We need an economic vision tailored to our unique circumstances
I attended the Grand Junction Economic Partnership economic summit this week where I got caught up on all the local updates that I could squeeze from the eight-hour event. Even the sheriff was there to explain the public safety measure heading our way on this fall’s ballot.
Technology, schools, and health care were all common themes throughout the day and at least three different speakers from Denver complained about the traffic on the Front Range and gushed over the quality of life that exists here in western Colorado.
Keynote speaker Ben Collins — an Army veteran and Fox News analyst — talked about his work rebuilding the economies of villages in Afghanistan. Part of the work of counterintelligence is creating enough economic opportunity that local villagers don’t join the Taliban. But broad State Department initiatives to create self-sustaining communities largely failed because they didn’t account for the peculiarities unique to each village. Those plans were devised by people with no knowledge of ground-level factors.
Here in western Colorado, we know this drill well. We live in a state that primarily legislates for the Front Range and we often find ourselves at odds with regulations and programs designed for more urban areas that don’t work out here for a variety of reasons. And that was Collins’ point. Nobody is going to bail us out. The tools required to shock our system and get our economy moving again are right here within the community. We just need to put all the pieces together.
And a lot of those pieces were at the GJEP summit. The entrepreneurs were there. Only recently has this group of innovative thinkers and dreamers come together under the umbrella of the Factory co-working space along with Launch WestCo to share and grow ideas, initiatives, and resources. The room was also full of experience — local people who built small businesses into large ones and could serve as incredible mentors and consultants to those entrepreneurs. Our economic development partners were there in force providing tools, incentives, and helping to connect the dots to smooth the road for new and growing businesses and industries — things like the Jump Start program which has spurred the start of eight new businesses in Mesa County since its inception and is projected to produce 600 new jobs by 2020.
Speaking of Jump Start, the entire conference took place at Colorado Mesa University and the timing couldn’t have been better. The Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce just launched the CMU 20,000 campaign — a community effort to grow the student body and garner local support for the university. CMU has been and will continue to be a strong economic driver for the community bringing in students from outside of the local area and continually growing its programs, such as the health sciences department. New projects such as the Innovation Center — a business incubator for students — are getting students with great ideas the tools they need to grow those ideas into amazing businesses based right here in the Grand Valley.
Collins talked about the need to bring these important pieces together from within a community to develop a template that is specific to that place. Denver can’t solve Grand Junction’s problems just like Washington, D.C. couldn’t solve a village in Afghanistan’s problems. We need to bring together all of these pieces in a way that is unique to western Colorado. And it needs to happen all over western Colorado. Places like Meeker and Delta that have lost vital industries need to find a way to reinvent themselves without losing what made them great to begin with.
Twenty years ago, Bend, Oregon was a vibrant mill town supported by the powerhouse timber industry. When the timber industry died, so did Bend. Until residents got together around a table and figured out what it was that was unique about their place and how to capitalize on that to create a new economy. And I think most everyone would agree they’ve been successful.
Collins went through all the necessary pieces to create that template that is unique to place — the entrepreneurs, the mentors and consultants, the work that GJEP and the chamber are doing and then he asked a question to which there was no answer. Where are the venture capitalists in the room? There weren’t any. Banks rarely finance these startup businesses, so a successful economy based on innovation and emerging industries requires capital. That’s where other communities such as Boise and Bend have been able to bring all the pieces together for smart economic growth — by forming venture capital groups made up of local business leaders who have the means to reinvest in projects that have merit and the solid backing of local entrepreneurs, mentors, consultants, and the economic partners.
When you have all of those people at the table, these projects become less risky and often grow into something beyond what the entrepreneur originally imagined.
And that’s a pretty great way to give back to your community.