Tom Clark, who retired March 31 after 14 years at the helm of the Metropolitan Denver Economic Development Corp., also served in similar roles in Fort Collins and Boulder. He’ll be replaced at MDEDC by J.J. Ament, current chair of the Colorado Economic Development Commission, a panel on which Clark now will serve. Courtesy Lynne Lawlor Photography

Tom Clark galvanized region for economic-development victories

Tom Clark, who retired March 31 after 14 years at the helm of the Metropolitan Denver Economic Development Corp., also served in similar roles in Fort Collins and Boulder. He’ll be replaced at MDEDC by J.J. Ament, current chair of the Colorado Economic Development Commission, a panel on which Clark now will serve. Courtesy Lynne Lawlor Photography

Tom Clark spent the final week of March awash in adulation.

Retirement from his perch atop the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. meant cleaning out a Lower Downtown office chock full of 14 years of memories and basking in praise for all the high-profile improvements he helped bring to the Mile High City. Nearly always mentioned are Denver International Airport, FasTracks, Sports Authority Field at Mile High, Coors Field, the Colorado Convention Center, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office — and an economy much more immune to the boom-bust cycle that had plagued the area’s economy for years.

Virtually inaudible among the cheers, though, was another story: what Clark’s vision and collaborative spirit had meant to Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley decades before.

“Fort Collins and Boulder are extraordinary marketplaces,” Clark said. “They’ve got a platinum demographic, a lot of desire of millennials to live there. Both Larimer and Boulder (counties) have done amazing jobs.”

Clark laid much of the groundwork to make that happen.

A Minnesota native, he knew Colorado from visits as a youth, hanging out at open-mike nights in Aspen and Basalt to hear acts such as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a tow-headed upstart who called himself John Denver. “He’d steal the whole goddamned night, so we stopped going,” Clark remembered. “Back then, he wasn’t all that good.”

Denver honed his talents, though, and so did Clark, working as a political organizer on the mean streets of Chicago to support candidates willing to take on Mayor Richard J. Daley’s formidable machine. Next came various posts in Illinois state government, focusing on workforce development, land-use planning and local-government revenue.

“I was working in the commercial business side of the state Department of Commerce for Gov. Jim Thompson. We took care of minority business, small business. We built convention centers with racetrack money. I was 29 years old and didn’t know a damned thing, but they said ‘Run that division for us until we find a successor.’ It was the greatest thing that ever could happen. I had eight economists under me.

“Boy, did I learn a lot,” Clark said. “I knew I was making way too much money, way too young. But I had made a pledge to myself to get back to Colorado.”

The chance came in 1982, when Clark became director of economic development for the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce.

“Fort Collins had a 2.9 percent unemployment rate and they thought they were in a recession,” Clark mused. With companies such as Teledyne, WaterPik and Woodward already in place, the Larimer County seat seemed the last place that needed a major new industry — such as an Anheuser-Busch brewery.

“The governor’s office really wanted to locate A-B anywhere but Fort Collins,” recalled assistant Larimer County manager Neil Gluckman. “Even during recessions, we’d been fairly healthy, with a much diversified economy. The state wanted to put A-B in a place that needed it more than we did” — especially either Pueblo or Greeley.

There were problems with those two choices, however. Despite Pueblo’s robust incentives and heritage of manufacturing, the salinity of its water was too high for the brewer’s needs — a fact that befuddled Clark because Busch’s home brewery in St. Louis was along the Mississippi River, not generally one’s first choice for freshness.

With Fort Collins’ early-1980s reputation for anti-growth attitudes and fears that it would chafe at Anheuser-Busch’s cozy relationships with unions, Greeley seemed the next logical choice, Clark said, especially because the Cache la Poudre River’s water ranked second purest in North America, and Greeley also had access to the new Windy Gap water diversion project.

“Only trouble was, a dentist owned the mineral reserves under the site they wanted in Greeley, and he wouldn’t sell,” Clark said. “Everybody would be getting a free Bud at the brewery’s tasting room, but people’s nasal memory is their longest memory — and if they’d lift that Bud to their lips but then look out and see an oil well, they’d think they were tasting oil and gasoline.”

So Fort Collins was back in the running, armed with $60 million in incentives. “We really had to hustle,” Gluckman said, “and Tom took the lead.”

Clark took on his economic-development job “at the same time I became director of what’s now the Larimer County Workforce Center,” Gluckman said. “One of the things that Tom recognized was that most large companies really needed to keep up with the workforce. We came together to make sure Larimer County had a workforce not only for the present but for the future. Things were changing, becoming much more mechanized. We partnered with Tom to make sure our people in high school and vocational school had skills for those industries.

