SILVER CITY — The Silco Theater on Silver City's Bullard Street hosted a Community Development, Tourism and Public Lands economic forum Wednesday night to discuss the financial stability and growth potential of the region.

Panelists included Ben Alexander, from Headwaters Economics and area business leaders Joe Saenz and Catherine Wanek.

Alexander spoke first, giving an in-depth look at the economic numbers of the region. He provided graphs that show the West outstripping the rest of the nation in economic growth, what is driving that growth, and where the region, especially the Gila and surrounding markets, is struggling to grow.

While "non-service" industries — chiefly mining — still represent the highest-paying and greatest number of jobs in the region, "service" industries have grown far more in the last 40 years.

The West has lost almost 765,000 manufacturing jobs and gained almost 787,000 jobs in health care and social assistance, for instance. Alexander isn't surprised by this and it is only marginally higher than the nationwide average. This is mostly due to the Boomer generation reaching retirement age and requiring more health care. This affects the West in particular due to the high rate of retirement to the area. These patterns are the same for cities and rural communities in the West.

Getting more local, Alexander showed graphs indicating that New Mexico is outdoing the non-western U.S. in employment, population, and personal income.

Alexander then made recommendations that Grant County needs to do its best to attract and build business based on what attracts the most people to the Gila region — quality of life and natural beauty.

He also urged the people of the area to do their best to bring youth to the region.

"We have to keep young people and families here," Alexander said. "They are the entrepreneurs of tomorrow. It's normal for high school graduates to leave, but we need to think about what we're doing to develop career opportunities here for if they want to come back."

Joe Saenz spoke second. Saenz owns and runs WolfHorse Outfitters out of Santa Clara, a Native American guide and outfitting service that takes groups from all over the world on guided tours of the Gila National Forest. He said about half of his business comes from Europe and the rest from elsewhere in America. WolfHorse works through travel agencies in Germany, France and Canada to find Wild West and Native American interested vacationers and to promote the natural experience and beautiful climate and environment of the Gila. He said people in the area have to use the beautiful land by which they are surrounded to attract people from all over the world to its unique qualities.

Catherine Wanek, of Black Range Lodge Bed and Breakfast, took the stage last. Wanek, too, discussed the region's ecological draws and said the growing "ecotourism" industry is perfectly suited to this area. She also promoted the New Mexico Department of Tourism's "New Mexico True" campaign and encouraged all business owners to take advantage of the free listing service on the department's website.

Wanek also addressed the opportunity presented by the state's newly constructed Spaceport. She has been in contact with several people who act as space travel agents for Virgin Galactic, the current tenant of the Spaceport, to find out how the Gila region would best capitalize on the space travel industry.

They told her that, while New Mexico should plan ahead for the travelers through the Spaceport, there is a wealth of culture here and New Mexicans should also be who they are.

Benjamin Fisher can be reached at (575) 538-5893 ext. 5803.