Summit speaker: Economic development depends on local efforts

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Ben Collins learned something about economic development while serving as a combat soldier.

Success, Collins said, depends more on grass-roots efforts than top-down programs, however well-intentioned. That holds true in Western Colorado as much as it does Afghanistan, he added. “We are the ones who are going to have to fix this. The answer is not going to come from Denver, I promise you that. The answer’s not going to come from Washington, D.C.”

Development and innovation can be a straightforward matter, though, of bringing together ideas, financing and marketing, he said. Asking questions and taking advantage of the experiences of local workers helps.

Collins, an Army special forces veteran who subsequently launched several businesses and became a Fox News commentator, shared his experiences and insights during his keynote presentation at the Western Colorado Economic Summit in Grand Junction. The Grand Junction Economic Partnership organizes the annual summit to address issues and set goals.

Collins said part of his duties in Afghanistan including helping find economic opportunities that would keep villagers from joining the insurgency. But top-down programs never worked.

Collins said he decided instead to ask how villagers earned money before the conflict. He said he discovered the locality once was famous for the wedding dresses made there, but supplies and profits were frequently stolen.

Collins said he found older women who knew how to make the dresses and younger women who could work as apprentices. It was then a matter of securing a place to work, adequate materials and safe passage between the village and markets.

There’s a somewhat similar situation occurring in rural areas of the United States Collins said  struggle with changing economies — including places in Western Colorado affected by declines in the coal mining industry. Neither funding nor solutions are likely to come from top-down programs.

A more localized approach would be to take advantage of the skills and experiences of the local labor force and use them in another way, he said.

One example might be to tap the experience of coal miners or farmers who work with equipment to manufacture better equipment or replacement parts, Collins said.

While one aspect of innovation involves creating new products or services, another aspect involves creating incrementally better products or services, he said.

The process starts by asking questions and identifying the experience and expertise available in the local work force, he said. “I didn’t know what assets I had until I started asking questions.”

Then it’s a matter of bringing together ideas with financing and marketing. It’s a gathering not unlike the economic summit, he said. “We probably have 30 or 40 businesses that could be started here.”

In answering a question after his presentation, Collins said good leaders are those who can effectively manage all the members of a team. “No one part is more important than another.”

Good leaders check their egos while letting the experts who work with them excel, he added. “Hire people that are better and smarter than you are as quickly as possible.”