The sun was scorching and the peaches were ripe as Scott, Rich, and I trekked to Grand Junction to spend two days talking with community leaders, health and human services organizations, and the editorial board of the Grand Junction Sentinel.
The trip served as a fact-finding mission as we develop our 2018 Opportunity Report. We felt honored by how much was shared with us -- both the good and the challenging -- when it comes to economic opportunity in the Grand Valley.
And there are a lot of challenges in Mesa County.
A recent profile in The New Yorker magazine was on everyone's minds. The description of local politics was unflattering, but we were widely told it was accurate.
The area has serious mental health and economic development issues, with suicides more than double the national rate and over half of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. More than 20 percent of households are enrolled in public assistance and there is a palpable anger towards those above the income cutoffs. These challenges are then further compounded by strong feelings of division in the community.
During our first meeting, people were pleased, albeit a bit surprised, to be sitting in the room with community members of different political stripes. It became clear the lack of community connectedness has hindered attempts to find strong solutions for the area and its residents.
Despite the mounting frustration from community members and leaders alike, there is a passionate and growing effort to take action and rebuild community trust. Leaders from different sectors told us they're working together to bridge the gaps they see causing Mesa County’s economic and social challenges. While we heard a lot about what has stopped them in the past, we were excited to hear about how they plan to overcome these disconnects. They see finding common ground, while difficult, as a critical first step to all of the work they aim to achieve in the future.
As we looked across from the Bookcliffs to the orchards to the Colorado Monument, it was hard to hear about the specific struggles of those in the Grand Valley, but it was also incredibly inspiring to see how committed this diverse group of leaders is to building sustainable economic opportunity.
A giant thank you to everyone who hosted us: Jo Lynn Phillips, Bernie Buescher, United Way of Mesa County, and The Grand Junction Sentinel. Thank you for your hospitality and all you shared.