Group engineering economic development efforts

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Phil Castle, The Business Times

While a growing engineering degree program and new computer science and engineering building at Colorado Mesa University constitute important steps, a group seeks support for additional efforts to attract high-tech companies to the Grand Valley.

Even small firms would pay high salaries and bring in dollars that would promote the long-term stability of an economy that’s yet to fully recover from a downturn in energy development, said Jim Grant, chairman of the Western Colorado Engineering Foundation.

The success other communities in rural areas have achieved demonstrates what’s needed is a more focused and integrated strategy for economic development along with community leaders who back the approach, Grant said. “It’s time for local leaders to become cheerleaders.”

Grant is among the board members of the foundation, most of them retired engineers and professionals, who’ve studied economic development initiatives and come to the conclusion the most effective approach would be to attract small companies involved in software development or manufacturing electromechanical products.

The Grand Valley offers advantages in that it also offers a rural setting along with lower housing costs and the outdoor recreational opportunities that tend to attract technical talent, he said.

A university with technical degree programs also is required to help meet the work force needs of high-tech companies.  But that effort is under way with an instructional partnership between CMU and the University of Colorado at Boulder.

One of the goals of the foundation was achieved when CMU and CU announced an electrical and computer engineering degree program will start with the fall semester, said Ron Arellano, marketing director for the group. “We didn’t expect it to happen that fast.”

The program adds to the mechanical and civil engineering degree programs already offered by CMU and CU. The addition was announced as part of the grand opening celebration for Confluence Hall, a computer science and engineering building at CMU.

CMU and CU launched a joint mechanical engineering degree program about 10 years ago and added a civil engineering program in 2016. Students attend courses on the CMU campus in Grand Junction and earn a bachelor’s degree from CU in Boulder. CMU faculty lead instruction for the first two years and CU faculty the last two years. More than 400 students are enrolled the program.

Arch Archuleta, a retired engineer and CU graduate who serves on the foundation board, was involved in efforts a decade ago to launch the program.

Grant said the foundation was established about four years ago as the result of informal discussions about how to attract more high-tech businesses to the Grand Valley and improve the economy. The group studied economic development initiatives in Mesa County as well as successful efforts in other small communities in rural areas across the United States.

Kent Carson, a retired scientist who serves as secretary of the foundation, said the value of gross domestic product dropped $1.1 billion in Mesa County between 2007 and 2016. The overall labor force shrunk 12,000 between 2007 and 2013.

Carson attributed those declines to a downturn in regional energy development and corresponding drops in oil and natural gas production and the loss of high-paying jobs in the sector.

The best way to make up for those losses, Carson said, would be to create and export other products and in turn bring new dollars into the economy. The fastest growing product lines with the largest markets include computer software and electromagnetic products, he said.

Moreover, the information technology sector pays higher average salaries than other sectors that have been targeted for economic development opportunities in Mesa County. Carson said. That includes the aerospace, energy, health care and outdoor gear sectors.

There’s the potential for an added bonus in the venture capital invested in software development and information technology firms, Carson said. By one estimate, 83 percent of venture capital in the United States is invested in software development.

If 100 software development companies came to Mesa County over the next 10 years and 70 of them received an average of
$14 million in venture capital, that alone would boost the Mesa County economy by more than $1 billion, he said.

Grant said it makes sense to earmark limited economic development resources to recruiting firms that offer the most “bang for buck” — including small software and technology firms.

The group also studied other small communities in rural areas that have experienced rapid growth, including Draper, Utah; Fargo, N.D.; and Madison County, Ala.

Grant said those communities had three things in common in universities with strong technical degree programs, professional company relocation organizations with focused strategies and community leaders who support economic development.

Along with seeking support for those efforts, the foundation has proposed the development of what’s billed as an economic accelerator park that would include space for a CMU and CU science, technology and engineering campus; private high-tech companies and government operations.

Grant said the mission of the Western Colorado Engineering Group is to support efforts to recoup economic and job losses in Mesa County and sustain the economy moving forward. But there are additional benefits involved in the process, he said. “It’s about improving the lives of the people of the Grand Valley.”

For morel information about the Western Colorado Engineering Foundation, call Ron Arellano at 778-7733 or visit www.westercoloradoengineeringfoundation.com.