State economic development chief offers support to local efforts

Stephanie Copeland
Stephanie Copeland

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The new state director of economic development says she’s impressed by efforts in the Grand Valley and Western Colorado to bring businesses and jobs to the region.

But the state can help in improving access to financing, offering tax incentives and making it easier to participate in programs, said Stephanie Copeland, executive director of the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade.

“How we can support bridges to growth?” Copeland asked.

A veteran of the telecommunications industry who began her new duties as economic development chief in January, Copeland toured Western Colorado as part of her outreach efforts to rural areas of the state. In Grand Junction, she met with members of Club 20 and the Grand Valley Outdoor Recreation Coalition. She also toured the Jabil Lewis Engineering contract engineering and precision machining shop.

In a subsequent telephone interview with the Business Times, Copeland said she came away from her meetings with a sense the area is at a “tipping point” and the people she met are hopeful efforts soon will result in growth.

Copeland said her agency can help in a number of ways, including a new effort to offer a total of $2 million in micro loans. The program will improve access to financing in rural areas for businesses that  require small loans, but have discovered it’s more difficult to obtain them, she said.

Another effort would offer tax incentives for small business districts.

Copeland said she also heard changes are needed to make it easier for businesses to access the Rural Jump-Start Program.

The program creates zones in which approved businesses are exempted from paying state and local taxes. To participate, the core functions of businesses may not compete with existing operations. Businesses must create a minimum of five net new jobs in the county in which they’re located. Qualifying businesses are exempt from paying state income, use and sales taxes as well as county and municipal personal property taxes. Their employees also are exempt from paying state income taxes.

Mesa County was the first in Colorado  to offer the program, and seven companies were approved to participate in 2016.

Copeland said she appreciated the comments and promised changes will come quickly. “We’ll get after that right away.”

While Mesa County and other areas of Western Colorado continue to lag behind the Front Range in several measures of growth, Copeland said it’s difficult to make comparisons between rural areas and the urban corridor.

Some of the growth that’s occurred along the Front Range has been the result of long-term investments, she said, including Denver International Airport and the Colorado Convention Center.

Investments in Mesa County similarly will reap benefits, she said, citing as examples the expansion of Colorado Mesa University and efforts to develop the area along the Colorado River.

Copeland brings to her new role nearly three decades of experience in the telecommunications industry. Before her appointment, she worked as president of the Zayo Group, a communications infrastructure services firm. She previously worked as chief operating officer at WildBlue, where she was responsible for the operations of the $500 million rural broadband business.

In the early 1990s, Copeland moved to Russia to take a management position with Cable and Wireless, establishing a joint venture to bring competitive telecommunications to the region.

Copeland moved back to the United States in 1994 as part of the team that started MFS International, a company that built some of the first competitive telecommunications networks in Europe.

Joining Level 3 Communications in 1997, Copeland developed and ran the first transport products for the company in the U.S., Europe and Asia.

In 2001, Qwest communications recruited Copeland to run pricing for the company, spanning the consumer, small and large business segments. She remained at Qwest for 10 years until the sale of the company to Centurylink, holding several leadership roles, including vice president of marketing and vice president of the small business segment.

Copeland said her experiences help her understand how businesses operate as well as sympathize with the pressures owners and managers face in operating their ventures.

At the same time, though, Copeland said she’s been surprised by two things: how different rural areas of Colorado are from other areas of the country and how much collaboration occurs between the private and public sectors in the state.

Copeland said rural areas of Colorado are further along in economic development efforts than she had initially believed with good prospects for economic and job growth — what she called “green shoots.”

Efforts that involve collaboration among businesses, local and state governments, will help in nurturing those shoots, she said.

“It’s very encouraging.”