Mesa County vaults in think tank comparison of best-performing areas

Kelly Flenniken

Phil Castle, The Business Times

 Mesa County vaulted nearly 70 spots in the latest ranking of how well small metropolitan areas create and sustain jobs.

The Grand Junction metropolitan statistical area, which equates to Mesa County, soared from 117th to 50th among 179 small metro areas ranked in the 2012 Milken Institute Index of Best-Performing Cities.

The index is based on measures of job, wage and economic growth as well as the economic output of high-tech companies. The Milken Institute, a nonprofit think tank in California, promotes economic and policy solutions that create jobs, improve access to capital and enhance health.

“To see the amount of improvement we’ve had is pretty awesome,” said Kelly Flenniken, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership.

Mesa County has ranked as high as third in the index on the strength of what once was one of the fastest-growing labor markets and economies in the country.

Mesa County dropped rapidly in the rankings, however, in the aftermath of downturns in energy exploration and production and the broader economy.  Mesa County fell to 57th in 2010 and then another 60 spots to 117th in 2011.

The latest ranking reflects improving labor conditions, although several of the lagging measures continue to reflect the downturn.

Flenniken said the ranking offers a measure of reassurance the Mesa County economy is, in fact, recovering. “I feel this optimism about this year and where our economy is going.”

Mesa County ranked 14th among the 179 small metro areas for 4.25 percent job growth between May 2011 and May 2012.  Mesa County ranked 18th for wage and salary growth between 2005 and 2010.

The county ranked 52nd for job growth between 2006 and 2011 and 60th for job growth between 2010 and 2011.

Mesa County came in dead last at 179th, however, for wage and salary growth between 2009 and 2010.

Mesa County also fared less well in measures involving the output of high-tech companies — 104th for five-year growth between 2006 and 2011 and 118th for one-year growth between 2010 and 2011.

Flenniken said the measures of the local technology sector aren’t surprising, but offer an opportunity for improvement. Technology is among the target sectors for GJEP recruitment efforts, she added. “There’s a lot of room for that to grow. There’s opportunity there.”

Pueblo, the only other Colorado city ranked among small metropolitan areas, fell from 21st to 33rd in the 2012 index.

Among 200 large metropolitan areas ranked by the Milken Institute, the Fort Collins and Loveland area came in highest among Colorado cities at 12th, but slipped nine spots from its third place ranking in the 2011 index.

Boulder jumped 44 spots to 15th in the latest ranking. The Denver, Aurora and Broomfield metro area moved up 14 spots to 30th in the latest ranking. Greeley ranked 42nd, up 20 spots. Colorado Springs placed 57th, up 24 places.

Among small metropolitan areas, Logan, Utah, remained the top-ranked city, followed by Morgantown, W. Va.; Bismarck, N.D.; Odessa, Texas.; and Fargo, N.D.

Among large metro areas, the San Jose, Sunnyvale and Santa Clara area of Silicon Valley in California vaulted 50 spots into the top-ranked position for 2012.

Austin, Texas, ranked second among large metro areas, followed by Raleigh, N.C.; Washington, D.C.; and Cambridge, Mass.