Economic council celebrates 25 years
Boards crossed the windows of downtown and North Avenue commercial space. Small retailers disappeared each month. Unemployment crept above 11 percent.
It was two years after Exxon pulled out of Garfield County when local business and civic leaders decided it was time to speed up Mesa County’s economic recovery. A dozen community leaders gathered Nov. 5, 1984, and established the Mesa County Economic Development Council. Today, the organization now known as the Grand Junction Economic Partnership will celebrate its 25th anniversary with a luncheon at 11:30 a.m. at Two Rivers Convention Center.
The group, which included then-Daily Sentinel Publisher Jim Kennedy, Western Slope Auto Owner Mike Ferris and Monument Homes President Denny Granum, among others, met at the former Gladstones Restaurant with a man that operated an economic development council in Pueblo.
“He told us what he’d done there and a few of us said, ‘Well, we can do that here,’ ” Granum said.
Within six months, Kennedy had helped recruit Joe Prinster to run Mesa County’s economic development council, and the group offered financial assistance to Hamilton Sundstrand, a California aircraft parts machining company that moved to Grand Junction in 1984. The company moved overseas 20 years later, but a portion of its employees went to work at Lewis Engineering, located at 2790 H Road.
GJEP’s goal is to help businesses pick Mesa County over another area. It targets companies with lengthy histories that offer long-term jobs primarily in the manufacturing or service industry that provide a product shipped outside of Mesa County and avoid in-county competition with existing companies. The nonprofit organization relies on 138 private and public investors that pledge five years of financial support to produce information and data for companies and connect recruits to state and local tax incentives, enterprise tax credits, grants and land discounts.
At first, the council wasn’t too picky, as long as the company left no hefty environmental impact on the community or offered temporary jobs or so many jobs the company would drop Grand Junction’s economy into another rut if it left town.
“We didn’t have the luxury of saying we want ‘this type’ of industry here,” Granum said.
The group had many successes in its first few years of operation, Ferris said. Choice Hotels International, Refrigeration Hardware Supply, 3D Systems Inc. and Reynolds Polymer Technology all came to town.
“(GJEP) wasn’t a really revolutionary idea, but it was a traditional and conventional program, and it had some successes,” Ferris said.
The council wasn’t the only game in town, though. The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1984, the Visitor and Convention Bureau Tourism Center opened in 1984, and Leaders In Financing Tomorrow (LIFT) enticed General Production Devices to town from Canada with a capital investment. Each of the groups touted Grand Junction as a great place for retirees to use local hospital facilities and buy cheap real estate.
“There was a lot of effort going on at that time. Most of the four major agencies had separate missions on how to get there,” Ferris said.
Economic development meant “wining and dining” business leaders and selling Mesa County as a place with an extensive work force and cheap land 25 years ago, said Ann Driggers, who has been the CEO and president of GJEP for almost nine years. Today, recruitment is rooted in data, facilitating between land owners, grant programs, the government and the businesses. Land isn’t as cheap anymore, Driggers said, and GJEP’s target audience has changed.
“The companies we want now offer high-paying jobs where people can learn new skills and have careers,” she said.
The mission is the same, though, for the partnership: Bring diverse industries to the area, so the community won’t rely on one sector for the bulk of its jobs. The economic partnership’s latest conquest brings the first Cabela’s hunting, fishing and camping store to Colorado. GJEP didn’t offer financial incentives to Cabela’s, but the organization did offer data and opinions on the local economy.
Driggers said GJEP is ready for the next batch of businesses and the next 25 years.
“The speed of change is that much quicker these days. The key is to remain on our toes, be flexible, follow trends, stay with the times and do what makes sense for Mesa County,” she said.