Fifty-five years ago, if a Colorado county on the Western Slope wanted money to fix a road, it had to send emissaries over the mountains to Denver. Roads were like jewels to these counties — haven’t roads always been important to rural communities? — and so the Western Slope governments would dispatch their representatives to the state capitol to argue for their share of the road-building kitty.

In other words, the Western Slope counties fought each other for the little dabs of money the legislature would send across the mountain — to the counties that had 80 percent of the roads, but only 20 percent of the voters.

In 1953, Preston Walker, the publisher of the newspaper in Grand Junction, reasoned that instead of each county going separately to Denver to battle against its neighbor for road money, Colorado’s western counties ought to band together. “Instead of asking for road money county by county,” explained Grand Junction resident Bill Cleary, the newspaper publisher convinced the Western Slope leaders to “start talking as a group instead of individually.” Walker persuaded the counties to pool their legislative lobbying efforts for road money — and that was the beginning of Club 20.

It’s now 55 years later and Club 20 just held its annual fall political meeting in Grand Junction, Colorado. Some 800 West Slope residents attended the evening session that featured representatives from the two presidential campaigns and a debate between U.S. Rep. Mark Udall (a Democrat) and Republican Bob Schaffer, who are competing for the seat being vacated by Republican Wayne Allard.

Economist Mark Drabenstott travels around rural America telling communities they must learn to “get beyond the petty jealousies of Friday night football.” Unless rural places work together, to act regionally, they’ll fail, Drabenstott says. Rural communities get this lecture constantly — the Economic Research Service makes its pitch here — but there are darn few successful examples of it in practice.

There are now 22 counties in Club 20 west of the Continental Divide in Colorado.

Okay, great, the way to rural prosperity — or at least survival — is regional cooperation. But how do you do it? Are there any regional organizations that aren’t wholly owned subsidiaries of federal or state agencies — organizations that are self-funded and responsible only to the rural communities they serve?

Well, there is Club 20, perhaps the best and oldest indigenous regional development group in the country. Club 20 raises its own money (memberships for individuals run $100 a year) and hires its own staff. It has representatives from each county. (Club 20 began with 20 counties on the Western Slope, but added two others that wanted to join. The Ute Tribe is also a member.) Each county and the tribe gets an equal vote. The organization is run by a board of directors and its work is carried out by standing committees that take up particular issues.

Club 20 has been successful enough that two other groups of counties in Colorado have copied the Western Slope coalition. There is now Action 22, made up of counties in southeast Colorado. And Progressive 15 is a coalition of rural counties in the far northeastern corner of the state.

On Saturday at the civic center in Grand Junction, candidates filed up to the stage to debate or give short speeches if their opponents failed to appear. There were state House and Senate candidates and a pair vying for a spot on the state school board. Colorado has a dozen or so initiatives on the ballot, and Club 20 members listened to pro and con advocates for the propositions that appear to have the greatest potential impact here

I ask Rikki Santarelli, Club 20’s current chair, why the organization has survived for 55 years. Santarelli is a lawyer and a former commissioner in Gunnison County; his father was a Club 20 founder. Santarelli says he wishes he’d asked his father more questions about Club 20’s beginnings, but he realizes the key to the organization’s founding was “finding an issue to start the group that crossed political boundaries.”

Club 20 began by trying to increase the amount of state money spent on roads in 20 counties on the western side of the Continental Divide. That was it. The 20 counties, once rivals, learned to cooperate by concentrating first on the one thing they all needed. There was, Santarelli says, a “unifying element.” Actually, there were two — a shared issue and a common geography.

Since, Club 20 has branched out. A tourism committee was formed in the late 1950s, Santarelli recalls. There are active committees now on public lands, energy, education, water and health care. (Club 20 presented its own state health care plan to the Colorado legislature.)

Colorado Sen. Ken Salazar speaking to Club 20 in Grand Junction on Saturday.

Through five decades, Club 20 has remained adamantly non-partisan. That’s been tougher to do recently, as more people have moved into the region from elsewhere. Environmentalists have clashed with energy companies. And the people who have moved in more recently are more ideological than long-time Western Slope residents. (Ranchers are by necessity pragmatists.) There have been some ideological dust-ups as the issues have gone beyond roads and water.

There are also constant reminders throughout the day that Club 20 has survived by finding issues that cross political boundaries. Sen. Ken Salazar, a Democrat in jeans, Stetson and bolo tie, spoke to Club 20 about the destructive pine beetle, the potential of oil shale, global warming, and water. But he ended with a plea.

Salazar asked “that this organization not be a handmaiden to the Democratic party.” Nor, the senator continued, should Club 20 be a “handmaiden for the Republican Party” — or for the oil and gas industry or environmental groups. He said Club 20 should remain what its been since 1953, “The Voice of the Western Slope,” first, foremost and only.

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