Routt rates high on livabilty report

Routt County is among the most vital and livable "micropolitan counties" in the Rocky Mountain region, according to the findings of a new study produced by Colorado College.

The "State of the Rockies" report gave Routt County an "A" overall -- but the creators didn't hand out straight A's.

Routt County earned exceptionally high marks for the "social engagement of the residents," for being a good place to raise children and for the economic vitality of its small businesses. However, it scored an average mark for its poverty rate and had a low ranking for the rate of growth in earnings per job.

The study, which covered Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, New Mexico, Nevada, Arizona and Utah as well as Colorado, also ranked the county the 11th least affordable in terms of housing costs, State of the Rockies researcher Patrick Holmes said.

The report looked at 280 counties, some of them urban, some rural and some micropolitan. Routt fit into the micropolitan category, which is a federal standard describing counties greater than 2,500 people, but not big enough to be considered urban.

Moffat County earned a "B" grade in the report.

Counties of similar size that earned an A-plus included La Plata and Garfield counties in Colorado, along with Teton, Wyo., Lewis and Clark, Mont., Los Alamos, N.M., and several others.

In addition to Routt, eight other counties received A's. Among them are Pitkin, Montrose and Eagle counties as well as Kane, Utah, and Gallatin, Mont.

The report was developed by Colorado College economics professor Walter Hecox.

Holmes said the team of contributors that undertook the study understand that the eight-state region is far from homogenous. However, in terms of its relationship with the federal government, it is useful and often politically effective to look at the region as one, he said.

Ed Marston, longtime publisher of the High Country News, was one of eight contributors to the report. Holmes said Marston is fond of describing the Mountain West as an internal colony for the rest of the country in terms of resource extraction. Often, the pressure of national politics collides with the region, he added.

The study ranked Routt County ninth among nonmetro counties, and just ahead of Pitkin County, which is home to Aspen, in terms of its ability to grow businesses with fewer than 10 employees. Routt saw the addition of 713 new businesses between 1980 and 2001, according to the report.

The ability of a community to attract small businesses was chosen as a key indicator of economic vitality, Holmes said, because it taps into a strong trend.

"Small businesses are an answer to a need to develop economic resilience and diversity," Holmes said. "Places with a high level of amenities are attracting a highly skilled work force, and a lot of these people are able to choose where they live."

Businesses and individuals will base a decision to relocate to a community on the quality of its schools, the report's creators said. They used public school class sizes and the average expenditure per student to help define the best places to raise children.

Based on a student to teacher ratio of 13.9:1 and average expenditures of $5,743 per pupil, Routt County ranked fourth among nonmetro counties. The highest ranking went to Carbon County, Wyo. Eagle County was the only other Colorado county in the top 10, and it ranked 10th.

Routt County residents were ranked highly in terms of their willingness to participate in finding solutions to local issues.

Hecox's report is based on the assumption that a desirable place to live and work is one in which the residents participate in philanthropy and volunteerism. Based on the number of nonprofit, philanthropic and volunteer-based organizations, Routt County ranked fourth behind Pitkin, Sheridan County, Wyo., and Taos County, N.M.

The study also measured the rates at which agricultural land is being converted to other uses.

"Declining quality and size of farm and ranchland are very visible measures of the changing economic base and quality of life" in the Rockies, the report concluded.

Based on a 28 percent decline in the average size of farms and ranches between 1987 and 1997, coupled with statistics concerning addition of new housing units, Routt County ranked sixth among counties facing the fastest shifting land-use patterns.

Despite high housing costs, Routt County got good marks for its "vibrancy and vitality" because 42.5 percent of the adult population has earned at least a bachelor's degree, it has strong natural amenities and attracts small employers.

The survey gave Routt a composite score of 16.3, well below La Plata and Garfield counties, which ranked first and second respectively with scores of 44.9 and 39.3. Still, Routt was miles ahead of dozens of other counties in the Mountain West including 27 that received D's and 28 that were pinned with F's.

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