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Director touts new Cortez department to address economic recovery

Rachael Marchbanks, shown in an archived photo, is the head of Cortez’s new Economic and Community Development department. (Journal file photo)
Rachael Marchbanks heads new department

The city of Cortez has formed an Economic and Community Development department to bolster local businesses and stimulate economic recovery after the COVID-19 pandemic.

Rachael Marchbanks is the director of the new department.

“Although there are many directions we can go in, we will need to make sure it is the best direction for the city and its businesses,” she said in an email to The Journal.

The department aims to invigorate a few key areas of development, including:

  • Business retention and expansion.
  • Marketing and attraction strategy.
  • Entrepreneur and small-business development.
  • Real estate development.
  • Finance.
  • Workforce development.
  • Strategic planning.

Marchbanks will serve as the department head for planning, building, code enforcement and event planning, which now fall under economic development.

“The COVID-19 pandemic dealt a devastating economic blow to the Cortez region and revealed critical weaknesses in our area’s ability to withstand disaster,” a news release said.

As a result, businesses are still affected by the “unprecedented and ongoing disruption to the local economy,” the release said.

Marchbanks weighed in on the effect of the pandemic on Cortez in her email.

She referenced business closures initiated in March 2020 and the slowing of oil and gas production in the early months of the pandemic. The oil and gas industry provide more than 50% of Montezuma County’s revenue, she wrote.

She continued to touch on a decline in tourism, which supplies 16% of Montezuma County’s jobs, she said, referencing data from the Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado.

Mesa Verde National Park, about 10 miles east of the heart of Cortez, saw a 48.3% decrease in visitors from 2019 to 2020, she said, referencing 2021 data from the National Park Service.

The decrease from 556,203 tourists in 2019 to 287,477 in 2020 delivered a blow to the tourism industry as thinner crowds visited hotels, restaurants and bars, she said.

As the economy reopened, outdoor enthusiasts and RVs swarmed the area from summer 2020 and through 2021, straining the area’s public lands and workforce, she said. Not all sectors of the tourism industry experienced growth during this period, though, she wrote, as visitors often chose short-term rentals over hotels.

Businesses employed creative solutions to stay open, but according to a 2020 survey from Montezuma County’s Tri-Chambers of Commerce, small retailers couldn’t keep up with the large online marketplace. One-person businesses that provided personal services such as massage therapy lost clientele, she wrote.

“Many residents in Montezuma County have very few financial reserve resources to rely on during a crisis,” she wrote.

In Montezuma County, the median household income is $49,470, compared with the state’s $72,33, according to the latest U.S. Census data. Montezuma County’s poverty rate of 12.9% is higher than the state’s rate of 9%.

Now, as Montezuma County prepares to reenter its tourism season, businesses are short on employees, she wrote.

Home prices in Montezuma County, easier on the pocket than other areas of the state, have become attractive to people who seek sanctuary in more rural setting.

In turn, median home prices climbed, and a shortage of rentals developed, she said.

“We are excited to have Rachael on board to lead Cortez into a new era of growth and prosperity,” said City Manager Drew Sanders in the news release. “Her strong ties in the region and with the county will be a valuable asset. Under her leadership, the economic development department can help protect our area during economic downturns in the future as well as promote business growth in the present.”

Marchbanks previously was the economic development coordinator for the town of Mancos.

She can be reached at rmarchbanks@cortezco.gov.