Three steps to expanding opportunity in rural Colorado

By Sen. Michael Bennet

Each day brings new stories about Colorado’s booming economy, from startups to our record-low unemployment rate of 2.6 percent. Too often, these headlines overlook an equally important story: the vast promise of our rural communities — from agriculture to energy to outdoor recreation.

I have seen that promise in Weld County farmers flying drones to map their fields, Morgan County ranchers powering their homes with livestock waste, and mountain town brewers using cutting-edge technology to make world-class lager. These and other Coloradans reflect the can-do spirit and entrepreneurial potential found in rural areas.

Earlier this month, I was in northwestern Colorado to discuss ways to unleash that potential.

What I continue to hear is that Coloradans from our rural communities want it to be easier to transform good ideas into new businesses and jobs. That means cleaning up outdated regulations that stifle innovation. It also means reducing the cost of health care in small towns like Craig, because you can’t take risks on a new venture when a surprise illness could mean bankruptcy. Washington must address these challenges, and I will work with anyone to advance serious, bipartisan solutions.

This latest visit affirmed some concrete steps we can take to expand opportunity, such as improving access to technology, training, and incentives for small business.

First, we can invest in reliable, high-speed internet to connect our rural areas. Without it, businesses are reluctant to relocate and young people think twice about staying in their hometowns. Officials from Rio Blanco County told me how a $13 million investment brought high-speed broadband to historic Meeker and Rangely. Now, local businesses and residents can work remotely and reach digital markets across the globe.

Second, rural areas can help locals gain high-demand skills. That means reforming training initiatives that use 20th century methods for 21st century jobs. It also means replicating success I saw in Grand Junction, where I met high school students learning marketable skills and taking college courses. Their teachers showed me how students gained a critical leg-up from these opportunities as they pursue higher education and good jobs.

Third, rural areas can incubate entrepreneurs. In Steamboat Springs, for example, local leaders described how they set aside free office space and mentoring for startups and launched a competition to provide seed funding for entrepreneurs. Now, new businesses are creating jobs, expanding to new facilities, and drawing investment to that community. 

I am confident rural businesses and innovators can help lead the next wave of economic growth for our state, but we need to stop the dysfunction in Washington and replace uncertainty with stability. For instance, we should pass the upcoming farm bill on time and develop more legislation to spur revitalization of our coal communities.

A century ago, people in small towns on the Western Slope and the Eastern Plains traveled hours to get their mail, their news, and their groceries. In the Information Age, it makes no sense that Coloradans have to travel for their education, training, and other resources needed to thrive.

With the right investment and ingenuity, I am confident that the pioneering spirit of rural Colorado will write the next chapter in our 21st Century economy.

Democrat Michael Bennet represents Colorado in the U.S. Senate.


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