Just a little over a month ago, we were getting ready for our annual Economic Summit, which was scheduled for this coming Friday. We had assembled panel sessions and speakers on production agriculture, private investment funding, trends in commercial real estate, and the importance of our skilled labor workforce. The Millken Institute had just published their Best Performing Small Cities list and we were thrilled to have made the largest leap of any city on that list- from 181 in 2017 to 81 in 2019. We were also ranked #27 in job growth. That same week, I got a call that the number of kids on free or reduced lunch in D51 schools had dropped to 45% – a direct correlation to the increase in our average annual wage. Still too high, but far better than the 52% just two years earlier. Energy jobs continued to decline, but increases in manufacturing, tech, healthcare and construction made up for those losses.
So it was with a high degree of confidence in our community, our economy and our partners that we were rolling into our annual meeting to share the good news, celebrate and then get back to work. The growth and improvement in our economy didn’t just happen. It was the result of a lot of hard work from a lot of people across the valley. I’ve written about that work in this column over the past two and a half years.
And that’s always been my favorite thing about the Grand Valley and my job. We control our destiny. Our isolation – both a blessing and a curse – forces us to chart our own path and solve our own problems. We did back in the 60’s with Project Foresight, and we did it in 2015 in order to pull ourselves out of the 2008 recession. At GJEP, we had just finished filming a video for the Summit highlighting that work and partnerships with the City of Grand Junction and CMU that helped us climb out of a decade-long recession and truly diversify and grow our economy. It’s made us innovative and collaborative and plucky. I think oftentimes we’re viewed by the Front Range as rogues – not going along with the status quo – but that’s simply the result of having to fight for every dollar and the need to constantly remind state policy makers that we’re over here.
It’s the loss of that local control that’s been so hard about this pandemic. It’s very much out of our control. It happened to us and so fast! It was shocking at first with the facts changing hour to hour and a disbelief that a flu could shut down our economy so absolutely in so short a time. Everything we took for granted – the ease of doing business in western Colorado, the freedom of living in the West, being surrounded by a business community that also happens to be your friends, neighbors and family – was being destroyed. The loss of our peaches is just another blow that really, really hurts.
But in true West Slope fashion, we got to work. Scrambling to understand. Scrambling to help. Scrambling to triage what we could. Businesses completely reinventing themselves in hours. Neighbors helping neighbors. Little girls making masks. Huge numbers of people ordering take out and gift cards from local businesses to try to keep them afloat. A school district that transitioned 22,000 kids to online learning in a week. A City Council willing to take a risk to do something completely out of the box and innovative. A health department that rallied to prepare quickly and keep us safe. If there has been a silver lining, it’s that we took what happened to us and got to work as a community to stay ahead of it and do what we can to mitigate it.
And so, while this is truly devastating and I have no doubt that many businesses will never reopen, I do believe that when we start our recovery, we will do it well. Looking at our local COVID-19 numbers, I cautiously believe that in the next few weeks, we will be in a position to begin a phased reopening of our economy in a way that can keep our most vulnerable safe and get to work rebuilding our local economy in a new way that we hadn’t imagined even a month ago.
And while federal stimulus money is pouring into the community, that is just a band-aid. The real recovery will depend on us. All of us.