Our view: Embracing a visioning

If you’ve participated in a visioning process, some of you may share our skepticism.

Having suffered through at least a dozen economic development visioning exercises (also known as charrettes) over the last 30 years, we know most have involved an organization that has either 1) no authority but wants to make its constituency or membership feel good by moving pins around on a map or 2) has authority but uses the process to steer “stakeholders” to a pre-determined conclusion in which the pins were placed long ago.

So we had our doubts about Embrace Northern Colorado’s “Shaping Northern Colorado’s Future” workshop, which asked a cross-section of Larimer and Weld county community leaders to explore Northern Colorado’s future — where 1.2 million to 1.5 million people will live by 2050, according to state demographer estimates.

Link to Embrace Northern Colorado’s regional map.

Embrace Northern Colorado, formed in 2008, is a nonpartisan nonprofit group based in Fort Collins.

Eighty people, from lawyers to planners and business people to farmers and environmentalists, gathered on a cold November night in Windsor for two hours and dissected, debated and massaged land-use plans for an area almost three times larger than the state of Delaware. Through no fault of the organizers, the only drawback of the exercise was the unbalanced representation from the population centers — Loveland and Fort Collins.

The gem of Embrace Northern Colorado’s exercise was a regional map assembled by the nonprofit that overlays the comprehensive plans of all Larimer and Weld county municipalities. The first of its kind, at least for this area of the state, the map provides the big picture perspective of how municipalities intend to grow.

Comprehensive plans help communities plan for growth over a period of 20 to 50 years. They consider available resources — water, land — and match them with available infrastructure, transportation, emergency services, schools and open space.

In Ault, for instance, the entire town participated over many months to develop that community’s comprehensive plan.

Coincidentally, Gov. Hickenlooper’s Colorado Blueprint, a “bottom-up” economic development effort started in early 2011, proposes a similar visioning process involving “tens of thousands of Coloradans” to “build the consensus on what the future of Colorado will look like.” The statewide visioning portion of the blueprint is expected to begin in early 2012 and continue for several years.

Although Ault is somewhat of an island at the moment, Town Clerk Sharon Sullivan says that being small doesn’t mean they’re not interested in what’s happening regionally. And Wellington Town Manager Larry Lorentzen said that Wellington wants to have a voice in regional planning, but “Wellington, Larimer County and Fort Collins don’t always see things the same,” he added.

When it’s the small towns versus the big cities, it’s easy to guess who will win.

Overall, we liked Embrace Northern Colorado’s visioning session. So one for twelve isn’t bad (for us).

The key to any future state-funded visioning process — which is the one that matters in terms of how the state will dole out its limited economic development funds — is making sure that small communities are at the table, with equal stature to the population centers.

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