Unmanned aircraft, a federal courthouse and a beer college are all issues El Paso County residents might be hearing more about in the year to come.

Stan VanderWerf, new District 3 county commissioner, explained those initiatives to a crowd during the Tri-Lakes area’s State of the Region address on Feb. 2 at the Great Wolf Lodge and Resort.

VanderWerf, who was sworn in last month, is commissioner of the western and northwestern portion of the county, including Palmer Lake.

“I’m thrilled to tell you, you have a really well-run county,” VanderWerf assured the audience. “[El Paso County commissioners] run on tight budgets … and they’re also very innovative.”

That innovation, VanderWerf said, was born out of necessity during the most recent recession, and that frugality has carried on even as more resources have become available.

“The economic recovery in the county is healthy,” he said.

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Sales tax collections last year were up 36 percent, compared to 2007. Automobile taxes are up 68 percent over the same period and taxes for building materials — an indicator of growth in real estate, construction and development — are up 136 percent, VanderWerf said.

“Those are really big numbers,” he said. “Since August 2016 through now, [the county has] consistently exceeded budgeted sales tax collection, giving us more flexibility … to expand spending to address issues.”

Regarding some signature projects, there are “unfulfilled requirements” in El Paso County that can be met through the use of unmanned aircraft, VanderWerf said.

“Things like taking overhead images of construction sites and waterways,” he said. “There are other potential uses. [Unmanned aircraft are an] excellent resource for search-and-rescue and also fantastic for fast fuel location for [wild]fires.”

He said the county is in the process of developing a services contract that would allow unmanned aircraft to operate in the region. The contract will be written to allow other public agencies, including towns in the northern reaches of the county, to take advantage of those services.

VanderWerf also explained that Colorado Springs is the largest city in the country without a federal courthouse, another issue he’d like to address during his term. Federal cases now go to Denver, and take with them the ancillary spending that comes with hotel stays and dining out during trials.

“I think it’s time for us to have one,” he said.

Pointing to the state’s $1 billion-plus craft beer industry, VanderWerf also stated he’d like to pursue a beer college in the county.

“There’s no single school offering certification for beer masters,” he said, adding some people currently leave the state for certifications. A school in the Pikes Peak region would attract students from outside the area and could become an economic driver for the county, he said.

‘Exceptionally valuable’

VanderWerf discussed the merits of the northern El Paso County Enterprise Zone, which was reauthorized at the start of 2016.

Intended to boost economically distressed areas, businesses that open in the zone — which makes up a large portion of the Tri-Lakes region — could be eligible for equipment investment tax credits, and credits for new employees, job training and on income taxes.

“Depending on where a business is situated, some of these can be exceptionally valuable,” VanderWerf said.

Terri Hayes, president and CEO of the newly consolidated Tri-Lakes Chamber of Commerce, EDC & Visitor Center, also addressed changes in the northern reaches of the county.

Hayes said it is her organization’s goal to keep the region’s small-town feeling “without becoming stagnant or pushing every bit of green space by the wayside.”

The answer is finding “the middle that works. … Going forward, we’ll help the community find what that middle is,” she said.

In 2017, the Tri-Lakes chamber and EDC will map the primary employers (those who bring in the majority of revenue from outside the region) and partner with them to identify barriers to growth.

The chamber and EDC will also identify industries needed to facilitate smart growth, Hayes said. One example, she said, was the need for senior housing in the region.

“I’ve taken calls from people looking to move here, but didn’t because there wasn’t an assisted living facility for their aging parents,” she said.

And now there’s a facility currently under construction. The Bethesda community will include 60 studio, one- and two-bedroom apartments and will provide assisted living and memory care services. Units are expected to be available in the fall.

Additionally, the chamber and EDC will take on more advocacy positions when there is a notable positive or negative impact on its members, Hayes said.

‘Keep the pressure on’

All the event’s speakers (which also included Palmer Lake Mayor John Cressman and Monument Mayor Pro Tem Don Wilson) discussed the importance of widening Interstate 25 through “The Gap,” the 17-mile, two-lane stretch between Monument and Castle Rock.

The Colorado Department of Transportation announced last month it would expedite the environmental study needed as the first phase. At a press conference in January, Shailen Bhatt, CDOT executive director, said construction could begin as soon as summer 2019 and perhaps be completed by 2021.

“It’s very important for this community,” VanderWerf said. “I’ll tell you with absolute terms that all five of the sworn county commissioners are publicly in support of this I-25 expansion. And the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments has signed a declaration publicly supporting the expansion.”

VanderWerf said the expansion of the interstate will save 1.8 million engine hours of fuel consumption annually, which has both economic and environmental value. He said the widening will also save 2 million labor hours a year, because the state is losing the productivity of 2,000 Colorado citizens annually because of delays on the interstate.

But VanderWerf questions the timeline. He worked at the Pentagon for four years and said the government built the facility in seven months. According to the DoD website, the Pentagon took 16 months to build.

“Anybody who’s telling me that they can’t do it fast — I wonder about that,” he said. “Keep the pressure on as citizens.”

List of Enterprise Tax Zone Credits

• Investment Tax Credit: 3 percent tax credit for business personal property investments.

• Job Training: 12 percent tax credit for training costs for qualified programs.

• New Employee Credit: State income tax credit of $1,100 per net new employee.

• Agricultural Processor: $500 tax credit per net new employee for businesses adding value to agricultural commodities.

• Enhanced Rural EZ: $2,000 tax credit per net new employee.

• Enhanced Rural Agricultural Processor: $500 additional tax credit per net new employee.

• Employer Sponsored Health Insurance: $1,000 per net new employee insured under a qualified health plan.

• Research and Development Tax Credit: 3 percent tax credit for research and development.

• Vacant Commercial Building Rehabilitation: 25 percent credit for the cost of rehabilitating a building that meets criteria.

•Commercial Vehicle Investment Tax Credit: 1.5 percent tax credit for vehicles registered in Colorado and based and used in an EZ.

•Contribution Projects: 25 percent state income tax credit for investors who participate in economic development plans.

— Source: ChooseColorado.com, choosecolorado.com/doing-business/incentives-financing/ez