Small Town Leaders: Paul Chavoustie, Mayor of Granby, Colo.
If you want good local leaders, look for the people who finish projects, not just start them, says the mayor of Granby, Colorado, a small town in the Rockies. In our series on small-town leadership, Paul Chavoustie shares how the drive to succeed in the private sector blends with the community vision of the public sector.
Paul Chavoustie looked at Granby, Colorado, and saw potential – lots of it.
Open retail space downtown, a central location that created a natural flow of people and the potential business, and good weather (“only” 190 inches of snow a year – half the rate of some communities in surrounding Grand County, located in the Rockies).
After years of managing complex development projects, Chavoustie was drafted to run for mayor. In making the decision to run, he asked himself, “What do I do to bring this town? … I didn’t want just painting the streetlights and making better sidewalks, or signage, or branding. There had to be something bigger that would help fuel the town to solve affordable housing, to solve senior housing, to solve jobs, economic development.”
Community development specialist Hrishue Mahalaha interviewed Chavoustie about his public service. Success starts with laying out a vision that the community can get behind, Chavoustie said.
Hrishue: So I guess let’s start with the really big question. Who is Paul Chavoustie?
Paul: Well, I grew up in a small town in upstate New York, and I grew up in an entrepreneurial family. Started working 70, 80 hour weeks when I was 13 years old, just in a family business, and by choice of course. We did great things. It was actually my brother, and my older brother and sister, and we grew a business. We started with a real small marina, and grew it into a large marina and yacht club owned by my brother, but my sister and I were a support team to him and learned a lot about business at a young age. A lot of those skillsets I put into practice here.
Hrishue: That is awesome. Grew up in an entrepreneurial household, working hard. Where was this?
Paul: This was in Watertown, New York, is where I’m from.
Hrishue: Watertown, okay. Growing up on the east coast, and then you make your way to Colorado. How did that happen?
Paul: I wanted sunshine, mountains, a blue sky, and a cousin of mine called me, and I was in my young 20’s, and said, “Hey, I’m moving to Denver. You wanna come?” And I was like, “What’s it like?” He shared a little bit, and I was like, “I’m in.” I moved out here in ‘87 to Denver, and ended up moving west. I moved to Boulder for a period of time, and then to Evergreen, and then came to Grand County in 1997 with my girlfriend at the time, and got married, and then raised four kids up here.
Hrishue: That is awesome. And Granby’s happy to have you.
Paul: It’s fun, I like it.
Hrishue: Okay, so give us a sense for your professional career. What was the pathway that led you into public service?
Paul: When I first got to Grand County I had been doing some real estate back East with the family businesses, and then I ended up getting into real estate with a turn-around expert. We worked from New York all the way down to Florida, taking over failed developments and turning them around. I was actually a painter and met this guy painting the units that he was turning around, and said, “Hey, do you wanna join a sales team?”
When I moved out here, I said, “I’m going to get into real estate,” and when I went to Grand County I actually got my real estate license in Colorado for the first time in, again, in ’97 in Colorado. First weekend sold a house, second weekend sold a house. It just took on this momentum, and then I got put in charge of development project. It was just something I really grew to love and appreciate, how you take a flat piece of land and turn it into something creative and useful. The projects we’ve done have had lots of open space, about 60% or more open space, and trails, and paths, and creative and happy, healthy environments. That’s been the rewarding part, is to see stuff come out of the ground.
Hrishue: Successful developer, and then the transition to public life. What prompted, obviously you’re enjoying that life, how did that transition happen?
Paul: Well, I still do real estate. This is, the mayor position is a very small pay, almost a volunteer kind of position. I had people in the community come to me, and they said, “Boy, we saw what you did with that old gravel pit. You turned it into this award winning cabin on a river community.” I guess they watched me over the years, and I had no direct motive to be the mayor. I had served on a planning commission for a number of years, but essentially community leaders, if you will, came to me and said, “You need to take your vision of how you turn things around,” I also did corporate turn arounds during the downturn; I was recruited in as vice president of five companies that were all circling the drain. We turned them all around and successfully either sold them off or got them healthy and running. We added employees, we added 70 new employees during the downturn. We won the governor’s award for Company of the Year to Watch in Colorado.
