Originally published in The Daily Sentinel December 19, 2021
By Cilia Kohn

So far, December has offered some highs and low in terms of economic development. It began with the distressing announcement that Delta Airlines has decided to pull its service from Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT). This comes after more than 30 years of nonstop service to Salt Lake City and perhaps the busiest year our airport has ever seen, as reported in this newspaper last weekend. Delta pulled from several smaller markets it deemed less profitable and pointed to a severe pilot shortage as the reason, proving once again that no one is immune to the “Great Resignation.”

We have yet to determine the full economic impact of Delta’s decision, but what we do know is that GJT and its direct flights to destinations like Salt Lake City (SLC) is a key factor for many businesses that decide to relocate to the Grand Valley. We also know that some local businesses circumvent issues with freight distribution and skilled labor shortage by operating in some part from SLC. It is also frustratingly clear that despite concerted efforts from our award-winning airport – named #1 Airport in Colorado this year – and numerous partners on both the local and state level, there are some things we just cannot change. By national standards, we are “small potatoes”.

Yet, other news this week tells another tale of a community that is resilient, resolute and a force to be reckoned with. After the much publicized and debated relocation of the Bureau of Land Management headquarters to Grand Junction from Washington D.C. in 2020, – and then back again in under two years – we finally seem to have established a middle ground that might just offer clarity and value to everyone involved. Most senior leadership and policy-related positions will return to (or remain in) D.C. But, per an email from BLM Director Tracy Stone-Manning, “the National Conservation Lands and Community Partnerships Assistant Director and Deputy Assistant Director positions will anchor the BLM’s Western headquarters in Grand Junction.” The email also indicated that additional positions would be located in Grand Junction to support BLM efforts in “outdoor recreation, conservation, clean energy, and scientific missions, as well as outreach and Tribal consultation.” All in all, it is predicted that over 30 positions will land in Grand Junction, which puts us back near the $9 million annual employment impact that GJEP had calculated from the initial HQ move. And, of equal importance, it provides the opportunity for Western Colorado to solidify that it is – and should be – a key partner in protecting our public lands.

Last month, GJEP closed its “Grand Vision” survey, which asked you, our community members, what you would like the Grand Valley to be recognized for most out of several factors. “Our public lands” was in the top five responses. So was “a top-tier K-12 education system”, “a safe community”, “a forward-thinking community”, and as an outdoor recreation hub. Over the next several months, GJEP will work with our board members and stakeholders to map out the efforts that are already in place in many parts of our valley to address these issues, and to identify any gaps where it may be appropriate for us to lend a hand. Our intent is to bring these efforts and conversations back to the community at the next Western Colorado Economic Summit, slated for April 26 at the GJ Convention Center. In the meantime, review the survey results and progress on the Grand Vison on gjep.org/grand-vision

What was interesting to us about the survey was that business recruitment and expansion was not part of the top five priorities identified for local economic development. Perhaps it is assumed that we already put recruitment first. Or perhaps, we need a reminder of the significant economic impact that new business brings to the Grand Valley.

This past Thursday, we welcomed the 25th new business to Mesa County through the Rural Jump-Start Tax Credit Program. Jump-Start allows participating companies to operate in Mesa County without paying most business operating taxes for four years. As of this year, those companies are also eligible for state cash grants upward $20,000. In return, the businesses will add a minimum of five net new jobs to the county in high-paying, highly skilled fields. They also form a partnership with Colorado Mesa University through mentorship, internship opportunities and community involvement.

The Jump-Start program originated in Mesa County in 2015, spearheaded by CMU, local business leaders and economic development partners. Because of the nature of the program, it primarily attracts startups that are working in technology, advanced manufacturing, or another innovative field. Not all of the companies succeed, but to date more than 60% are still operating, which far surpasses the success rate of general startups (9/10 startups reportedly fail in their first year). Moreover, many of the Jump-Start companies in Mesa County – ProStar, Kaart and Phoenix Haus, to name a few – have grown considerably, building their local workforce, making capital investments and putting our community on the map in new industries.

As of last year, the Jump-Start companies had collectively made a total economic impact on our community of over $44 million. At GJEP, we’ve also seen that whether or not a company is ultimately eligible for the program, it draws them to our community in the first place, making it one of the most effective recruitment tools we have.

Now, Mesa County only qualifies as a Rural Jump-Start Zone if we meet certain criteria – such as per capita income growth, percentage of school children on free & reduced lunch, and workforce age – that labels us a “distressed community” per state standards. As we’ve previously reported, Mesa County has been rapidly improving in so many of these areas that come January, when the state reassesses is Jump-Start Zones, the county may no longer qualify. This is a good thing. And it is also a challenge to us at GJEP and our economic development partners to find new ways to continue to recruit valuable, new business to our community.

As we head toward the end of the year, the GJEP staff wants to thank all of the partners that have helped bring us this far this year: our Board of Directors, the Economic Development First Responders, and all of our municipal partners and investors throughout the business community. We could not do this without you – thank you. And from all of us, to all of you, we wish you Happy Holidays and a Happy, Prosperous New Year!

The GJEP office will be closed December 24-31. Please email info@gjep.org and we will get back to you ASAP.