Business leader: Area “well-situated” for the future

Betty Bechtel

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Having lived through the best and worst of economic times during her more than 30-year legal career in Grand Junction, Betty Bechtel believes the area is poised for growth beyond that associated with boom and bust energy cycles.

“I feel right now we’re on a positive incline,” Bechtel said. “I think we’re well-situated for the future.”

Investments in streets and public facilities will pay returns. And the growth of Colorado Mesa University and the health care industry bode well in developing a more diversified economy, Bechtel said.

The collaboration that’s become a hallmark of the community must continue, though, she added. Perseverance will help as well.

Bechtel brings to her assessment not only experience gained from decades spent representing businesses in her employment law practice, but also the singular perspective of someone who’s served as board chairwoman of three local business organizations: the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Business Incubator Center and Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

The chamber recently honored Bechtel as its Citizen of the Year in recognition of her service to those three groups and a half dozen other nonprofit organizations in the community. 

Bechtel said she’s always been willing to help organizations that help businesses. “They’re all doing fascinating things. I felt it was an honor to be asked to be on any of those boards.”

Bechtel remains a partner in Bechtel & Santo, although she’s been retired from full-time practice for nearly two years. Prior to launching her firm with Michael Santo, Bechtel worked with the Grand Junction firm of Dufford, Waldeck, Milburn & Krohn.

Bechtel earned her law degree from the Lewis and Clark College Northwestern School of Law in Portland, Ore., and a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Colorado in Boulder.

Prior to attending law school, Bechtel worked as a statistician for what was at the time Mountain Bell in Colorado and Pacific Bell in California.

She traces her interest in business further back, though, to her childhood days serving customers on a family dairy farm in the Napa Valley of California.

While she initially considered attending art school, Bechtel said she’s never regretted her decision to pursue her interest in business and law. “I’ve always been very business oriented.”

Bechtel moved to Grand Junction in 1980 and two years later witnessed what happened as an oil shale boom went bust. Bechtel said her and her husband, a doctor, were somewhat insulated from the downturn because of their professions. Nonetheless, she wouldn’t want to relive the experience. “It was like a depression almost.”

A number of organizations were launched in the aftermath of the oil shale bust as part of efforts to resurrect the economy, including what is now known as the Grand Junction Economic Partnership as well as the Business Incubator Center.

Bechtel became involved with both organizations, eventually as chairwoman of the boards overseeing their operations.

While its role has changed somewhat over the years, the principle mission of GJEP remains the same, Bechtel said: attract new businesses, especially manufacturers, to help expand and diversify the economy. More recently, GJEP has expanded its role to also assist existing businesses.

The Business Incubator Center focuses on helping wouldbe entrepreneurs start and grow ventures, Bechtel said. “They need a friendly home to help develop things.” Programs at the center offer low-cost space and shared services, counseling, education and financing through a revolving loan fund.

Meanwhile, the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce remains an advocate for businesses in promoting networking opportunities and lobbying on behalf of its members on local and state issues, she said.

It’s important the three organizations not only pursue their separate roles, but also collaborate, Bechtel said. “It’s very important that these three organizations work together. They’re all needed.”

Given the lasting effects of the oil shale boom and bust, many businesses were better prepared for the natural gas boom and subsequent downturn that occurred 20 years later, Bechtel said. The slowdown in energy exploration and production in the area coupled with the recession was harmful, yet not as cataclysmic as what followed the layoffs of 2,000 oil shale workers on a single Sunday in 1982, she said.

Still, the slow recovery following the latest downturn reinforces the continued need for an even more diversified economy that doesn’t rely too heavily on energy or any other sector, Bechtel said. “I love diversification, I really do.”

The growth of Colorado Mesa University and the local health care industry help in that regard in developing different sectors, educating the workforce and bringing people to the Grand Valley, she said.

Investments in infrastructure also pay returns, including new streets and bridges as well as such new public buildings as a police station and central library, she said.

Ongoing work is needed, though, to develop still other important attributes that can bolster the economy, including recreational opportunities and cultural facilities, Bechtel said. “We need these recreational and cultural experiences, and we shouldn’t lose sight of them.”

Bechtel said she’s excited about proposed additions and renovations to the Avalon Theatre in downtown Grand Junction, but also believes a recreation center is needed.

Collaboration among GJEP, the incubator center and chamber as well as many other organizations have served the community well in the past and will continue to do so, Bechtel said. “The Grand Junction community is as good as it is because of this cooperation.”

Perseverance similarly has helped the community get through downturns and remains important as well, she said. “Things may look dismal, but with cooperation, collaboration and perseverance, we’re going to be OK.”

After repeated ups and downs in the Grand Valley over the past 30 years, Bechtel now looks for steady and long-lasting improvement in the economy. “You can’t help but feel positive about where we’re going.”