I don’t think there have been stranger times than these in my lifetime. Apart from the day to day awkwardness of speaking through a mask and greeting people with elbow bumps, there’s the huge disparity between what I hear on the national news and what’s happening in our local community. I talk to businesses all day long and I hear vastly different experiences and stories about their successes and their failures. There are bleak moments of despair, but there are also incredible bright spots of optimism and hope. One business owner told me this week that he’s not sure he’ll make it to August. Another told me her April and May sales numbers were the highest of their ten-year history. But as we climb out of quarantine and begin to recover, I hear more positive stories than I do negative.
Without a doubt, however, this recession feels very different than 2008, which hung over Mesa County for ten long years and invaded every sector, every business, every person that you spoke with. Despite an improving economy, we were still dealing with the repercussions of 11% unemployment and 52% of kids on free or reduced lunch when COVID-19 shut us down so unexpectedly and so quickly. This recovery, which we are now in, is different. Construction remains strong, as does manufacturing. Unemployment, which spiked from around 4% in February to 12% in April is already on the decline. One restaurant owner told me they are up over last year because people aren’t traveling or going to events and the only thing left to do is go out to eat. Residential realtors are busy. Housing values haven’t dropped. There is an energy in the air, an impatience to get open and back to normal. I believe our recovery will be strong and quick. And it’s because of all the work we as a community did to diversify our economy as a result of the Great Recession.
Pre-COVID, people wanted to move here because of our affordability, our investment in schools, public safety and roads, and because of the amazing transformation that is taking place along the riverfront. The growth at CMU and our airport were powerful tools in attracting new companies and allowing our local companies to grow. Today, we have incredibly low COVID-19 numbers and we were able to maintain a high quality of life- even under quarantine. It’s no surprise that people in densely populated areas are looking for what we can offer. I have no doubt that the COVID crisis was what finally convinced INFOCU5- announced late last week- to relocate to Grand Junction instead of one of the larger cities they were considering.
It would be irresponsible if I didn’t address the other crisis taking hold of America and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement. In economic development, when we talk about diversity, it’s usually in the context of having a wide range of industries, sectors and businesses. It’s taken on a new context in the past few weeks, yet it comes back to the same thing: equity. To have a strong economy means to have a balance of industries, and understanding and supporting the unique needs of each of those industries so that they can grow and prosper equally . To have a strong community, we need to make sure all of its members- whether that’s broken down by socioeconomic, racial, or gender groups- are heard, are given the same advantages, and that we aren’t leaving anyone behind. It means that when one community group is hurting, as the black community is right now, that the other groups offer support to raise them up. Because of the Black Lives Matter movement and the introspection its forced on us over the past few weeks, I look at our efforts to improve our economy differently than I did a month ago. I look at our definition of diversity differently.
It has been a hard year and it might still get harder as we roll into election season. However, the community dialogue that’s ongoing, the tough conversations, the peaceful protests, the efforts of our law enforcement agencies, city council and school district- all of it- will make our community a better place going forward for all of our residents. And that’s economic development.
This column first ran in The Daily Sentinel on June 21, 2020, alongside the June 2020 Economic Snapshot – view it here.