Hickenlooper updates development effort

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper returned to the area where he kicked off a grassroots effort to develop a new economic development plan for the state to offer an update as well as some encouragement.

Given differences in economic recovery between the Front Range and Western Slope, though, Hickenlooper faced tough questions about his positions on everything from hydraulic fracturing to sage grouse protection to water use.

Hickenlooper launched his economic development initiative in early 2011 at a meeting at the Fruita Community Center. Plans subsequently were drafted for each of the 64 counties in Colorado and then incorporated into regional plans and finally a statewide plan dubbed the Colorado Blueprint.

Speaking at a Jan. 10 meeting at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, Hickenlooper said the initiative helped to identify what he called the essential ingredients of successful economic development: a pro-business culture; efforts to attract, retain and grow businesses;  efforts to foster innovation; work force development; and the creation of a statewide brand.

At the same time, the initiative supports local efforts, he said. “This stuff doesn’t happen from the top down.”

Since 2010, Colorado has climbed from the 40th to fourth in a ranking of state job growth, he said.

Hickenlooper acknowledged differences in the extent to which different areas of Colorado have recovered, including a Mesa County labor force that’s shrunk as people have moved away to find work. But he also said there have been some successes.

Grand Junction is among five Colorado cities ranked among the top 20 metro areas in the United States for the highest ratios of startup tech businesses compared to the national average. Grand Junction placed 19th, he said.

Local efforts to support entrepreneurs, especially young entrepreneurs, constitute a good step toward recovery, he said.

The ongoing work of the Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction to assist new and existing businesses as well as the renewed efforts of a manufacturing alliance to promote the industry sector also should help in bolstering business, he added.

As a larger city, Grand Junction offers more “critical mass” in   promoting economic development than smaller communities, he added. “You guys have the foundation to diversify your community.”

Hickenlooper spent as much time at the meeting at CMU answering questions as he did discussing economic development, although the two usually were related.

Asked how he planned to replace companies that have moved out of Colorado because of state policies, including gun control legislation enacted last year, Hickenlooper said, “We hate to lose any business.” But he added: “Far more businesses are moving in than moving out.”

Asked directly whether or not he would oppose a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing in energy production should such a measure make the election ballot in November, Hickenlooper said he would. “I will oppose it and use the bully pulpit and every other means that I can to do that.”

Responsible energy companies actually want regulations, Hickenlooper said, as a way to prevent irresponsible development by companies that don’t uphold the same standards. But the regulatory process should take into account the varied interests involved, he said. Negotiations with energy companies and environmental interests resulted in the nation’s strongest fracking fluid disclosure rules, he added.

Hickenlooper said similar efforts will be needed to protect sage grouse and grouse habitat in Colorado without imposing harsh federal restrictions on agricultural and energy development activities. Cooperation and collaboration also will be required to use and conserve water in the face of growing demand.