Economic development: Governor praises local efforts, details state efforts

Governor John Hickenlooper

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper considers economic development efforts in Mesa County a model for what can be accomplished statewide.

Promoting innovation in the energy industry, marketing a stronger community brand and, above all, helping existing businesses grow constitute important steps in strengthening economic recovery, Hickenlooper said.

State government can play a role in the process in a number of ways, he said, whether its adding more natural gas-fueled vehicles to its fleet, hiring a chief marketing officer or cutting regulations.

Hickenlooper praised local efforts and detailed state efforts in his keynote address at the annual meeting of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.

“You guys really are one of the models in the state,” Hickenlooper said.

Hickenlooper launched what he described as a bottom-up economic development initiative early in 2011. Economic development plans were drafted in each of the 64 counties in the state and subsequently incorporated into regional plans and finally a statewide plan called the Colorado Blueprint.

Mesa County was among the first counties in the state to draft an economic development plan based on a series of public hearings to set goals and devise ways to achieve those goals. The local plan includes three major goals: establish Mesa County as an epicenter for energy research, develop and promote a community brand and support the growth of existing businesses.

Hickenlooper said many of the technical innovations that will bolster energy exploration and production for the coming decade were tested in Western Colorado, including horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing of tight rock formations.

One of the benefits of increased production of natural gas, he said, is the availability of a transportation fuel that’s less expensive and burns more cleanly than gasoline, while supporting domestic jobs and energy production.

To that end, Hickenlooper said he joined with Oklahoma Gov. Mary Fallin in forming a coalition of 22 states interested in using more compressed natural gas vehicles in their fleets. The combined purchasing power of the states should help to promote increases in the manufacturing of natural gas-powered vehicles and natural gas use. “I think it’s going to make a difference.”

Even as Mesa County develops and promotes a stronger brand, Hickenlooper expects Colorado to do the same thing after hiring a chief marketing officer.

Aaron Kennedy, founder of the Noodles & Company restaurant chain, is working on identifying and marketing the attributes that make Colorado desirable not only as a destination for a vacation, but also place in which to do business, Hickenlooper said.

There’s an opportunity for Colorado to dominate the mountain biking niche, for example, and Mesa County and Fruita are at the very center of those efforts, he added.

Even as Mesa County and Colorado strive to lure new businesses, the growth of existing businesses remains a “cornerstone” of economic development, Hickenlooper said.

To help improve access to capital, Hickenlooper said he worked with the Public Employees Retirement Association of Colorado to set aside a portion of its investments in a loan fund for Colorado companies. “This is one of those things that just makes sense.”

It’s also important that redundant broadband access be available statewide at a time when the Internet allows entrepreneurs to operate businesses anywhere they want, he said.

Meanwhile, state agencies have reduced the regulatory burden on businesses by cutting more than 800 rules. “And we’re just getting started,” Hickenlooper said.

Declines in unemployment rates in Western Colorado counties over the past year reflect improving economic conditions in the state, he said.

Natural gas prices have increased, as have exports from Colorado companies. The agriculture industry has enjoyed several years of both record yields and record prices.

While many factors are involved,  economic development efforts are helping to strengthen economic recovery, Hickenlooper said. “We’re beginning to harvest the fruits of our labor.”

Local and regional efforts are leading the way, he added. “You guys, Grand Junction and Region 11, are doing everything right.”