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Economic Summit brings business leaders, experts together

Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, speaks Friday at the 26th annual Economic Summit, sponsored by the Steamboat Springs Chamber. (Photo by John F. Russell)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The 2020 Economic Summit brought together a panel of experts and local business leaders virtually to focus on economic balance bridging the past, present and future.

“We want to look at the past, understand the present and look toward the future,” said John Bristol, director of economic development for the Steamboat Springs Chamber, which sponsors the annual event.

Ed McMahon, senior resident fellow at the Urban Land Institute, opened the event by speaking about the importance of community, history and place.

“You live in one of the world’s most special places, whether you’re thinking about Colorado in general or Routt County in particular,” McMahon said. “It is a very special place with great people, great history and great resources. The sad truth is there is no place in the world today that will stay special by accident.”

McMahon said everything, including the economy, demographics, technology, consumer attitudes, health care, energy sources, transportation options and even the weather, is changing.

“You can grow by choice, or you can grow by chance. You can accept whatever comes down the road, or you can shape the community that you want,” McMahon said. “The best way to predict the future, as Abraham Lincoln used to say, is to create it yourself.”

McMahon said holding onto things that make Steamboat unique is the best way to ensure future success.

“I was reading an economic development advertisement for the city of Bend, Oregon, and it didn’t say a word about their tax structure or business incentives,” McMahon said. “What they talked about was their walkable downtown, their 25 breweries, their 100 miles of bike trails.’”

McMahon said authenticity can become an economic driver, especially in the middle of a global pandemic.

“It’s not about what you don’t have in Steamboat Springs; it’s about what you do have,” McMahon said. “Would you rather have Steamboat Springs be cool, extraordinary, original, special or just common, ordinary, regular or standard?”

Robin Brown, executive director of Grand Junction Economic Partnerships, which is the economic development agency for Mesa County, built on what McMahon presented. She explained how investments in Grand Junction’s downtown and river walk districts have helped bring new life, new people, new business and a more diverse economy to the area.

“We have been very dependent on the energy industry that has served us very well in boom times and really poorly in bust times,” Brown said. “But we have done a lot of work as a community to diversify our economy.”

The 2008 economic recession led to the loss of 8,000 jobs in Mesa County, and Brown said the hangover lasted for nearly a decade. The area had 11% unemployment and 52% of local children were on free or reduced-price lunch programs.

Community partners joined forces in 2015 and commissioned the North Star Report, which became the area’s economic bible, according to Brown. Taxes for fire, police, schools and increased air service were passed, and the city of Grand Junction renovated downtown and invested $14 million into a riverfront park.

Unemployment rates dropped, and the economy became more diversified, including new growth in the outdoor recreation manufacturing industry.

“We just really focused on the outdoor industry, specifically manufacturing, which led to a number of companies growing and a lot of new businesses,” Brown said

She said the addition of quality-of-life amenities and business relocation incentives also led to growth in the tech industry.

“We didn’t have a tech industry, but this is what happens when you’re an affordable place to live and the quality of life is very high,” Brown said. “I think a lot of people were moving to the Denver market for the Colorado lifestyle, and when they got there, they were stuck in a city. We began to see growth from that market. So we began to have this interesting growth in tech that was just a byproduct of the work we had done. It was not intentional.”

The Economic Summit also included a presentation by Richard Wobbekind, associate dean for business and government relations, senior economist and faculty director of the Business Research Division at the University of Colorado Boulder. He presented economic statistics that revealed the extent of the impacts of the pandemic during the past seven months.

Hayden’s Bethany Karulak-Baker, owner of Outlaw Apiaries and executive director of Bee the Future, also presented at the summit, along with Nick Haggard, who recently relocated to Steamboat and works with Denver-based Alpine Media Technology. His company provides real-time, relevant information to improve the guest experience with custom content for mobile apps and digital signage.

The two shared why they decided to do business in Routt County, and the rewards and challenges they have faced.

The Economic Summit closed with renowned futurist Chet Sisk, who talked about what businesses may face in the future. He addressed the turmoil created by the pandemic, politics, diversity issues and climate change, which he believes will bring changes to many mountain resort communities, including Steamboat.

“When you’re a trend analyst, a futurist, you’re basically following stories over weeks, months, years, decades and sometimes centuries in order to figure out what is this going to mean to the people who are experiencing this story,” Sisk said. “We are moving into a time of what some people would call a new normal, and it is a time of rapid change.”

Bristol said he was thrilled with the response to the summit, which drew 110 registrations.

“I was concerned that we would not have as much participation and attendance this time around,” Bristol said of the virtual format. “I’m really honored and humbled that people tuned in to listen.”

 


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