What’s the big idea for development? An energy R&D hub

Establishing a hub for energy research and development is among dozens of ideas proposed as part of efforts to draft an economic development plan for Mesa County.

Business owners and managers participating in an online survey and two-hour planning session also suggested the creation and promotion of a community brand, more efforts to support existing businesses and a variety of other ideas great and small.

The ideas will be incorporated into a county plan, which in turn will be integrated into regional and state plans under an initiative by newly elected Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper.

Diane Schwenke, president and chief executive officer of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce, said the idea to promote energy research and development makes sense given the abundance of energy sources in the region. That includes not only natural gas and coal, but also uranium as well as such renewable sources as geothermal and solar power.

“You build on your strengths and that’s one of our strengths,” Schwenke said.

Chris Reddin, executive director of the Business Incubator Center in Grand Junction agreed. “This is basically playing to our strengths.”

Ann Driggers, president and CEO of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, said the concept aligns well with the existing efforts of her organization to promote business in the energy sector.

About 450 responses were received for an online survey of businesses and individuals. Survey questions asked respondents to identify important attributes of the area, opportunities for business growth and job creation and the industry sectors that offer the most potential for growth. Respondents also were asked to identify major challenges to conducting business, what they’d like to see done to help existing businesses and the role of local cities and Mesa County in supporting business growth and job creation.

About 120 people participated in a planning session at Mesa State College, where they were asked to propose and rate various ideas to promote economic development.

Schwenke said the survey results indicated that entrepreneurs conduct business in Grand Junction because of the quality of life and geographic location. The energy and health care sectors offer the most potential for future growth, she added.

But at the same time, businesses face challenges related to limited access to capital and regulations, she said. Improving access to capital, reducing regulations and taxes and offering incentives for business and job growth would help.

As for the planning session, Schwenke said the top-rated idea was promoting a research and development hub in Mesa County involving both conventional and renewable energy sources.

The county is uniquely situated in the center of a region that offers a variety of resources for energy development, she said, including coal, natural gas, oil shale and uranium, but also bio fuels and geothermal and solar power. “That’s a unique edge that we ought to capitalize on.”

Moreover, the concept could involve different entities and organizations, she said. “This is something where a community can come together and everyone can have a piece.”

Reddin said Mesa State College could play a role in promoting research as part of its curriculum. The Business Incubator Center already offers assistance to businesses and entrepreneurs offering products and services to the energy sector.

Driggers said the energy sector is among the target industries for GJEP efforts to bring new businesses and jobs to Mesa County.

In addition to the energy R&D hub, a number of other ideas were proposed at the planning session, including efforts to develop and promote a community brand for the Grand Valley. That brand could include not only the wine industry, but also outdoor recreation and other important attributes.

Driggers said the energy R&D hub and other ideas will be incorporated into an economic development plan for Mesa County — along with a series of steps to realize those ideas. The plan should be completed over the next month.

A regional economic development meeting for Garfield, Mesa, Moffat, Rio Blanco and Routt counties was scheduled for March 9 in Craig. Driggers said efforts already under way in Mesa County could serve as a model for other counties in the region.

Driggers anticipates a separate meeting of the Western Colorado Economic Alliance to share ideas and goals as well as make sure the Western Slope is well-represented in statewide economic development efforts.