“Connector” focusing on tech sector

As business development manager at the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Mara Hardy focuses on the technology sector and works to not only bring new firms to Mesa County, but also help existing firms expand. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)
As business development manager at the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Mara Hardy focuses on the technology sector and works to not only bring new firms to Mesa County, but also help existing firms expand. (Business Times photo by Phil Castle)

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Mara Hardy has worked for most of her career at the intersections of different interests, pulling together people with dissimilar backgrounds, agendas and objectives for collaborative endeavors.

It’s not surprising, then, Hardy describes her latest role as business development manager at the Grand Junction Economic Partnership as “connector.”

In focusing on the technology sector in Mesa County, Hardy has started a process of pulling together business owners, professionals and others working in the tech sector, listening to their ideas and developing a plan to implement those ideas. Hardy also is involved in organizing an upcoming event promoting entrepreneurial activity, the first of its kind for Grand Junction.

The timing couldn’t be better, Hardy says, because of a combination of factors fostering growth in an already growing sector. “Things are really going to get exciting over the next couple of years.”

Hardy joined GJEP in September, a move she says offered a good fit personally and professionally.

While she grew up along the Front Range, Hardy says she and her husband were ready to leave Denver, but not Colorado. They were attracted to the outdoor recreation, affordability and quality of life in the Grand Valley. “It offers everything.”   The couple could serve as “poster children” for the growing group of people relocating for the same reasons, she says.

The position with an economic development organization puts her experience and education to good use, she says.

Hardy worked in a succession of positions with the Colorado Water Conservation Board. A division of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources, the board sets water policy and offers information, programs and services related to the use and protection of water in the state.

Before that, Hardy worked with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce and its leadership foundation on efforts to develop civic leaders.

She holds a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies and master’s degree in urban and region planning from the University of Colorado.

Hardy says she always been interested in the big picture and the way things work together.

With GJEP, Hardy focuses on the technology sector and works to both recruit new firms to Mesa County and help existing firms expand.

While all industry sectors contribute to a more diversified and stable economy, the tech sector features some unique attributes, Hardy says.

Many tech firms are location neutral, meaning they can be operated anywhere there are internet connections, she says. As a result, the owners of tech firms locate their ventures in locations that offer them and their employees a high quality of life.

The skills necessary to work at tech firms transfer well from company to company. Tech firms also tend to spawn spinoffs, creating additional businesses and more jobs. Moreover, the tech sector usually pays higher wages, she says.

In Mesa County, the tech sector is growing along with the growth of such local companies as the Kaart Group and ProStar Geocorp, Hardy says.“It’s definitely emerging and growing quickly.”

According to an index calculated by the Milken Institute, a California think tank, Mesa County ranks 22nd among small metropolitan areas in the United States for growth in gross domestic product in the high-tech sector from 2016 to 2018.

Last year was a good year for GJEP, she says, in recruiting seven companies to relocate to Mesa County.

The outlook for economic development in Mesa County in general and the tech sector specifically remains encouraging, because of what she considers the push and pull of various factors.

Large metro areas like Denver and Silicon Valley are pushing people and businesses out because of increasing congestion, traffic and housing costs, she says.

At the same time, the Grand Valley pulls in people with its outdoor recreation opportunities, high quality of life and affordable land and housing, she says. That’s not to mention the attraction of a business-friendly climate or Colorado Mesa University, the fastest-growing university in the state.

GJEP targets a number of industry sectors deemed especially good fits for Mesa County, she says, including the outdoor recreation manufacturing and aerospace sectors.

Still, the information technology and technology sector accounts for 21 percent of the prospects with which GJEP works, a proportion second only to the 28 percent for the outdoor recreation manufacturing sector, she says.

To further assist the tech sector, Hardy says she’s been meeting with a coalition with a total of about 20 business owners and individuals working in the sector. The purpose, she says, is to discuss and identify what’s working and what challenges persist. Work is under way on an action plan that includes specific steps for solving problems and achieving goals.

In addition, Grand Junction will host what’s billed as Techstars Startup Week West Slope.

The free event, scheduled for June 5 to 8, will include panel discussions, presentations and workshops offering a variety of information about starting and growing ventures.

Hardy says four tracks are planned for the event: capital, growth, makers and producers and marketing and communications. A fun track also is planned to offer participants a chance to join in everything from mountain biking and trail running to a bar crawl.

Techstars events elsewhere have been well-attended, Hardy says. The event in Denver is one of the largest in North America.

She doesn’t yet know how many people will attend the inaugural Techstars event in Grand Junction, but expects a good turnout. “The response has been pretty good.”

Hardy says she enjoys working at the intersections of different interests and pulling together people for collaborative endeavors.

It’s especially rewarding, though, working with GJEP and the technology sector in Mesa County as a connector, she says. “It’s been really exciting.”

For more information about assistance and services from the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, call 245-4332 or visit the website at www.gjep.org. For more information about Techstars Startup Week West Slope, log on to https://westslope.startupweek.co.