People had heard about that, and seen that, and said, “Please be our mayor.” There were two other guys running for mayor that actually knew a lot more people. I’m kind of a … feel like I’m quiet enough, don’t seek public attention and all that fun stuff, but other people knew more people, but I felt what I did was lay out a vision for the town. I feel like that’s what people gravitated towards.
Hrishue: Okay, so you’re stepping into the public sector. You’re seeing a need. You’re laying out a vision, and it sounds like the community lacked that. What was your vision for the community? What did you see was a gap?
Paul: I looked at Granby from a business prospective, and a quality of life perspective. Number one, Granby is a drive through community, but if people stop and look around, all of a sudden they’ll stay. When I first moved here I lived in Grand Lake, which is up the road, 16 miles, and I worked in Winter Park, which is on the other end of the county. I kept driving through Granby, and the thing that I noticed about Granby was it was central in the community, and I also noticed it just had better weather. We’re up here in the Rocky Mountains, and Granby has 190 inches of snow per year, and Grand Lake’s 350, and Winter Park’s 311. Something like that, so there’s a lot … There’s more sunshine here, it’s more centrally located. This is where the schools are. I just had a, I started to develop an appreciation for Granby, and then ended up buying property in the town.
Hrishue: From a vision perspective, you saw this community being able to capitalize its unique geography, weather, and become the central hub for the Grand County region. Is that right?
Paul: Yeah, exactly. I felt like Granby was always undervalued and unrepresented, if you will. It had this beautiful surrounding, but downtown, I would say at the time, it’s been 40 to 50% occupancy in downtown businesses. Yet they have pretty good traffic counts, again we’re in a beautiful area, but it didn’t have, I didn’t feel like it had a leadership that created a vision for the town. Right down to the branding. I mean, we’ve changed our branding. We’ve gone back to a neat, old Western, barn wood and iron signage, and timber and posts, where other people were trying to add too much into the marketing efforts. With my turn around experience, we know that clear messaging is really important.
It was to develop a clear message for Granby, and to talk about who Granby is, and we’re the hub, and we’re an incredibly beautiful area, and the downtown needed a boost. Literally, right after the election, I saw these businesses that weren’t taking advantage of, there’s roughly $70,000 to $80,000 of grant money that sat there for 10 years, and nobody had ever used the paint grants, the sign grants, the different things available to businesses. I went to those business owners and said, “Why aren’t you using the paint grant?” [And they said,] “There’s a paint grant?” “Well, we don’t like to fill out paperwork,” Or, “We don’t have the matching funds.” Then, if they had matching funds, the grant only covered material, not labor. They didn’t have the money to fund the labor.
I actually got deputized as a sheriff’s deputy and guys from the county, and created a community program. We went and cleaned up five different downtown properties. I was out there, filling up U-Haul’s with the trash, and then, I don’t know if I want to call them prisoners or whatever, but the guys, they didn’t have experience. I’m like, “C’mon, I’ll show you how to run a paint sprayer. This is how you prep, and this is how you do this.” We literally went around and did five new facades within a very short period of time, and we made the grant a non-matching grant. We had a window, if you approve your business from August 1st to October 1st, there’s no [requirement to match the grant money with local funds].
We saw capital that was sitting there, it was stagnant, it was always available but nobody came to it. We helped people fill out applications. We went out, we went to them and made it easy to access that money.
Hrishue: Got it. It’s really fascinating, the story, because obviously, if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you?
Hrishue: Okay, so you’re relatively young for being a mayor, you have incredible private sector experience, you seem like a guy that when you see an opportunity, you just roll up your sleeves and go after it. In some combination of those experiences orientation, I think translates to the good work that’s happening now in Granby, including recruitment. The person that you recruited as a city manager, I think that’s a great example of just finding the best talent, and not just locally, regionally, but you got a person and city manager who you brought from California because you see certain values and experiences.
