Firms offer advice on attracting business

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Mesa County offers attributes that could attract more businesses to the area, among them scenic surroundings, recreational opportunities and quality of life.

But challenges remain in improving the process to recruit companies, according to two executives with  economic development and marketing consulting firms: among them compiling and properly presenting information and developing a unified brand.

There are no fatal flaws that would prevent businesses from bringing operations here, though, and opportunities abound, said Audrey Taylor, president of Chabin Concepts. “You can make this happen.”

Taylor and Ed Barlow, vice president of NorthStar Destination Strategies, presented the results of a competitive location assessment and branding research to the Grand Junction City Council and Mesa County Commission.

The presentations were the latest step in a $167,000 project funded by Mesa County, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and Grand Junction as part of ongoing efforts to promote economic development, in particular converting prospects into new businesses and jobs.

While a final report on branding won’t be ready until later this year, the next step will be to bring together the various participants in local economic development efforts to consider the information and decide how to best move forward.

Taylor oversees a California-based firm that offers assistance with economic development nationwide. She presented the results of an assessment of Mesa County from the perspective of professionals who select sites for relocating companies and offered some recommendations for improvement.

Taylor said site selectors quickly evaluate potential locations for businesses based on criteria that include available resources, the cost of doing business, labor force, potential risks and real estate as well as transportation, utilities and other infrastructure. Site selectors quickly narrow their search from various regions to two or three communities. As part of the process, they look for fatal flaws that eliminate a community from contention, she added.

Mesa County has no fatal flaws, Taylor said, but also isn’t likely to fare well through the final phases of a search.

Improving the competitiveness of Mesa County is in part a matter of better documenting and packaging information about the area to prospective businesses, Taylor said.

It’s important to compile and offer detailed information online about development sites and available buildings, including maps that indicate where the properties are located as well as identify neighboring properties. More online information also is needed about the local labor market and transportation, she said.

Meanwhile, ongoing efforts should continue to maintain and improve the “product,” Taylor said, including the operations of the Grand Junction Regional Airport as well as beautification projects that help to change the perception of the area as “junk town.”

Mesa County already has one advantage in that the Business Incubator Center is “10 times better” than startup efforts in other communities, she said.

It helps, too, to target specific areas and industry sectors in recruiting new businesses, Taylor said. One approach would be to target areas within one commercial airline flight away from Grand Junction, which would include Dallas, Denver, Houston, Phoenix and Salt Lake City. The “sweet spot” for prospective recruits likely would be small businesses with fewer than 50 employees, she said.

Mesa County already boasts some “terrific” manufacturers, Taylor said, most of them firms relocated here by owners whose ventures aren’t tied to market access and whose operations have grown.

There are opportunities in a number of broad categories, she said, including such legacy sectors as agriculture and energy, as well as primary manufacturing, emerging industries and niche operations.

Taylor also recommended a more coordinated approach to economic development as well as a more consistent message communicating a brand identity.

While some of the improvements to the economic development process can be completed quickly and at low cost, Taylor said far less is spent on economic development in Mesa County than in other communities competing for new businesses and jobs. She suggested a level of funding for economic development at least equal to that spent on the Grand Junction Visitor & Convention Bureau, but warned not to divert money away from efforts to promote tourism because that constitutes a major economic driver.

In a second presentation to the Grand Junction City Council and Mesa County Commission, Barlow presented the results of branding research conducted by NorthStar Destination Strategies, a community and tourism branding research and planning firm based in Tennessee.

Barlow said the research constitutes the first half of a process of developing a brand identity. A brand, he said, is what people say about you when you’re not around. Branding is what you do about.

The research included a site visit, focus groups and interviews along with surveys of community and business leaders as well as young professionals, Barlow said. The perceptions of people in Mesa County and outside the area were considered.

A number of attributes as well as selling points for Mesa County came up frequently in the research, Barlow said, including the scenic surroundings, recreational opportunities and quality of life. While people in other areas fight traffic on their commutes home, people in Mesa County enjoy mountain biking, one response suggested.

Health care, higher education, recreation and tourism were cited as assets, he said, while entertainment, the labor force and public education were cited as challenges.

While wineries and agriculture were mentioned by some of those outside the area, others were unfamiliar with Grand Junction, Barlow said. There were perceptions among some the community is conservative and doesn’t always get along.

The Grand Valley fared less well than Fort Collins in Colorado and St. George in Utah in comparisons of communities offering a high quality of life and a good place in which to relocate a business, he added.

While a final report won’t be ready until September or October, Barlow said the research indicates Mesa County could be branded as a place where people can actually realize their expectations for a lifestyle offering scenic beauty and outdoor recreation — “the Colorado you hoped for.”

The brand could tout the year-round rewards of the great outdoors in a location where the desert meets the mountains and offers the inspiration of the natural environment and entrepreneurial spirit, he said.