Regional Report: Eastern plains
Lunch in La Junta means entrepreneur Rod Stambaugh is meeting a potential employee at the Rattlesnake Bar & Grill at the local golf course for an interview over a burger.
The small-business owner doesn’t have much time to play golf these days because he needs to hire more workers. The owner of Sprout Tiny Homes started his business in a vacant, city-owned warehouse in La Junta in February 2014. Stambaugh leases the 14,000-square-foot manufacturing space, a former fabric company, at about one-tenth the rate he priced in Boulder County.
“I moved (to La Junta) because, being a startup, you need to spend your capital on things that matter rather than on expensive buildings and infrastructure,” says Stambaugh, whose company specializes in manufacturing 275- to 500-square-foot, energy efficient homes on wheels or foundations. “I knew some folks here, negotiated a good deal and thought the labor resources were fairly available and not as expensive. We believe some of these smaller communities need a lot of economic development help. They bent over backward to get us here with a good price on the lease.”
Housing, fuel costs among rural business challenges
Kipp Parker, president of Veris Environmental in Limon, says newcomers might be surprised to find no Walmart in town, but he says, “We feel darn fortunate and blessed to live where we do and operate a business where we do.”
Parker calls himself “an old farm boy” who has grown his 25-year-old bio-solids service company to more than 50 employees across Colorado. Veris added 12 employees this spring following a merger. His 16,000-square-foot offices are housed in a former John Deere dealership.
Parker says business challenges include longer travel times and thus increased fuel costs to the municipal areas where his company recycles or disposes of residuals from wastewater plants.
Sufficient housing is another regional concern.
“We have to look at the work force, which then pushes us to look at the housing, so those pieces have become an economic development priority in order to ensure that we grow existing business and recruit new businesses,” says Kari Linker-Nation, who works in economic development for Morgan County.
Creating jobs and filling them
With unemployment rates generally lower on the Eastern Plains than in much of Colorado, finding employees can be a challenge, Stambaugh says. So he recruited his nine full-time Otero County employees from other jobs.
“It is difficult for companies to look beyond population numbers,” notes Joe Kiely, assistant town manager in Limon, population 1,857. “There is always worry, ‘Where are we going to get our employees?’ But we continue to fill the jobs that are created in this community.”
Rick Robbins, CEO of Colorado Mills oil seed processing facility in Lamar, says his 38 full-time employees are a mix of locals, “boomerangs,” – former locals who moved back – and Front Range residents who relocated. The company operates from an 8-acre complex in the Arkansas River Valley and crushes more than 40 million pounds of sunflower seeds annually. More than 70 percent of those seeds are grown within a 150-mile radius.
“If you have a good company, and you put that company in eastern Colorado, good people to fill those jobs will come because there are a lot of people who want to raise their families in rural environments,” Robbins says.
With smaller populations in Eastern Colorado counties – estimates from the State Demography Office for 2014 show 133,611 total population in the 15 easternmost counties – local leaders say every new business is celebrated. Economic development folks are happy to mention a new tractor supply, farm and ranch store, or truck stop coming to town.
Yet, the Eastern Plains are home to a wide variety of steady companies such as: Innovative Water Technologies in Rocky Ford that develops solar-powered water purification systems; Eastern Colorado Seeds headquartered in Burlington with 30 full-time employees; DeBourgh Manufacturing with 80 year-round employees building storage lockers; family-owned Wisdom Rides with 50 year-round employees who manufacture trailer-mounted amusement rides from the small town of Merino; or Lewis Bolt & Nut Co. with 280 full-time employees, which makes bolts, nuts and fasteners.
To big business owners on the Front Range, having a company with 15 employees in four locations may not seem like a big deal, but it is in Eastern Colorado. Centennial Ag Supply Co., with offices in Julesburg, Yuma, Holyoke and Fort Morgan, is looking to hire four new employees and has run employment ads in Kansas newspapers in the past.
Power of agriculture and wind
Locals are eager to remind others that the Eastern Plains offer wide-open spaces for expansion and an important source of food and agricultural production.
“One of the perceptions that people have is that all areas of the Eastern Plains are dying, and there in constant out-migration,” says Linker-Nation, who grew up on a farm in Brush. “There are pockets of migrations and economic struggles, so the very successful pockets are easy to overlook.”
Wind power is a notable player on the Eastern Plains, as the regional home to more than 98 percent of that energy source generated in Colorado, according to the American Wind Energy Association. Multiple phases of installations have created 19 wind farms and 1,658 turbines in Eastern Colorado, largely built since 2007. That translates to 2,546 megawatts of power, or enough electricity for 660,000 average U.S. homes. The economic impact of the capital construction investment totals $4.7 billion, not including landowner and property tax payments, investments in manufacturing, hundreds of temporary jobs during installation, and long-term wind farm maintenance jobs, says David Ward at AWEA.
Shelia Crane, who works in Baca County in far southeastern Colorado, says the most common misperception she hears is: “Why in the world would you want to live in the middle of nowhere?”
“For us down here in this corner, there are a lot of business owners that operate in a tri-state area because we are 30 miles from Oklahoma and 30 miles from Kansas,” Crane says. “We export about 90 percent of our products out of county. There are a lot of successes across this entire region; it’s just success stories on a smaller scale.”
Says Stephanie Gonzales, who works with Southeast Colorado Enterprise Development: “There are so many opportunities here. I feel like we aren’t maybe marketing as well as we should. Small-town rural living can be good.”