The road ahead: 2016 outlook encouraging, officials say

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Kristi Pollard
Kristi Pollard
Diane Schwenke
Diane Schwenke


      Kristi Pollard believes the business and economic outlook for Mesa County is “trending positive” heading into 2016.

Pollard, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, bases her outlook on a number of factors, among them increased interest from companies in relocating or expanding operations, a new state program offering tax exemptions to qualifying businesses and what Pollard sees as a stronger commitment to marketing the area.

Mesa County continues to lag behind the more robust recovery that’s occurred elsewhere in Colorado in part because of a downturn in the energy sector related to low prices. But even that situation is slowly changing, Pollard says. “We’re still trying to come out of the Great Recession, and we’re starting to see some real progress.”

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, remains more modest in her outlook, but anticipates slowly improving conditions nonetheless. “We’ll be in a better spot at the end of 2016 than we were at the end of 2015.”

Pollard is among the contributors to a statewide economic outlook compiled by the business research division of the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business. Pollard and Steve Jozefczyk, business development manager for GJEP, offered an overview of the labor and real estate markets in Mesa County as well various industry sectors.

“The business and economic outlook is trending positive for Mesa County,” Pollard and Jozefczyk wrote. “Further diversification of business industries; new incentive programs, such as Jump Start Colorado that is designed for the rural regions of Colorado; and an ever-improving high quality of life will help to position Mesa County for growth in 2016.”

As of October, the latest month for which estimates are available, the unemployment rate in Mesa County has retreated to 4.7 percent, the lowest level so far in 2015. The rate was slightly lower, however, at 4.5 percent at this time last year.

For October 2015, the labor force totaled 72,741. That’s down 1,529 over the past year and well below a peak labor force of 84,000 in November 2009.

Pollard says the slowdown in energy exploration and development in the aftermath of falling oil and natural gas prices has pulled jobs and workers out of the local labor market.

As of November, 3,719 real estate transactions worth a total of $889 million has been reported in Mesa County for 2015. Compared to the same 11-month span in 2014, transactions were up 11.3 percent and dollar volume increased 21.2 percent.

Year-to-date totals for 2015 already top the year-end totals for 2014, when 3,653 transactions worth a total of $809 million were reported.

While sales and use tax collections for the City of Grand Junction and Mesa County, a key measure of retail activity, were down in November, year-to-date collections for 2015 have outpaced 2014. The city collected a total of nearly $46.6 million in sales and use taxes, up 2.8 percent from last year. The county collected more than $29.5 million, up 4.7 percent.

Lodging tax collections for 2015, a measure of hotel and motel stays, totaled almost $1.3 million through November, the Grand Junction Visitor and Convention Bureau reported. That’s up 9.4 percent from 2014.

While economic indicators offer some encouragement for improving conditions in 2016, Pollard says she’s also encouraged by increased interest among companies about relocating or expanding in Mesa County. Heading into the new year, GJEP is working with 64 prospects that have requested information from the economic development organization, she says.

Those prospects include companies in the outdoor equipment manufacturing and health care sectors, which also happen to be two target sectors for recruiting efforts, Pollard says. The high-tech and agricultural sectors also are priorities for 2016, she says.

Additional incentives will be available through newly enacted state legislation that creates zones in which qualifying businesses are exempt from taxes and fees. The so-called Jump Start Colorado program already has generated interest in development in Mesa County, Pollard says.

The governor’s office and state office of economic development have offered additional assistance in promoting the area, she says. “It’s huge. It’s wonderful.”

Meanwhile, there’s been a growing commitment on the part of City of Grand Junction and Mesa County to increase support for economic development efforts, in particular additional marketing, Pollard says.

The support follows the results of a competitive location assessment and branding research that recommended a level of funding for economic development at least equal to that spent on promoting tourism.

Local groups involved in economic development — including GJEP, the chamber and Business Incubator Center — are working together to recruit new businesses, assist existing businesses and help grow startups. “As a community we’re hungry and ready to work together,” Pollard says.

Schwenke remains more modest in her outlook for 2016 in part because of the results of a survey that found that
50 percent of chamber members expect 2016 to be similar to 2015 and 25 percent anticipate improving conditions.

But like Pollard, Schwenke says she’s encouraged by increased support for economic development that includes the Jump Start Program and more funding for marketing and outreach efforts.

Schwenke says the chamber will add an additional staff member who’ll meet with representatives from industry sectors and individual businesses to identify and address issues they face as well as assist businesses with retention and expansion.

Overall, Pollard says she remains confident the business and economic outlook for Mesa County is trending positive. “I’m excited, optimistic about 2016.”