it to be.”

Using the example of a two-person household, Butler explained how diversifying the economy could help with living in Grand. A person could work in the tourism industry but have the support of a spouse who is not dependent on the uncontrollable factors that make up a good season or a bad season.

“When we start talking about the affordability of living here, some of the ways we can balance that are by creating diversification and primary jobs,” Butler said.

Bauer said both projects are operational except for the kickstart funding requested by the county and local cities.

As suggested, the Broadband Manpower Center would have a budget of $ 1.17 million for the first year, with much of that funding expected from the Economic Development Administration and corporate donors following support from the county and city.

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 the cities, and the last $ 250,000 from corporate partners. In the first phase, US $ 10 to 20 million additional federal funding will be secured for the project.

The group added that they are ready to provide regular updates to the county as the project progresses.

District commissioners instructed staff to review the funding plan to make sure this project is something that the American bailout plan could cover. An answer could come as early as next week after further discussion.

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