“So when we met with A-B, the selling point for our area was that we could deliver the workforce they needed as soon as they opened up. We taught people how to use the machines before the brewery opened, so they wouldn’t have to train them.”

The Everitt Cos. acquired the land for the brewery, and the city placed an annexation issue before voters. A painful campaign ensued.

“Tom took a lot of heat in Fort Collins,” Gluckman said. “There were a lot of hurdles. The city was kind of mixed. It was an uphill battle.”

“A union-shop company was not popular,” Clark added. “Heavy manufacturing? Not good. A company that’s going to take all the water? Not good.”

The brewery would use “as much water as 24,000 people back then. I’m sure it’s more now,” added Ed Stoner, who then was head of Fort Collins Inc., a private economic-development organization that would become the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp.

The annexation narrowly passed, however, and the payoff soon followed.

“In 1985, every city in the state had a net-loss budget except Fort Collins,” Clark said. “It had $250 million in taxable equipment. Fort Collins had a great year.”

The city also tapped into Clark’s knack for bringing varied interests together to smooth the path for economic development, a trait that would be the foundation for his formidable string of Denver-area successes.

“He knew how to bring every constituency together, get every voice heard,” said Mark Soukup, who was then chamber board chairman and now heads the Fort Collins-based Soukup, Bush & Associates certified public accounting firm. Clark, he said, was “comfortable to be around, whether you were anti-growth or pro-growth. Tom made both sides feel comfortable.”

His work to lure the brewery “meant we were able to get high-paying jobs rather than just phone-bank jobs,” Soukup said. “He had an understanding of the types of business that could come in and pay high wages and be supportive of the community and be a good community servant.”

Joni Friedman, whose 40 years with Larimer County includes about 20 as director of the Larimer County Workforce Center — originally called Larimer County Employment and Training Services — recalled Clark’s help in “forming a network of community-based organizations who were doing outreach to employers. We would coalesce and meet so an employer wouldn’t get four or five different phone calls. That was pretty unique at the time.

“The connections and partnerships that were built then are still there, with different people,” Friedman said. “Tom never thought he’d see the day where he could get all these people in one room, just to see people who came to the table and put a collective good ahead of individual organizations. Now we take it for granted that we have to work together.”

Clark left Colorado in 1985 to partner in a land-use planning company in North Palm Beach, Fla., but the savings-and-loan scandal led to its bankruptcy.

He had turned down an economic-development job under Denver’s then-notorious Brown Cloud “two or three times,” Clark said, because “nobody’s going to come to a city with the second-worst air pollution in the country” — a problem that contributed to a 31 percent office vacancy rate downtown.

“But I was desperate. I had alimony, child support. I’d lost everything, I came back to Colorado with $200 in my pocket and no car, so all of a sudden I was interested.”

He served two years as vice president for economic development at the Denver Chamber of Commerce, then seven as vice president and president of Greater Denver Corp., crucial to the drive to build DIA.

Clark funded a study of the Brown Cloud — “151 days of kill-you air in 1973,” he said. “We were the first money into that, with 30 old Republican businessmen. We found out that part of it was carbon monoxide from cars, but most of it was coming from the gravel that we put on the roads to melt the snow. People drove over gravel until it went into the air, and respiratory tracts got pretty (messed) up. We got sweeping trucks out there to get the gravel off the roads.”

Actor Robert Redford held an air-pollution conference in Denver in 1991, and Clark remembered him stating that “This is the only metro area that gives a damn about its air quality, and I’m here to support it.”

By 1995, Clark said, Denver was on no Environmental Protection Agency watch list.

He also developed a regional collaboration system encompassing the area’s cities and counties with their economic-development organizations, getting them to cooperate instead of compete and speak with a unified voice.

“In ’86 we set up an electronic network to share all the leads so everybody had an equal shot,” he said. “We kept good data if a company decided to do something, go to a competing city or do nothing. We could get about 30 percent of companies that did something. By 1992 we had doubled our number of successes. We were crawling out of the recession and creating lots of jobs, and everyone got a shot at every opportunity that came in.”

The climate improved so much that when Clark took over the presidency of the Boulder Chamber in 1994, he told the Los Angeles Times then, he was surprised by the findings of a survey that indicated 82 percent of the people in the region said they were not afraid of losing their jobs in the next year.

“That’s a level of self-confidence that we’ve never seen,” Clark told the Times.

Once again, Clark ran into anxiety about growth. In 1976, then Boulder city councilman Paul Danish had spearheaded a plan rejected by the council but approved by voters to limit growth to 2 percent per year. Nineteen years later, largely thanks to Clark’s efforts through the chamber, Boulder voters barely rejected a measure that would have extended the Danish Plan by limiting commercial growth to 1 percent a year in what even Danish called “probably a bridge too far.” The city council “had put forward their own growth-rate limitation,” noted Steve Pomerance, who served on the council at the time, but “what they had written wasn’t functional.”

