Phil Castle, The Business Times
John Hickenlooper believes efforts to promote economic development in Colorado have paid off in many ways, among them historically low unemployment rates.
Although Mesa County hasn’t yet recovered from the recession to the same extent as the Front Range, the Colorado governor sees improvement as well as the potential for additional opportunities.
Hickenlooper reviewed development efforts as well as answered questions about a variety of topics during a town hall-style meeting in Grand Junction that also included
Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne and the executive directors of several state departments.
Hickenlooper was also in the Grand Valley six years ago in the aftermath of the Great Recession when he launched a grassroots initiative to promote economic development in Colorado. Plans were developed in each of the 64 counties in Colorado and then incorporated into regional plans and then a statewide plan. Some of the key goals of the effort, he said, were reducing government bureaucracy, offering more access to capital for small business and fostering a more entrepreneur-friendly environment.
Colorado since has rebounded economically, Hickenlooper said. For April, the latest month for which estimates are available, the statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell to 2.3 percent. That’s the lowest level ever, he said.
The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County for April was higher at
3.2 percent. But the jobless rate has dropped more than two points over the last two months to the lowest level since April 2008. “It’s moving in the right direction,” Hickenlooper said.
Economic development efforts continue in promoting additional growth in several industry sectors, among them cybersecurity and outdoor recreation.
Colorado has become a national leader in outdoor recreation, Hickenlooper said, in promoting a year-round industry that’s evolved beyond skiing.
There’s a good chance Denver will be selected as the new home for a lucrative outdoor retailer trade show, he said. That in turn could help attract even more outdoor recreation companies to Colorado. Some of those companies likely will come to Mesa and Delta counties, Hickenlooper added.
Meanwhile, additional work is needed in other areas, Hickenlooper said. That includes helping regions of Colorado that have relied on natural resources extraction and experienced the cyclical nature of that industry.
More work also is needed to bring high-speed Internet access to all areas of Colorado, an effort Hickenlooper compared to bringing electricity and telephone service to rural areas in the past.
Tony Neal-Graves, executive director of Colorado’s Broadband Office, said connectivity is key. “It’s really about economic outcomes for your community.”
Lynne said the increasing cost of health insurance, especially in some areas of Colorado, presents another challenge. Premiums are 50 percent more expensive in Mesa County than the Front Range, she said.
While an expansion of Medicaid coverage and subsides under federal health care reforms have helped to insure more people in Colorado, rising costs haven’t yet been addressed, she said.
Hickenlooper said he doesn’t consider the Affordable Care Act perfect, but opposes efforts to roll back coverage. In answering a question from the audience, Hickenlooper also said it’s unlikely a further expansion of government health care coverage — essentially Medicare for all — will occur.
Meanwhile, though, Hickenlooper said still other efforts hold out promise.
Hickenlooper praised a new program under way in Mesa County promoting youth apprenticeships. CareerWise Colorado coordinates apprenticeships among businesses, high school students and educators. Students participating in the program earn wages while gaining real-world skills, industry credentials and college credit that provide them with options to enter the workplace or continue their educations. Businesses benefit from the program as they assume a more active role in building their work forces.
CareerWise Colorado serves as a national model, Hickenlooper said. “This apprenticeship program is going to be a big deal.”
Hickenlooper said he’s optimistic about not only continued economic growth in Colorado, but also Mesa County. “I see a lot of opportunity.”