Let’s start connecting the dots, now, to other communities. What’s one of your first lessons you learned seeing the public office from the outside [and now seeing it from the inside]?… What was a painful lesson learned that you may or may not have realized before? Is there something that would fall in that category?
Paul: Well, I don’t know if it’s painful or not, but I think the value is that number one, I’m the kind of person that wants to bring value to a situation every day. If I’m adding value, if I’m bringing value, then the people around me will do the same. When I was elected mayor, we have roughly 30 staff members in the town of Granby, and I made sure that I went and got to know them personally, talk to them, see what their concerns were. Much the same that I did in the turn-around situation. … What are we missing? So many times, the upper management misses those things. He doesn’t listen to those on the ground floor, if you will.
I wanted to develop a relationship with everyone within the town, and let them know that they are valuable, because every human on the planet is valuable, and every human on the planet has a lot of gifts and talents. Most of us are only tapping into maybe 10%. Einstein said we’re using 10% of our brain, maybe we’re only using 10% of our gifts. I want people to know that their gifts are valuable, and what do you need in your department to make you successful? What vision do you have that hasn’t been accomplished yet, and how can we do that? That’s what I brought to the town level, and I also brought a level of creativity, thinking out of the box. I feel that, if any of us-
Hrishue: What’s your example of that, Paul.
Paul: OK. Back to your question about the election, people had said, “Run for mayor.” I thought in my little times of prayer, contemplation, “What do I do to bring this town alive? How do I solve the problems of this town?” I didn’t want just painting the streetlights and making better sidewalks, or signage, or branding. There had to be something bigger that would help fuel the town to solve affordable housing, to solve senior housing, to solve jobs, economic development.
There was a large parcel on the edge of Granby that had gone bankrupt. A large development, 1,500 acres, mile and a half to Colorado River. Spectacular piece of ground that the developers put $60 million into. They ran out of capital late ‘07, [then the recession of] ‘08 hits and the place ends up bank owned, and it goes from $60 million as a for-sale price, all the way down to $15 million in a year’s span. Then I said “At $15 million, I’m going to go to the city council as a member of the public before the election, and share the vision of the town purchasing, at least negotiating, see if we can purchase that property. Then if we can control the destiny of that property, then we can control who goes in there, what kind of economic development we have, which will spur on tax revenue, which will allow us to do affordable housing, senior housing, economic development, more downtown enhancement.”
Long story short, the previous mayor and town board saw the idea. At first they didn’t welcome the idea in the first 10 minutes, but I had an eight-page power point that explained how we pay for it, the benefits to the community, and what the vision of the town was. Very quickly they came on board and said, “Go negotiate it.”
I ended up negotiating the purchase for $4.5 million, including a lot of water rights, which is liquid gold out here in Colorado. We purchased that as a town, and then I was elected as a mayor. Then I re-envisioned that property, and one thing that I had known from my development experience, and were very close to recognize our National Forest, is that there’s a huge demand for RV park, a large RV resort. Also, an outdoor adventure park like climbing walls, and zip lines, and mountain biking, and fly fishing, and trails, and all that. I created a vision for that RV resort with cabins, with all the things that I had understood, and then checked it with market data, then we put it into an RFP [request for proposals]. Then that RFP was out there, shopped with the big players, and we ended up with the second largest player in the industry in $8 billion publicly traded company who is buying 300 acres from us for more than the purchase price.
I told the same group, “If you really want to help us, we need to solve affordable housing.” We had prior discussions after that that said, “Here’s a 60-acre piece,” and so on that 60 acres they’re going to do up to 350 affordable housing cabins for the community.
Hrishue: So Paul, that is fascinating. How is it that you were able to conceive that project where for years this project has sat and nothing happened? What do you think is the lesson learned for you, that you think other mayors, other elected officials, should be [learning] … You’re a developer, so obviously you have a keen strength there. For those elected officials who are not developers, what’s something that they should be?
