Group outlines progress toward economic development goals

Phil Castle, The Business Times

A broad coalition of business organizations, government entities and academic institutions has made progress toward achieving three economic development goals for Mesa County, officials from the coalition say.

Even as a committee reviews energy innovation projects for possible funding, a team of “first responders” helps struggling businesses stay in business. Other efforts continue to communicate what it’s like to live, work and play in the county.

“This wasn’t a plan that sat on a shelf,” said Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce.

Schwenke was among the representatives of a group called the Economic Development Partners who spoke at a press conference to outline efforts to develop and implement an economic development plan for Mesa County.

The Economic Development Partners includes more than 20 members, among them the chamber, Business Incubator Center and Grand Junction Economic Partnership, but also Mesa County, the cities of Grand Junction and Fruita and town of Palisade as well as the Mesa County Workforce Center and Colorado Mesa University.

The coalition has been working since the beginning of 2011 on the economic development plan for Mesa County as part of a grass roots initiative launched by Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Mesa County was among the first counties in the state to draft an economic development plan and did so based on a series of surveys and meetings involving the public in setting goals and devising ways to achieve those goals, Schwenke said.

The plan includes three major goals, she said: establish Mesa County as an epicenter for energy research, support the growth of existing businesses and promote a unified community brand.

A new center at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction is looking for ideas on how to achieve the first goal and expects to award up to $160,000 this year to help fund applied research and workforce development projects.

The Unconventional Energy Center at CMU has requested proposals from academia, business, industry and the community on ways to develop an epicenter of energy innovation.

CMU received a $1.6 million grant from the Mesa County Federal Mineral Lease Board, money distributed from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to areas affected by energy development. CMU matched the grant to create a $3.2 million endowment to fund applied research and workforce development projects in the region.

A committee focused on applied research expects to award up to $100,000 in 2013. A committee focused on workforce development and curriculum improvement expects to award $60,000.

Derek Wagner, director of special projects and strategic initiatives at CMU, said proposals have been submitted and some of the projects could begin as early as the first quarter. “We want to get money out the door as soon as we can.”

Schwenke said efforts will involve not only fossil fuels, but also renewable sources. “I’m talking all kinds of energy.”

Advocacy and education will play a role in developing an epicenter for energy innovation, she said. There’s also a possibility of a opening an energy research park.

Jon Maraschin, executive director of the Business Incubator Center, said a number of efforts also are under way to achieve the second goal of promoting the growth of existing businesses in Mesa County.

Those efforts include a team of what Maraschin described as “first responders” who can marshall local resources to help businesses, including those struggling to remain open. “We’ve had some successes,” he said.

A “Listening to Business” program will continue with interviews scheduled to start in the first quarter with local business owners to identify opportunities and challenges, Maraschin said.

The Mesa County Workforce Center offers a program of paid internships to help develop the workforce. And Mesa County offers rebates on personal business property taxes to firms opening a new facility or expanding an existing facility.

The Economic Development Partners also have been involved in various efforts to develop and communicate a unified message about what it’s like to live, work and play in Mesa County.

“This year was really busy for us,” said Kelly Flenniken, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.

The efforts included the promotion of a number of events as well as an online video posted on the GJEP website depicting outdoor activities, Flenniken said.

While Palisade ranks among the top destinations in the country for wine enthusiasts, Fruita attracts a growing following for mountain biking opportunities, she added.