Economic recovery stirs in Grand Junction

QUICKREAD

Out-of-valley customers help fruit business

One business that dodged most of the bad economy of the last year was Alida’s Fruits, with outlets in downtown Grand Junction and in Palisade.

“2009 was not bad for me,” said “Farmer Bob” Helmer, the unnamed half of Alida’s Fruits. “My business was up 10 percent.”

Alida’s added new jams and syrups to its lineup and offered fresh fudge at its stores to bump up the bottom line.

In addition to being always open on the Web, Alida’s stores stay open seven days a week, and “Sundays are some of my better days,” Helmer said.

“You give people a reason, and they’ll come out and shop with you.”

Last winter, however, took its toll, he said.

“February is the first month in 20 years that I took a hit, and that was weather-related,” he said.

Alida’s keeps a guest book at both outlets, and they offer a snapshot of 2009.

Of the 2,652 entries in the guest books, all 50 states were represented, as well as 41 countries, Helmer said. In all, 76 percent of customers who signed the guest books were from outside the Grand Valley, and 9.5 percent were from other countries.

— Gary Harmon



Not unlike those first harbingers of spring poking out of barely thawed soil, tiny green tendrils are poking out of the once frozen western Colorado economy.

They aren’t strong enough or green enough to inspire gushing about future prospects, but these green shoots are prompting tentative steps among employers to consider hiring or taking on a bit more risk.

“We’ve certainly seen a turnaround and have been doing some hiring,” said Linda Spencer, human-resources manager at CoorsTek, one of the Grand Valley’s largest manufacturing businesses.

At West Star Aviation, General Manager Dave Krogman noted an “uptick in business” back on Nov. 1.

“It’s slow and gradual, but it’s been steady up to this point,” Krogman said.

Another green shoot popped up at Cranium 360, a small strategic-marketing agency in Grand Junction, which last week moved from the Harris Office Suites on Main Street to take up almost all the first floor at 222 N. Seventh St.

It’s not just that Cranium 360 needs more space, said owner Matthew Breman, even though it does. Breman said he is seeing the hints of an economic resurgence.

“We’re starting to see the comeback of small business and entrepreneurs,” Breman said, “which is great.”

The comeback is big enough that Cranium 360 is hiring a full-time account executive to work with those small businesses that now are coming back, Breman said.

Business people should temper their enthusiasm about signs of growth, said Jamie Hamilton, chairman and CEO of Home Loan Investment Co.

To be sure, bids are out for the remodeling of Houston Hall at Mesa State College, and he is seeing some “trickle-down” effects from the pending construction of an American Furniture Warehouse store, Hamilton said. Home Loan also is seeing more business in its health insurance employee benefits division, Hamilton said.

All that, though, is cast against the highest unemployment rate in the state, “and that does have its impact,” he said.

“We’re seeing some opportunities,” Hamilton said. “It’s better than it was a year ago. We’re cautiously, cautiously optimistic.”

Layoffs were “painful”

Cautious optimism was the watch phrase as well for Spencer at CoorsTek.

Even though CoorsTek is feeling the reverberations of growth in Asia and Europe, the company is shy about hiring too many too fast, Spencer said.

In 2008, CoorsTek had to lay off employees as the global economy ground to a halt, and that “was extremely painful,” Spencer said. “Usually when people join CoorsTek, they’re here for a while.”

Down at one point to about 100 employees, CoorsTek now has about 145 people working there, “but a lot of that is temporary,” Spencer said. “As soon as we can feel more confident, we certainly want to consider folks for regular employment.”

As a provider of parts to the electronics industry, CoorsTek is seeing “a lot of activity out of Asia and stateside,” she said.

Light-emitting diodes, or LEDs, are filling market niches for low-energy lighting, and CoorsTek is working to meet that demand, Spencer said.

“The green movement is a positive thing for us,” she said.

At West Star Aviation, no particular event triggered the return of business to an even keel, Krogman said.

“It was the beginning of our business recovery,” Krogman said.

Several things are driving that, he said. Aircraft values have dropped to the point that people or businesses that have long wanted a plane “are taking advantage of the opportunity to buy it at a cheaper price,” he said.

That’s when they turn to West Star, wanting their pre-owned craft to be inspected and buffed up, Krogman said.

“We’ve been proceeding very cautiously,” using contract labor and adding a few positions to meet specific needs, Krogman said.

The Grand Junction Business Incubator Center is emerging from a phase of what amounted to forced entrepreneurism by people who lost jobs when the energy industry laid down its drilling rigs, said Tim Hatten, a professor of business at Mesa State College and a member of the incubator’s board of directors.

More activity than talk

“There was a lot of talk and a lot less real activity,” Hatten said. “Now it’s more activity.”

The Grand Junction economy tends to track about six months behind the national one, said Hatten, who also is juggling contracts to turn out three textbooks.

“I think that nationally we’re seeing some upticks in the overall economy,” but the improvement is fragile, he said, adding with a hint of humor and heavy sarcasm, “Let’s see if we’re able to kill it with disincentives.”

Many businesses, especially larger ones, are turning to Cranium 360 for strategic advice about the use of social media such as Facebook, MySpace and Twitter, Breman said.

“We’ve been asked to help drive the strategy behind social media” and are helping to write policies for companies venturing into social media, Breman said. “We’ve seen that pick up here.”

That’s particularly encouraging because, “When the economy turned south, we lost our small clients. About 90 percent of them just disappeared,” he said.

Cranium 360’s move to new space not only nearly triples his office space, but it also will allow Breman to consider hiring a part-timer along with the full-time account executive, he said.

Such small steps appear to be the mainstay of the local recovery, said Chris Reddin, executive director of the Grand Junction Business Incubator Center.

“People are getting smarter, craftier” in finding ways to found businesses that solve other businesses’ problems, she said.

The incubator can’t divulge clients’ proprietary matters, but Reddin said, “I can say that health care is obviously a thriving part of the economy. People are starting to get creative and innovative about solving problems and delivering services.”

None of the ideas or green shoots that Reddin hopes are taking root are the kind that promise to employ 100 people immediately, she said.

“Nobody should be waiting around waiting for any big companies to do major hiring,” Reddin said. “People have to be more creative and aggressive about it.

“This is how we build a strong, robust economy for the long run, but it’s not how you solve 10 percent unemployment.”

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