It was a week of firsts as my kids started a new school year- hopefully a more normal year with sports, social events and lockers. My son started high school which is exciting and scary all at the same time. The faculty, staff and coaches at Central High School did a great job orienting nervous freshmen and my son settled in quickly to his new routine. At least for now, he wants to go back. Success! 

At GJEP, I’m wrapping things up in preparation for my new role as VP of Development for Colorado Mesa University- a job which I am very excited about at our community’s best economic development asset and partner. What better way to strengthen the economy than to grow our future workforce and create better opportunities for our youth? 

I’m doing a lot of reflecting on the last decade and the progress that we’ve made as a community climbing out of the 2008 recession. I’d like think that GJEP played a small role in the growth and diversification that we’ve seen over the past five years. As I’ve always joked, all I really do is talk about what everybody else is doing and I’ve been lucky to have so much to talk about. 

I am proud of where GJEP is today and that I’m leaving it positioned to enable my successor- whoever that may be- to pick up the baton and keep moving forward on the important projects that are in the pipeline. Freight and an expanded footprint to provide better business services to the community being two of those major projects. We’ve built strong relationships across the state and a reputation for tackling difficult problems and being a voice for rural economic development. We’ve never settled for the status quo and have bucked the system repeatedly for Mesa County’s gain. There are a few people at the state who probably groan when they see my name pop up on their caller ID, but that’s what it takes to force change and create new policies that will benefit our rural areas instead of holding us back. Our financials are in a strong position and the organization is set up for continued success in terms of incoming pledges from businesses across Mesa County who believe in our mission. 

We have built strong relationships within the community as well- with our municipal and economic development partners and peer organizations. As a result, we are able to continue to tackle the bigger and more complex problems our growth brings such as housing and workforce development. 

Without a doubt, what I am most proud of, is the team that I have built at GJEP. The work ethic and culture of our team is the reason that we’ve been able to assist so many businesses as they relocate to the area and grow. We’ve kept up with a quickly changing world, adjusting our strategy as fast as workforce and economic development techniques have changed. We’ve found new tools that make us more efficient and I would consider GJEP the most cutting-edge economic development organization in Colorado. Our strength lies in the fact that none of us come from an economic development background which allows us to constantly question traditional economic development techniques and look outside the box for solutions. 

What is most exciting for us is that we are again helping companies that we helped to relocate four years ago as they have outgrown their original facilities and are needing to expand. That’s the point of it all, right? It certainly hasn’t been easy and there are so many challenges- many of which are out of our control- but we continue to problem solve where we can and create conditions that allow companies to do what they do best- create new jobs and contribute directly and indirectly to a diversified economy. 

If you were to ask me what the most important takeaway is from my time at GJEP, it would be that all of the issues that we face outside of the I-25 corridor are a result of the vast difference in scale between our communities. And the important word there is vast. Our significantly smaller population base means that we have smaller budgets for resources, a smaller customer base for growing businesses, a smaller voice in creating policy, and less representation at the ballot box and the legislature. Economic development as an industry is geared towards large, urban areas with significant resources and the ability to easily move people into new career tracks and jobs when old ones become obsolete. Easy to do in Denver, an almost impossible task in Craig- because of scale. In other words, economic development a lazy industry focused on low hanging fruit and historically avoiding the far more difficult task of diversifying and strengthening rural economies. Because of COVID and access to unprecedented funding, Colorado has a once in a lifetime opportunity to get rural economic development right. Let’s hope they do.  

In the meantime, we’ll continue to drive our own growth here in western Colorado. Nobody would accuse us of being lazy. What we’ve lacked in scale, we’ve made up for in grit and tenacity and a culture of figuring it out on our own. Colorado’s Grand Valley is an anomaly- bucking convention and the low expectations set for us during a global pandemic and the decline of the energy industry. In a few weeks, I’ll drive to a different office just a few blocks away, probably wearing something maroon. However, the vision for a stronger economy that provides better opportunities for all will be exactly the same. We’re only just getting started.

~ Robin Brown, GJEP Executive Director

Originally published in The Daily Sentinel on Aug. 15, 2021