May: A look back and forward

In the next couple of weeks, my time as president and CEO of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce will end. As I write this during the week of Thanksgiving, I have a lot to do, so my focus is still forward. However, as I organize materials for my successor, I have looked back over 17½ years and a few things stand out:

• The chamber has engaged and led. Issues that mattered to the economic prosperity and livability of the region got our attention.

• The chamber has provided a much-needed business perspective to public affairs. With an unapologetic pro-business, pro-free enterprise outlook, we have worked to balance the scales in a region of large public entities.

• The chamber maintained its position as an independent voice for business and a strong economy. In most things, local government and the chamber of commerce can find common cause. But not on everything. When we could work together for our area, we did; when we couldn’t, the chamber was not afraid to go its own way.

• Regionalism works. The two-county Larimer-Weld region is prosperous and livable. The Fort Collins, Greeley, and Loveland chambers of commerce and other economic partners understand that cooperation is an economic imperative. The economy, labor force and transportation systems are all better because of our strong working relationships.

• Even in tough economic times, business leaders have been willing to support compelling visions that improve the region’s economy, quality of life and business climate. Exhibit A is the chamber’s five-year strategic initiative, Northern Colorado Prospers.

• We have been blessed with capable business leaders and strong engagement. Looking back over nearly two decades, the chamber has benefited from attracting top leaders from the business community.

• The simple growth vs. no-growth debates of the old days now seem quaint. Nogrowthism has passed from the hands of the population growth-haters to anti-carbon and anti-free enterprise activists. They want to “save us” even if it “kills” our economy and tax base. (By the way, the Fort Collins population in 2003 was 125,740; today it is 174,871.)

Looking ahead, I believe our future as a region is bright, but it will take several years to fully understand the impacts and permanent changes wrought by the COVID-19 era government shutdowns. A few thoughts:

• 2020 has been a wakeup for Colorado and our region. Pre-COVID-19 we were on a roll before the big fall in March and April.

• We will bounce back over the next few years, but leaders in Northern Colorado will need to be thoughtful and deliberate about reigniting and rebuilding the economy.

• Talent and companies are bailing out of states like California and Illinois. Cities throughout the western U.S. are workbenches for Silicon Valley so Northern Colorado will likely see an influx of both people and companies.

• Retail has already rebounded…but it changed. Stay-at-home mandates rejiggered our buying habits. Local retail is not dead, but online competition propelled forward by a decade.

• Office work changed and won’t return to its pre-COVID form anytime soon, though aggregating people in one physical location still has benefits over remote work for some industries.

• Residential real estate is fine, except that the region needs a larger housing inventory.

• For some manufacturers, supply chains are too long and vulnerable. If changes to environmental and labor laws / regulations and the tax code don’t prevent it, some of those jobs will reshore.

Regarding the chamber, it is in good hands with the selection of Ann Hutchison as the new CEO and a new generation of capable business leaders on the board. I hope you extend to them the support you’ve given to me. It will be needed as they navigate the post-COVID-19 world.

As for me, I am staying in Northern Colorado. Here’s hoping our paths cross in the future.

David May is the outgoing president and CEO of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce. Reach him at dmay@fcchamber.org.