For the past decade, Mesa County has been labelled a distressed county. This isn’t just a descriptive term, but an actual definition of our economy with criteria that we must pass (or fail, depending how you look at it) in order to claim the title. As a result of being distressed, we qualify for certain tax incentives and workforce programs from the state and federal governments to help us improve our metrics and work our way towards becoming undistressed. The Rural Jump-Start program is a good example of one such program that has served us well. 18 companies have qualified for the tax incentive over the past five years. Many of these companies created good paying jobs and made significant capital investments which diversified our economy and improved our metrics.
Every November, the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT) assesses each county using seven metrics. The metrics compare each county’s numbers to state averages. If a county is some percentage (usually 20%) below or above the state average, they fail that metric. If a county fails three of the seven metrics, they are deemed distressed for a period of three years. Two of the seven metrics involve rural designations that Mesa County would not qualify for based on our population, and so in 2016- the first year these metrics were used- Mesa County failed all five of the remaining metrics.
The metrics used to determine economic health are Average Annual Wage (per person), Per Capita Income (how household income breaks down per person in a household), the percentage of kids on free or reduced lunch, Unemployment Rate, and whether our workforce population is growing or declining. In 2016, our wages and per capita income were more than 20% below the state average and our unemployment and percentage of kids on free or reduced lunch were 20% over the state average. Lastly, our workforce population had steadily declined since the start of the 2008 recession. We were at the bottom of all the good lists and the top of all the bad lists and so we were officially distressed.
Despite the program being new, Mesa County had seen declining economic indicators since the start of the recession and had already begun a number of efforts to change course. CMU continued to add programs and steadily grew enrollment. Increased funding for schools, public safety and air service through citizen-approved tax measures, as well as an unprecedented focus on our riverfront to improve our access to the outdoors and add quality of life amenities created conditions that helped grow our population, diversify our economy and improve those measurements of success.
Because of those efforts, we actually saw our first signs of improvement in 2017 as wages began to slowly rise, unemployment began to decline and our workforce population began to grow. Obviously, none of this happens overnight and because patience is not one of my strengths, I have to remind myself often that economic development is a long-term game with improvement sometimes taking decades, not years.
So it was exciting last winter when OEDIT did our annual assessment and we only met four of the five metrics. Our workforce population had increased steadily over the past three years and so we no longer met that metric. It’s important to celebrate the small victories! It got us excited at GJEP and we began to look at our rate of economic growth over the past few years in an effort to predict when we would no longer qualify for the remaining metrics. Because that’s the point, right? At some point, we will no longer be distressed. And when that happens, we’ll throw a big economic development bash to celebrate and permanently remove the word ‘distressed’ from our lexicon and our identity.
COVID has certainly proven to be a global disruptor and for a short while this spring, I was sure we had lost all the progress we had made over the last decade. However, as the year comes to a close and some of our metrics, such as unemployment, are better than the state average, I’m beginning to wonder if the disruption actually sped up our growth. We’re currently considered a bright spot in Colorado, recovering faster and proving more resilient than the rest of the state. So my call to our leaders across the valley is to not leave anything to chance. Keep the pedal down and don’t hit pause and we will leave distressed behind and begin to use words such as thriving and prosperous. Most importantly, we’ll be place that provides greater economic outcomes and opportunities for each and every one of us. Who doesn’t want that?