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Posted: April 01, 2014

Remote possibilities

Entrepreneurs call mountain towns home

Suzie Romig

From offices overlooking the snowy main street of a Colorado mountain town, business owner Michelle Geib helps customers with questions about sailing on a schooner on Lake Michigan or whale watching off the California coast.

Geib runs Xperience Days, her company that offers unique activity gifts in locations across the country, from headquarters in downtown Steamboat Springs. The MBA graduate from New York University started her e-commerce company in New Jersey in 2004, but after several years, Hoboken no longer met the needs or desires to achieve a balanced lifestyle for the avid trail runner.

In early 2012, Geib moved her business to Western Colorado for the “year-round activities and great community,” but, she also found business advantages, including affordable employee talent and office space.

“I was looking to move my business to a town where I would still be able to grow and succeed on both a personal and professional level,” Geib said.

 The businesswoman is one of an expanding number of company owners or employees who are location neutral, or entrepreneurs who choose the lifestyle of a desirable community and bring or grow their non-location specific work to those towns.

“Steamboat offers location-neutral business owners the opportunity to grow their companies in a creative, supportive and inspirational environment,” Geib said.

Data analyst Scott Ford, who shares Steamboat office space with location-neutral workers, began tracking the growth of businesses that are not dependent on a local market in 2003, when their economic contribution in Routt County became apparent. That uptick corresponds to the time when high-speed Internet became more readily available for Steamboat businesses.

In the past, these workers might have been called lone eagles, telecommuters or consultants, but LNB has become shorthand at Steamboat area economic development meetings. Whereas once this employment sector brought to mind the part-time accountant working out of her home, location-neutral operations in Steamboat now range from one of the top hedge fund management companies in the U.S., to a manufacturer of high-tech magnetic field sensors that track equipment operations.

“Routt County and Steamboat Springs often attract individuals who bring their jobs with them,” Ford said. He believes the business trend helped stabilize the county economy and buffer the recent recession.

Ford estimates the number of location-neutral workers in Routt County doubled from 2002 to 2011 and currently represents 8 percent of the county’s labor source household income.

Regional economic development leaders are exploring strategies to draw more individuals who could grow their businesses and hire locally. Tom Kern, CEO of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, collaborated with other members of the Western Colorado Economic Alliance in mid-2013 to propose a “Colorado individual recruitment initiative” to the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. The alliance noted that efforts to attract established companies to smaller Colorado towns are too competitive and pricey nationwide. It says recruitment efforts should target highly skilled individuals in the same way that hospitals entice talented medical practitioners and universities create programs to draw top professors.

Western Slope communities are working to foster growth in LNBs to help strengthen areas such as agriculture and tourism. As Ford noted, “Location-neutral businesses are helping drive the diversification and vibrancy of the local economy.”

Determining the number of location-neutral employees and businesses in Colorado counties can be a challenge. Steamboat Springs data analyst Scott Ford mines U.S. Census and Bureau of Labor Statistics data to indentify patterns of growth in this employment trend in the following categories:

• Baseline of self-employment wages

• Work-from-home labor figures

• Wages earnedoutside of employees’ home county

• Impact onhousehold income

Suzie C. Romig is a freelance journalist who has lived in Colorado since 1991. Her byline has appeared in newspapers and magazines across the state on topics ranging from small businesses to raising children to energy efficiency. She can be reached at suziecr@q.com

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