Originally published in The Daily Sentinel, November 21, 2021

At the start of 2021, GJEP released a plan to support a growing digital economy and remote workforce in the Grand Valley. The idea spurred back in 2019, when the Milken Institute ranked Grand Junction among the top 25 small U.S. metros in high-tech GDP growth.

The top ranking came as a nice surprise. Even though GJEP had seen an uptick in tech-related business inquiries – brought on primarily through the Rural Jump-Start Tax Credit program, which debuted in Mesa County in 2016 – we weren’t able to directly track a significant increase in local job creation or capital investments, two of our key metrics, back to tech. This is in part because tech in and of itself is not an industry; it is a tool utilized by almost every other industry, thus making it difficult to isolate and calculate accurate growth in tech. It is also because tech-related businesses do not need to invest heavily in brick-and-mortar facilities to make big money – and they don’t need to amass a large staff, at least not in one office, or even in the same city. Companies like INFOCU5, Cloudrise and Pax8 are a few examples of tech startups that have moved to Grand Junction in the last couple of years and are making a big impact without a large local footprint.

Nonetheless there have been plenty of signs that our digital economy has in fact been growing. For one, the average annual wage in Mesa County has seen a steady increase – and, nationally, the average compensation in tech is nearly 50% more than the average compensation for other workers. We’ve seen more people moving in to the area, but they’re not all moving in to offices. They are working from home, from coffeeshops, or from one of the many co-working spaces that have popped up in the Grand Valley in recent years. We’ve seen a change in our housing market – demand is sky-rocketing, pushing prices up to unprecedented levels. And yet buyers are buying, many from out of town.

Add to this a near two-year pandemic that shifted two-thirds of U.S. workers to remote work – and shifted nearly everyone’s mindset in terms of what’s important in life – and all of a sudden it’s not surprising at all that the digital economy could and is booming in the Grand Valley.

But a growing digital economy presents new challenges for economic developers. We can no longer rely on tried and true practices that generally involve presenting a slide deck of workforce demographics, available commercial real estate, and incentive programs with caveats of minimum job creation. We’re not just speaking to site selectors and corporate executives making decisions on a spreadsheet; we’re speaking with individuals that are making decisions from the heart, as much as the head. We have to make the case that it makes financial sense to move here – and that this is the place where you want to be.

That is where our Digital Economy and Remote Work Plan comes into play. It begins to address how we can tackle new residential and commercial real estate needs, how we can support new work environments (like providing better broadband), how we can help create a sense of community outside of traditional work places, and how we can meet the momentum going by better marketing to remote workers.

Some of these things take more time, resources and collaboration among local and state partners. Some of these things we could address immediately. Earlier this year, we launched the Welcome Wagon (gjep.org/welcome-wagon), a cohort-style program that aims to better integrate new residents in the community. Although not specifically aimed at tech- or remote workers, there’s a significant number of “newbies” in the program that fall in those categories. Over the course of the last nine months, we’ve hosted a series of social events, from happy hours to behind-the-scenes tours of Suplizio Field and Enstrom’s, while getting to know the Grand Valley’s newest residents and hopefully making them feel at home. So far, the feedback has been great and we’ve got a long waiting list of locals and newbies interested in the 2022 cohort.

This week, we launched WorkRemoteCO.com, a digital destination for remote workers and employers that are (or want to be) based in the Grand Valley. The site offers information on local remote employers, where to find job opportunities and general resources on the area. In the near future, it will include a blog with regular news and tips for telecommuting, as well as an online community for anyone who wants to connect with other remote workers on the western slope.

If you are a local business that has remote or hybrid job opportunities, we encourage you to reach out to GJEP and let us support your recruitment efforts.

~ Cilia Kohn, GJEP Director of Marketing and Communications