By Cilia Kohn (originally published in The Daily Sentinel 9.19.2021)
If you have stopped by the GJEP office this month, you’ve probably seen us buzzing around like bees trying to put the finishing touches on the Western Colorado Economic Summit, coming up on September 30. We have a packed schedule, because there’s a lot to talk about – what’s in store for the Grand Valley in terms of energy and water supply, production agriculture, our school district, our workforce? How will we be impacted by new policies on marijuana, by the wolf introduction, by ever-increasing housing needs? And, perhaps most importantly, what do we, as community members, want this Valley to look like in the future? Who do we want to be when we grow up – or in this case, grow out of recession, pandemic woes, and the unfortunate state designation of a “distressed” community? These are all questions we’ll aim to answer (or begin to) throughout WCES.
The latter question – “who do we want to be” – is one that the GJEP board started to tackle last month during our annual retreat. As a community, we’ve evolved a great deal since GJEP was formed back in 1984, in response to Black Sunday and the ensuing recession that we’ve been climbing out of ever since. About a decade ago, the State began to track a set of metrics around things like unemployment, average wages, and free & reduced lunches in schools. Based on those metrics, we officially became known as a “distressed” community. While that’s not a flattering term, it did come with some benefits – perhaps most notably, the implementation of the Rural Jump-Start Tax Credit Zone, which allowed distressed communities like ours to provide substantial tax breaks to new business. The program, which originated and piloted in Mesa County, has allowed us to welcome 21 new businesses here since 2016, with a total economic impact of over $44 million. We have a couple more Jump-Start companies in the application process right now – and several of the current companies are expanding and hiring in the Valley.
With the help of programs like Jump-Start, GJEP has been able to make progress on the first part of our mission: to enhance the economic vitality in Colorado’s Grand Valley, creating a strong and diverse economy, and an improved quality of life. Perhaps most telling of that was at the start of the pandemic, when the energy jobs in our community were on a steep decline, but overall jobs in Mesa County were up. And, if you follow the monthly economic snapshots that accompany this column, you will have seen that most of our metrics – average annual wage, workforce, personal income growth, etc. – have been trending positive.
The state is set to reassess distressed communities in November. At this time, we have no idea how it plans to do that, given the unusual circumstances of the last couple of years. However, if they move forward with “business as usual”, we should be distressed no more. And if it’s not this November – then it is not far behind. The light is at the end of the tunnel.
That brings us back to the question of “who do we want to be” and, for GJEP, an opportunity to work on the second part of our mission – creating an improved quality of life for the people of Colorado’s Grand Valley. With that in mind, we plan to use WCES as a launch pad for the Grand Vision, a strategic plan to meet long-term, visionary goals set for our community by our community. Our first step is to determine exactly what ‘quality of life’ means to Grand Valley residents – and we’ll be introducing a survey at the Summit to do just that.
This might sound familiar to past WCES attendees. In 2017, GJEP launched the 2030 Vision, asking the community to vote on a series of issues impacting Grand Valley economic development. The groups behind the 10 issues that received the most votes were invited to pitch at the Summit. A second vote ranked the issues by priority, and the goal was for the community to work together to check them off one by one.
Two years later – and a decade early – our community had made significant progress on 8 out of 10 of those priorities. As a community, we certainly earned the right to take a moment and feel proud of what we had achieved in this short amount of time. But it also warranted the question: did we set the bar too low?
If we look back at those 10 community priorities, almost all of them focused on issues that had near-term goals or a question on the upcoming ballot – the District 51 bond and mill levy, public safety measures, North Avenue, a community center, and so on and so forth. These were all critical issues to grow the welfare of our community – issues that could not wait 10 years to be solved. We didn’t set the bar too low; our 2030 Vision was short-sighted.
So, the question we pose to you now – the question that will lead us into this next Grand Vision – is this: setting aside any real or perceived limitations, what are your key aspirations for the Grand Valley?
The Western Colorado Economic Summit is taking place in person at the Grand Junction Convention Center from 8:00-2:30 a.m. on Thursday, September 30. Tickets are available for purchase online through September 24 (westcoeconomicsummit.com). If you’re unable to attend WCES, we encourage you to still take an active part in the Grand Vision. Visit gjep.org/grand-vision for more details and ways to participate.