Merger talks between NCEA, Upstate Colorado collapse

Merger talks between Northern Colorado’s two economic-development agencies have collapsed, with both organizations pursuing competing visions for marketing the region.

The Northern Colorado Economic Alliance, based in Loveland, has rebranded as One NoCO, “emphasizing its regional approach to economic development for the entire northern Colorado region,” the organization said in a press release Monday.

Upstate Colorado Economic Development, based in Greeley, is working with communities in Larimer and Weld counties to develop “a new initiative to focus on the regional economic development, marketing, and branding synergies that emphasize the assets of all the communities in both Weld and Larimer Counties,” according to a draft press release obtained by BizWest.

The draft Upstate Colorado press release names Larimer County, Weld County and the cities of Fort Collins, Greeley and Loveland, as well as Upstate Colorado and other communities, as backing the new Upstate campaign.

The competing visions come as merger discussions between the two organizations collapsed, April 5, apparently over differences on organizational structure, including the ratio and number of public-sector and private-sector board seats in any combined agency.

Richard Werner, president and CEO of Upstate Colorado, declined to discuss specifics of the discussions between his organization and NCEA.

“We were conducting those meetings, and I want to respect the confidentiality of those discussions,” he said. “We did receive notice after the last meeting that NCEA had declined to continue discussions. And we were disappointed by that.”

Regional business leaders long have championed a combination of the leading economic-development agencies in Northern Colorado. For years, the defunct Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp. focused largely on Larimer County, while Upstate Colorado Economic Development focused largely on Weld County.

But site selectors tend to view the area as one region, with communities such as Johnstown, Windsor and Berthoud straddling county lines and with major employers operating in more than one community. Commuting across county lines also continues to grow.

With NCEA — founded in 2016 and focused on both counties — supplanting NCEDC as a private-sector economic-development group, merger discussions had picked up steam in recent months. Tom Clark, former CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., spearheaded a combined meeting of delegates from the boards of directors of both organizations in early March to discuss a potential merger.

At that meeting, which was not attended by Werner or Andy Montgomery, NCEA’s CEO, participants proposed a board that was more heavily tilted toward the private sector, with nine private-sector and five or six public-sector representatives, Montgomery said.

But at the April 5 meeting of representatives from both organizations, Upstate proposed a board with a closer split — seven private-sector and six public-sector seats, Montgomery said.

“It almost felt like we were getting a proposal to fold our organization and merge into Upstate, and that was I think where the conversation just ended, because we don’t need to do that,” Montgomery said. “There’s no reason for us to do that.”

Montgomery shared a terse email that he sent to Werner after the meeting April 5: “NCEA politely declines to disolve [sic] its organization and merge into Upstate,” he wrote.

Montgomery said the April 5 meeting began well, with participants supporting the notion of a regional organization that could work on issues such as affordable housing, commercial developments, etc.

“All of that was positive until the structure was rolled out … and the discussion on board seats,” Montgomery said. “There was no negotiation. It was just kind of an inflexibility, and Tom Clark’s structure was thrown by the wayside, and that’s when discussions broke down. All of a sudden, all negotiations just kind of stopped about what the structure would look like [and the number of board seats].”

Montgomery said that a narrow 7-6 split often would leave the public sector in control, as private-sector representatives might be called away on business trips. A higher number of private-sector representatives also would help mitigate parochialism in decision-making, he said.

“In the private sector, you don’t have that parochialism as much,” Montgomery said.

Werner declined to discuss proposals about organizational structure for a combined group.

“I’m going to respect the confidentiality of those discussions,” he said. “If Andy wants to speak to them, that’s fine, but our board operates under a confidentiality agreement, and we will continue to respect that.”

But the draft Upstate Colorado press release references a regional branding approach to eliminate parochialism.

“By bringing together representatives from communities across both counties, we hope to eliminate parochialism and focus on the assets that are exclusive to the region,” the draft stated.

Montgomery said the draft Upstate Colorado press release on a regional branding effort was a surprise.

“It was news to me,” he said. “I had no knowledge of this. It was kind of completely out of left field. That’s why it’s a little unsettling for me. I’ve been meeting with these folks monthly, and this was what they had in mind. I didn’t know until this morning [Monday].”

But Werner, who expressed chagrin that the draft press release had been shared with BizWest, said he’s been unaware of any efforts by NCEA to brand the region.

“We have not seen any branding of the region, and it is the folks in the communities and economic developers that are working on that,” he said. “I’m a little surprised because NCEA said at a regional meeting last week that they would be more than happy to contribute funds to a regional marketing program. I’m not sure where all this is coming from.”

The draft press release states, “Activities surrounding this effort will bring together the business community, economic developers, and community leaders to produce targeted messaging and a brand that allows for synergy in the data and in brand products that can be used at a Regional, County, or individual community level. This effort comes from discussions between community representatives across the region who are building upon the existing partnerships in economic development.”

NCEA is a privately funded economic-development organization founded in 2016 to promote Larimer and Weld counties. The organization has an operating budget of $750,000.

Upstate Colorado includes both private and government funding, with an operating budget of $790,000, evenly split between private and public funding, according to data the organization provided to BizWest.

Werner said that Upstate’s board currently includes seven private-sector and six public-sector representatives, with the private sector also controlling the executive committee.

“We are firmly committed to having both public and private sector at the table,” he said.