Regional report: Northern and central mountains
Resident entrepreneurs often begin as tourists
Communities in the northern and central mountains of Colorado rely heavily on tourism dollars, but are trying to reduce that level of dependence by courting a different type of tourist.
Repeat visitors and second homeowners – who already have an emotional or financial investment in the community – are considered more impactful in helping broaden business diversity. Economic planners want to attract avid fly-fishermen, skiers and adventure cyclists to become future business owners who create good-paying, year-round jobs and support economic stability.
Now that the economic impact of Internet-connected, geography-neutral businesses is apparent and better documented in the region, leaders are turning from trying to lure relocating companies to hooking entrepreneurs who already love the area.
“It’s important to diversify our economy because we have a real community of people with diverse skills and higher education. We need to give them that environment to thrive,” says Lindsey Stapay, director of the Northwest Colorado Small Business Development Center in Dillon. “Without the community, we wouldn’t have the tourism.”
To convert a visitor into a long-term economic contributor, the local business infrastructure has to meet specific standards, Stapay says. Mountain community challenges include offering competitive and reliable broadband, providing affordable warehouse space amid resort real estate pricing, and offering sufficient co-working spaces to angel investors interested in local businesses.
From the Rockies to the world
Brooklyn-born Andy Gold and his wife lived in Albuquerque and visited the Colorado mountains frequently to ski, spending time each vacation talking with local real estate agents. When the couple eventually moved to Tabernash — a town of 417 in Grand County — advertising agency owner Gold brought along a small project for an aircraft manual.
Expanding from Gold’s home basement, Aircraft Technical Book Co. now has eight full-time employees in a converted commercial construction building in Tabernash, selling manuals to aircraft maintenance schools from Europe to Malaysia.
“There are always day-to-day issues that every business deals with,” Gold said. “We would have the same day-to-day issues if we were in Denver.”
Like other small mountain companies, Aircraft Technical had to be creative to deal with challenges, such as using a local Internet provider for Web connectivity but contracting with a high-speed, off-site server for customers.
“I’m asked constantly, ‘What do you do up here to make a living?’” Gold said of his ski-lift conversations. “My answer is always, ‘You just do it.’ People say, ‘Maybe I’ll do it later in life.’ My comment to that is, ‘Why wait?’ Later on you are going to have the same issues you have now.”
In nearby Granby, Linda and Chris Ziegler own TENSproducts Inc., which manufactures physical therapy medical supplies in an 8,300-square-foot building south of downtown. The couple moved the company from Littleton to Grand County to be closer to their favorite places to fish, hike and snowmobile. Now they have nine year-round, benefited employees and ship products from Switzerland to the Dominican Republic. Ziegler said the company’s uniqueness in the region ensures a quality employee pool.
A current focus at the nonprofit Vail Leadership Institute in Avon is to bring entrepreneurs together with investors to build connections and foster mentorships, said Ross Iverson, the institute’s president. A big step was creating a physical place to forge relationships with the opening of the BaseCamp co-working facility in January 2014.
Iverson said he’s noticed baby boomer visitors progress to business investors. First it’s a two-week visit for skiing, he explained, then time spent in the summers, then living in the mountains for a season and finally committing full time.
“There are a lot of people on the fence. You have to tip over a percent of those people who are wondering if they can make it,” Iverson said. “In the first six to 12 months there has to be a concerted effort in making sure the newly relocated business owners or families get connected with other entrepreneurs and success stories.”
Another mountain struggle is having enough large office spaces with sufficient fiber optic connection to house rapidly expanding companies. Joe Mendonca, COO of health care information technology firm HIMS Consulting Group, said the company has 52 employees working in two different locations for its Steamboat Springs corporate headquarters.
Companies such as Deer Park Road Corp. multi-fund investment managers in Steamboat Springs do support good-paying jobs unrelated to tourism. This winter, Deer Park advertised in the local newspaper for a junior portfolio manager at a salary of $125,000 plus benefits.
Mendonca at HIMS Consulting says the perception is that businesses in sectors other than tourism may not be able to find qualified employees in mountain towns. However, he stresses that companies can easily grow to 50 employees through local talent and employee networking for rectruitment. HIMS – with 160 employees nationwide – grew its Steamboat location from one key telecommuting manager.
“We found plenty of qualified candidates up here; most were highly educated, some with MBAs, who just prefer to live here instead of Denver. We also hired a number of people who were coming back into the work force after raising children here,” says Mendonca, noting his company hired from outside the region after hitting 50 employees in Steamboat.
Rachel Lunney, economic development director for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments in Silverthorne, says that during ski season in Summit County in the first quarter of 2014, almost 48 percent of the jobs could be tied to tourism. According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, that includes 8,064 jobs in accommodations and food service, 2,311 in arts, entertainment and recreation out of 21,669 jobs in the county.
“What we are trying to do is encourage job creation in other sectors that are higher paying, year-round and not so dependent on tourism,” Lunney says. “We also are working to build the capacity of our communities so they can create an environment attractive to entrepreneurs. We have to keep working on infrastructure such as broadband, transportation and housing that is affordable.”