In March 2020, the Brookings Institution published a report predicting the cities whose economies would be most impacted by COVID. Grand Junction was #40 on that list, right behind Greeley at #39. Farther down were Denver at #113, Colorado Springs at #131, Ft. Collins at #149 and way down towards the bottom at #319 was Boulder. Safest on the list were tech-oriented university towns such as Provo, Utah and San Jose, California. So how did they come to these conclusions?
Researchers took the industries they believed would be most affected by COVID and filtered communities by the percentage of total jobs in these industries- Energy, transportation, employment services, travel arrangements and leisure and hospitality. Grand Junction was at the top of the list with 20% of total jobs falling into those categories. A year later, however, it didn’t pan out as predicted and it’s safe to say that the reverse was true with Grand Junction being one of the least affected of Colorado cities and Boulder and Denver being most affected.
We’ll be conducting a post-mortem on COVID for the next decade, however, having lived through a global pandemic while working in economic development, here are my initial conclusions as to why the Brookings report was wrong.
We are diversified
It’s true. After decades of struggling to diversify our economy, we reached a major milestone in late 2019 that set us up for success in 2020. Despite job declines in energy, we had overall job growth in a wide range of industries. The impact of the loss of energy jobs was significant because they were high wage jobs well above our average annual wage. However, overall job growth in industries such as tech, construction, and manufacturing balanced out that impact and we went into the shutdown with a strong economy and low unemployment rate. Tourism and hospitality were our hardest hit industries, and accounted for the majority of unemployment claims, however manufacturing, healthcare and construction remained strong throughout 2020.
We stayed open
The impact of Mesa County Health Department leadership to our economy cannot be overstated here. Keeping kids in school allowed parents to go back to work. CMU’s efforts to bring students back to campus in the fall kept sales tax revenues steady. Working with the state to allow a variance for the Five Star Program kept small businesses going. It was a struggle, but after reopening in the spring, our economy chugged along steadily because we stayed open. The economic slowdown has everything to do with capacity limitations and nothing to do with a lack of demand for products and services.
People fled cities
Being open and naturally socially distanced drew people from cities all over the west to recreate, escape and to permanently relocate to the region. October 2020 lodging rates were not that far off from October 2019 lodging rates as people who were tired of being cooped up drove in from all over to enjoy what we had to offer- open restaurants, lots of trails and good wine. Until the census data is released, we won’t know for sure what our population growth was in 2020, however, anecdotally, people who suddenly could work from anywhere chose to work from Mesa County.
We are a tech-oriented University town
We just don’t know it yet. Don’t laugh. It’s true. We’ve seen tremendous growth in small tech companies such as ProStar and Aspen Technology Group. Tech is a hard industry to track- oftentimes these are people working from a laptop under a company headquarters located elsewhere. I believe that our tech industry is much larger than we realize and that data used in the Brookings report wasn’t able to accurately portray the number of tech employees. Colorado Mesa University’s computer science and cybersecurity programs continue to draw companies from larger cities who no longer believe they have to be in California, Austin or Denver.
Speaking of CMU, President Foster’s recent announcement that he will be retiring after 17 years of unprecedented growth at the University sent shockwaves across the state. But 17 years is a long time to be in the trenches fighting for every dollar, every student, policies that help rural communities and the recognition that we deserve. His departure leaves an enormous hole in the community. Without an elected mayor, our University President has become the voice that we need to advocate and fight for western Colorado. It’s easy for those of us west of the Continental Divide to get forgotten in state decision-making, policy and discussions and having somebody to beat the drum for rural Colorado is vital to everything that we do. My request to the selection committee that will choose his replacement is that you find somebody who understands that CMU and western Colorado are unique on purpose and that they know how to fight. We need somebody scrappy!
The Grand Junction Economic Partnership wishes to thank President Foster for his unflappable commitment to western Colorado and wishes him well on his next adventure.