Although he was on the opposite side of the issue, Pomerance credited Clark for being “honest and straightforward, which wasn’t very common.”

“We kind of poke fun at Boulder,” Clark told the Denver Post in 2010, “but we have to truly appreciate what it does to feed the innovation space in the Colorado economy.”

In 1997, Clark reorganized the chamber’s Boulder Development Commission, which Clif Harald remembered as a “pretty influential group, but it had kind of stagnated a bit. I told him I’d drop everything for the opportunity to come work with him.” Clark and Harald formed the Boulder Economic Council, which Harald now leads.

“It started as an investor-based initiative,” Harald said, “with strong support from investors who are still investors today.

“I ran the Broomfield EDC from ’90 to ’95,” he said, “and in all of those years, I worked very closely with Tom. He was creating what would become the MDEDC. Those were the days when this whole regional approach began, led by Tom.

“When I first started to work for him here, he would say, ‘If we’re not laughing hard at least once a day, we’re doing something wrong.’ He has a world-class sense of humor that wins over everyone — even when he’s dropping f-bombs.”

Harald has kept in touch with Clark ever since, even being part of Clark’s band, TC and the Destroyers.

“Tom was always quick with pearls of wisdom, and some of them have stuck with me for decades,” Harald said. “The main one is ‘Invite everyone into the tent.’ That’s his regionalism.  Colleagues become friends, competitors become collaborators, and the metro area becomes a leader.

“He also said, ‘Never waste a good recession.’ When things are good, people forget how good they are.”

Leslie Durgin, then Boulder mayor, called Clark “completely ethical, honorable and straightforward, a delight to work with. He’s particularly skilled at combining a sense of representing businesses but doing so with an eye to what’s good for the community. He was creative, not doctrinaire as sometimes chambers of commerce can be.

“He has a wicked sense of humor. He is so full of life.”

Durgin remembered when Clark “was getting hair implants and had to wear a hat. I was having chemotherapy at the time and was completely bald, so I had to wear a hat too. The two of us on television, doing city business, was quite amusing.”

Stan Zemler, who followed Clark as head of the Boulder Chamber and who will step down this month as Vail town manager, recalled that Clark “was a master at slideshows. He did very good presentations on some of the technical and complicated aspects of Boulder.”

In 1997, Clark returned to the Denver Chamber of Commerce to serve as vice president for external affairs “but it didn’t work out,” he said. “After 18 months I got an offer from Jefferson County to head the Jefferson Economic Council. We had great boards — courageous, daring. Our team rezoned 2,000 acres to become available for development.”

In 2003 he became executive vice president of the Denver chamber and chief executive of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp — the role from which he retired March 31.

“Tom was one of the best economic developers in the country,” Fort Collins’ Gluckman said. “I’m one of the ones he has mentored. There’s those he doesn’t even know how he has affected, changed some of the roles we all use today. Good man.”

“He’s very politically astute,” Stoner added. “He didn’t make many mistakes. Different than most, he was a real visionary as far as what the future holds for business and population.”

Clark “is awesome, absolutely great at what he does,” said Soukup. “I hate to see him retire. He’s been great for Colorado.”

Gov. John Hickenlooper must share that sentiment. After declaring March 23 Tom Clark Day, he said Clark would serve on the Colorado Economic Development Commission. That panel is chaired by J.J. Ament, who replaced Clark on April 5 at the MDEDC.

He’ll have plenty to say about regional issues, especially transportation. He dismisses the idea of rail to serve the Boulder Valley and Northern Colorado.

“There’s just not enough passengers, it’s just that simple,” Clark said. “We just don’t have the density of population for the Northwest Line. Louisville has 25,000 people. Broomfield has a limit on building permits. Longmont wants it but it’s still a comparatively small town. Boulder wants to be a compact urban village, but they’re just not going to get enough people to fill it. It would have been cheaper to buy each one of the riders a Porsche.

“I think we would benefit from high-speed trains between Cheyenne and Trinidad,” he said.

Some travel is in Clark’s own future, as a well-deserved break. Then it’s back to work — on his own terms.

He said he has two books done and two more to go, and will be fielding some consulting work. “But I also have two daughters, a daughter-in-law and four grandchildren. I never had a grandfather. I always was jealous of my friends who had grandfathers, so I want my grandchildren to say that of me.”

The local and national acclaim he’s received will likely continue, but Clark meets it with humility and grace.

“Quite simply it was the greatest job ever,” he said. “I never got up and said I hate this job. The job itself and what we do is give a future and opportunity to people who wouldn’t have it if we didn’t do it.

“That’s enough for me to know. For me, that’s always been the deal.”