Small-town strategies to build more economic resilience
Manufacturing jobs help a county hit by the oil and gas bust
Before he became a successful business owner with his three brothers in Rio Blanco County, Brad Adee was a frequent out-of-state visitor, fly fisherman and elk hunter in northwestern Colorado. The sportsman’s leisure visits later turned into the purchase of an outdoor sports equipment manufacturing business that has grown fivefold in the past five years, employing 25 people in Meeker.
Those year-round manufacturing jobs are a positive in a county hard-hit with the significant loss of jobs in the energy extraction industry. The Adee brothers’ Headhunter Bow Strings is precisely the type of business that county leaders are working to attract, especially in the outdoor sports business that is a natural fit for the rural region.
“Light manufacturing in the outdoor industry is a niche for Rio Blanco, and it fits the marketability of the area,” says Jeff Eskelson, Rio Blanco County commissioner who helped hire Katelin Cook as the county’s first full-time economic development director in January 2014.
Eskelson is co-owner with wife Kristen, of Rocky Mountain Bowstrings. The duo has increased manufacturing staff from three to 19 employees since purchasing the business in 2010. The owners doubled the size of their production facility to 6,000 square feet in August and plan to add four more employees.
The two growing companies have established Meeker as a top spot in the U.S. for original equipment manufacturing of bowstrings. These types of businesses and the region’s recreational renown led community leaders to dream big for an “outdoor center for adventure” as a public-private partnership in downtown Meeker.
Visitors could come to learn how to shoot at a high-tech indoor training facility or connect with outdoor vendors. The center is a top action plan recommendation of economic development consultants Better City, from Ogden, Utah, following interviews with some 100 community members. Better City started work in March 2015 in Rio Blanco County on four phases of research and implementation studies.
Better City consultants currently are working with five Colorado counties to provide fresh eyes in Delta, Gunnison, Lake and Moffat. Repeated themes for the towns of Craig, Meeker and Rangely include creating more mixed-used development downtown for housing and entertainment options as well as easements for more contiguous riverfront access for community and tourist enjoyment.
In Rangely, Better City is working to facilitate the addition of student apartments for Colorado Northwestern Community College where the aviation program is a bright spot contributing to community vitality. The comparably affordable associate degree program for pilots had a wait list of 10 students this summer, as the need for pilots is growing quickly in the U.S. due to retirements, said David Boles, CNCC aviation technology program director.
The strategies for building more economic resilience in the small towns cannot match the high wages in the volatile oil and gas industry, but business diversification efforts should provide more sustainable jobs, Eskelson said.
“This is an investment strategy, not an instant fix,” he said, “and a longer-term view.”
Rio Blanco labor force
The unemployment rate in Rio Blanco County (population approximately 6,700) has not dropped as steadily as across Colorado.
Rio Blanco County unemployment in May 5.7 percent
Colorado unemployment rate in May 3.6 percent
Rio Blanco County labor force:
March 2015: 4,161 / May 2016: 2,784
Source: Colorado Department of Labor and Employment