Paul: Well, my wife always reminds me because I share these types of ideas all the time, she said, “You never think about the limitations.” I said, “I do, it just comes later.” I would say that, in your community, what are the opportunities that you see, that you know will be embraced, and that will be well utilized, that will benefit the community? Don’t worry about the cost upfront, OK? Paint a vision at first for what this project is. Because Granby’s a small town. We didn’t have $4.5 million in the bank. We borrowed the money, but I knew that very quickly we could create exit strategies, and I came up with eight separate exit strategies that would get us our $4.5 million back.
I would say that you look at the opportunity that you want to happen, and start by creating a vision for that. Then speak with the people in the community that would potentially be partners, that would benefit, that would help it come alive, that might have funding. Don’t let the no’s and the limitations stop you upfront. You’ve got to see the benefit, because you know, when we all create a vision for ourselves, there’s almost nothing that can stop it except for ourselves. There’s almost always people that come out of the woodwork that you never knew. “Oh my goodness, I would love to support that.” “Oh, you had no idea.” Da, da, da. Then these people, these conversations start, and you see people solidify around that vision.
Hrishue: Love it. Coming in, look at opportunities, almost blue sky thinking, start with the possibility rather than the constraints, and then go from there. That’s a great idea. I guess the other question I have is just what’s your thought on the elected officials that you find in communities? … How do community members inspire leaders, identify “Pauls” in their own [towns]? Because every community has a Paul. What do you think community members, community leaders should be doing to nurture their own Paul’s?
Paul: I think they need to identify those people and say, “Who has done things out of the box? Creative? Who has actually finished projects as well?” It’s not about starting, right? Who can see a project through? Who are the people that perform that? Don’t think, “Oh,” don’t make assumptions that they wouldn’t want to be on that board, or be that mayor, or be that council member. Approach them, just as I was approached. I did not go and knock on the door, and fill out the ballot right away that I want to be a mayor. People approached me, and they were people who I didn’t even know that well, because I was busy in my own world, but I knew their names and, oh yeah, I know these people or know of them. I would say that, identify the people.
It isn’t even a resume that you’re looking for. In fact, it’s just proven performance that they’re going to do something to the benefit of the community. Don’t get stuck on resumes.
Hrishue: Got it. Okay, one last question. Let’s speak of the technical details. In terms of putting this project together, what’s one of the tools that you’ve been able to use to pull the funding, the project, the developers together??
Paul: Well, I think some good sound business principles, like, does this project, will it pencil? Will it create ROI [return on investment]? Can you get some people on board? That doesn’t mean everyone will. I mean, we’re looking at a senior housing project. We’ll have to fund $300-$350,000 of it. There isn’t really a return on investment for us, but it’s the right thing to do in the community. Over with the large parcel that we purchased, we’re going to net, as a town, somewhere in the $1.7 dollar range, net to us, and we still have another 1,200 acres left. We plan on putting about 1,000 acres into a conservation easement, but people will pay for that. Conservation groups will pay for that.
Paul: There’s other areas where you may have a project that can help fund the projects that need to be funded, that won’t create the ROI.
Hrishue: Ah, interesting. Very cool. All right, well this has been incredibly helpful. Any last thoughts that we didn’t touch on, that now, you’ve been in the elected capacity how long now?
Paul: About two years.
Hrishue: Two years, okay. Any other points that you think are worth highlighting to other elected officials, community leaders that you think would share?
Paul: I think don’t be singular agenda driven. I think that there’s a lot of town board members, and probably mayors across the country that have just a single agenda. They hate a local gravel pit, or they hate a certain thing, or they want to see one thing happen. Don’t be that near sighted, because when that one agenda either works or doesn’t work, what do you got left? I hope to, we have an election coming up, I hope that those people are not just singular agenda driven. I hope that they have the good of the community in mind. Also, don’t be politically motivated. I have a certain check next to a box on the party that I’m affiliated with, but I don’t let national politics enter in. I just want to do what’s right for the community.