Colorado economic development chief outlines priorities

Fiona Arnold
Fiona Arnold

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Improved broadband communications, a more robust outdoor recreation industry and additional growth in rural areas rank among the top priorities for economic development in Colorado, according to the new executive overseeing those efforts.

Achieving a renewed goal to promote a healthier population and communities in the state depends on nurturing a healthier economy, said Fiona Arnold, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

Speaking to members of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce attending a quarterly luncheon meeting,  Arnold reviewed the varied roles of her office as well as what’s planned as a reorganization and the next step in statewide economic development planning.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper appointed Arnold in January. She brings to what she said is her first government position varied experiences as an entrepreneur who launched a real estate development company as well as a lawyer for Vail Resorts, Anadarko Petroleum and Crown Media Holdings. Arnold began her career as a lawyer in Australia before joining an international law firm in Dallas and then moving to Colorado in 2001.

“What an amazing opportunity it’s been,” she said of her new job.

Arnold oversees what she describes as a collection of offices and programs operating under the umbrella of economic development. The office is involved not only in business development and international trade, but also creative arts; films, television and media; minority businesses, small business development centers and tourism. The collection became even larger and more diverse earlier in June with the addition of an outdoor recreation industry office.

Still, Colorado remains at a disadvantage to other states that dedicate far more funding and staffing to economic development, but fares well nonetheless, Arnold said. “We are massively outspent and outstaffed by other states. But that’s OK, because we outperform.”

Arnold said efforts are under way to reorganize the various offices to work more closely together in clusters to develop more opportunities while also meeting unmet needs.

She cited as one example the efforts of the Colorado Tourism Office to market the state and increase tourism and related business. Those efforts have been an “amazing success,” she said, but at the same time have left out rural areas of the state.

While rural areas offer activities and historical sites that attract tourists, they also need to provide more information about where people can stay and eat meals and when shops are open, Arnold said. One possible way to promote rural areas would be to stage a competition in which travel writers would visit rural areas of Colorado and vie to create the best stories about what to see and do there, she said.

Rather than limp through his second term as a lame duck, Hickenlooper has charged his administration with an overarching goal of improving the health of the people, communities and economy of Colorado, Arnold said.

To promote a healthier economy, state agencies will focus on improving infrastructure and streamlining business regulations, she said.

Infrastructure includes not only highways, but also broadband communications, Arnold said. Fast, reliable and affordable broadband services have become a “critical issue,” she said.

The state government can’t afford to improve broadband infrastructure on its own, but can collaborate in efforts to do so, including efforts to tap federal funding for projects, Arnold said. Under one program, federal subsidies of up to 85 percent are available to connect schools to broadband systems.

Rural areas of the state also will become a focus of efforts to update and implement a statewide economic development plan, Arnold said.

Hickenlooper launched his economic development initiative in early 2011. Plans subsequently were drafted for each of the 64 counties in Colorado and then incorporated into regional plans and finally a statewide plan dubbed the Colorado Blueprint.

While state officials have “kept an eye” on economic development plans for rural areas, little else has been done, Arnold said. “To me, that’s really not good enough.”

As part of efforts to update the Colorado Blueprint, roundtable meetings will be conducted around the state to discuss what’s worked and what hasn’t with economic development plans as well as consider new ideas for development, Arnold said. “We’re having those conversations now.”

Along with participating in those meetings, state officials will work on developing a list of available resources to support local efforts, she added.

Broadband communications, tourism and education likely will rank among the big issues involved in rural development, she said.

At the same time, though, Arnold said she has high hopes for additional efforts to bolster the outdoor recreation industry in Colorado.

Hickenlooper appointed Luis Guillermo Benitez as director of the newly created Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. The office will serve as a central point of conduct as well as provide advocacy, resources and support for an industry that already accounts for an estimated $4.2 billion in wages and salaries in the state.

Benitez brings to his new position experience with Vail Resorts, the Colorado Outward Bound School and as director of operations for a New Zealand-based company that guides clients on climbs of the highest peaks in the world.

“He is an incredible asset for the state of Colorado,” Arnold said.