Let’s move the needle on our economic fortunes

People who know me know that I am a glass-half-full kind of guy. I can spin a silver lining around nearly any disastrous cloud

I cannot, however, put a positive spin on the lowly state of our local economy. The hard data is simply stupefying.

“Appalling” may be a better word. Compared to any other community in the state — even Pueblo and El Paso counties — Mesa County is an outlier, and not in a good way.

This is not a boo-hoo column about the local economy, but rather a call to action. Continuing to do what we have been doing is simply not an option. If you are sick of the crest-and-trough existence of living in a boom-and-bust town, this isn’t about righting the ship; it’s about building a new ship.

The bad news: The entire state recessed in 2008. Mesa County was slow to fall into the recession, having not tipped until December of that year. The difference between Mesa County and the rest of the state, however, is what has happened since.

In a measure of total economic output over the last five years — call it gross domestic product (GDP) — similarly situated counties have pulled themselves out of the recession. It should not be surprising that Weld County GDP has grown 30 percent or that Boulder County GDP has grown 17 percent over that period.

It is somewhat surprising, however, that the GDP of El Paso and Pueblo counties — communities that have a reputation for suffering post-recession — have grown 15 and 14 percent, respectively.

Mesa County, by comparison? Negative 3 percent. Yes, our local economy has contracted 3 percent while the rest of the state has grown by double digits.

This is startling information, but it’s not the headliner. The real bummer is that, over this same time period, Mesa County has lost 11 percent of its workforce. That’s 10,000 workers. I can only guess at how many actual human beings that might be. Could be as high as 20,000.

By contrast, Boulder County has seen an increase in workforce of almost 11,000 workers — just over 6 percent. Pueblo County lost about 500 from its workforce over that time; El Paso County has lost about 2,000 workers, but that’s less than one-half of 1 percent of its total workforce. During that same time period, Denver added 80,000 workers — a not-so-insignificant 5.7 percent increase.

So why, you may ask, is unemployment down to 4.5 percent in Mesa County? That’s good news, right? No, actually. Our unemployment rate is down because we have lost 10,000 workers. They either moved or quit trying. That’s bad.

This is a tale of two states: western Colorado and the rest of Colorado. While the rest of the state rebounded, we have continued to slide. And there are few signs of improvement.

So, how do we reverse this?

It’s not for lack of trying. Between the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, the Business Incubator and local governments, we’re trying. But obviously, to not much effect.

It’s safe to say that our woes are due to the exodus of oil and gas jobs. It follows, then, that we should try to lure them back, right?

Unfortunately, decision-making in those industries is driven, shrewdly and ruthlessly, by the price of extraction commodities. When natural gas prices return to $5 or $6/MMBtu, the rigs will return. Outside of cheerleading additional “dirty hedge” relationships on the Piceance, such as the arrangement between Nucor Steel and Encana, there is very little we can do to influence these industries one way or another.

The days of luring large companies to this community with incentive monies and lots of sunshine are passing. Large companies now follow workforce. This explains the enormous boom in Denver. Companies want to locate where a qualified, energized workforce wants to live.

This is actually very exciting news for western Colorado. This is where a community like ours can make a difference in its own fortunes.

Within our control — directly — is what kind of community we build. The best way we can reverse our sagging fortunes is through building a community that attracts the right workforce — young, educated, energized minds.

The right workforce makes our existing industries more productive. It attracts innovators and risk-takers. Those are the folks who fire the economic engine.

There are real, tangible things we can do in 2015 in Mesa County to affect our economic destiny. I’ll present some in this space in the coming weeks and months, but I would also like to solicit your ideas. What can we do to ramp up this sagging economy?

Jay Seaton is the publisher of The Daily Sentinel.


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