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Posted: June 01, 2010

Rundles wrap up: the new frontier of Colorado business—

Branch managers

Jeff Rundles

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Denver, and more broadly Colorado, has been my home now for 37 years, and while I have traveled extensively to many other U.S. locales, I can't think of a better place to live or a better place to work.

The other day I saw a news report about a study from the Brookings Institute that labels Denver as one of nine "New Frontier" metro areas in the United States. In the study's view, we are poised to handle the challenges of a new diverse society and could be a model for economic growth.

The story was scant on details, and these periodic studies, based on such things as census data, are notoriously vague.

I remember a study like this some 20 years ago that ranked Denver "high" for "livability," and metro-area chamber types trotted out the findings as proof we were better than, say, Austin or Atlanta. As I recall the study was based on nothing more than a mathematical measurement of the gap between birth rates and death rates. About the same time Colorado Springs was listed as the nation's second "Most Tense City" in a study based on the per capita consumption of Rolaids.

In my Colorado lifetime, Denver has been ranked by some national magazine or survey at least four times for being the top city in America for singles. Unfortunately, each time this happened I was married.

We also have been given good marks on "green" rankings, had our universities ranked high for certain academics as well as "partying," been lambasted for such things as educational spending, and on and on, some of it tripe, some of it accurate, and much of it meaningless.

What isn't meaningless, however, is the ranking of our business community overall: low. This is my own personal study, founded on the hard rock and wet marshes of my own observation.
I was thinking recently about the Qwest/CenturyTel deal that will make the Colorado company a Louisiana firm, and the sale of Frontier Airlines that moves its decision-making to another state. I checked out the Fortune 500 list of the nation's top companies for the Colorado representatives: 11, including the soon-to-be-gone Qwest, and also Molson Coors, which isn't really run here anymore.

We used to have relatively big banks based here; we used to be the nation's base for cable television; we had steel companies, utilities, energy development, cattle feeding operations, rubber-products manufacturing, locally owned department and sporting goods stores. We used to have decision makers in our midst. Now we have branch managers.

It seems like every time there's a merger or an acquisition, the headquarters moves away, and the level of employment in Colorado, particularly in senior-level positions, diminishes. I have been covering business in Colorado for a long time, and it used to be that people, and companies, were drawn here. There was a palpable buzz for Colorado business. Now it seems flat, as if people have decided we are an outpost on the business landscape.

This is important because big business is a draw to small business. It creates vendors and off-shoots, goes a long way in supporting the civic and not-for-profit infrastructure that fills in the gaps, and generates jobs both directly and indirectly. I meet more and more businesspeople who used to head up companies and are now consultants - and many of their clients are former big business managers trying to carve out a small business niche. We used to have a business community. Now we have a giant LinkedIn networking group whose members only speak to each other while in need.

Whether Colorado becomes a "New Frontier" city capable of real economic generation in this century will have less to do with diversity and more to do with leadership. We are lacking on that score in business, and becoming less business relevant all the time.

I wonder where we'd rank these days on the per capita consumption of Rolaids. Pretty high, I imagine.

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Jeff Rundles is a former editor of ColoradoBiz and a regular columnist. Email him at jrundles@cobizmag.com.

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