Economic developers from Weld, Larimer, Broomfield and Boulder counties expect the new year to be somewhat better than the year just past, but they have caveats.
“We’ll hold the line in 2021, and it could be a reasonably good year if we see similar stimulus activity,” said Josh Birks, economic health director for the city of Fort Collins.
Birks and nine other economic developers offered their views of the economy — both what the region endured in 2020 and what might lie ahead — at the opening session of the BizWest Economic Forecast event, held virtually today.
The group noted that they are seeing activity from prospective employers — even those in economic sectors such as hospitality that were hammered during the pandemic-caused recession.
“We never really slowed down. We have primary employers and even restaurants looking at our community,” said Stacy Miller, economic development director for Windsor. “We’re fortunate to be able to keep moving forward,” she said.
Jacob Castillo, director of Larimer County workforce and economic development, expressed concerns about segments of the economy being left behind as recovery gets underway.
“I see the light at the end of the tunnel, but we’re still in the tunnel,” he said. “We had vulnerabilities in our economy before the pandemic, and they’re still there. I’m concerned about the bottom quartile of our economy.”
Saying she prefers to be positive about what is coming, Kelly Jones, director of economic development for Loveland, said the region’s strengths — “pioneering roots, reputation for productivity, quality of life, cost of living” — all help to sustain a bright future.
Likewise, Jeff Romine, director of economic vitality for Broomfield, said the region’s strengths in collaboration and innovation will help with recovery. “These are places of great experiences and collaboration,” he said.
Paula Mehle, director of economic development for Firestone, said her community is seeing interest from a developer of flex properties that could be used for light industrial, warehousing or offices. That, coupled with a “huge growth in homebuilding” will make 2021 a good year, she said.
Rich Werner, president and CEO of Upstate Colorado Economic Development based in Greeley, said, “We have several tipping points to get through. We’re still seeing closure of restaurants,” he said. Yet, the trend lines are up, he said, but the economy will see permanent changes.
“The reality of what we saw in ecommerce is astounding. If we don’t make sure our base is there, we’ll see bumps along the way. Our focus needs to be on getting to the fall,” Werner said.
Scott Sternberg, executive director for economic vitality at the Boulder Economic Council, agreed that fall will be key. Getting schools back to normal will be critical, he said. He also noted that the major economic sectors of aerospace, information technology and others have come to realize that they can source employees from anywhere in the country. That will have an impact on economic activity in local communities.
With disruption, said Ben Snow, director of economic health and housing in Greeley, comes opportunity. “Anytime there’s disruption … that creates market opportunity for the entrepreneur. There’s loss of business and a birth of new business,” he said.
How the region fared in 2020
Economic developers said Northern Colorado and the Boulder Valley fared reasonably well during 2020 because of foundations laid in the months and years prior.
“The pandemic created a moment in time when we threw down our swords,” said Ann Hutchison, president and CEO of the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce. “The pandemic made collaboration happen on steroids. In 10 days, we brought up NoCoRecovers.com [a centralized repository of regional information about pandemic relief], and that would have taken a year to do before the pandemic,” Hutchison said.
Castillo agreed that the collaboration that had been underway enabled quick response to business shutdowns. He said the NoCo REDI organization of economic developers, which had been meeting regularly, quickly stepped up activity to provide business relief.
“I’ve never seen such a streamlined effort of government agencies,” Jones said. “We’re aligned at the federal, state, county and city levels.”
Birks said messaging was consistent from one community and county to the next. “Our first email was on March 13 with shared information,” he said in reference to when the pandemic took root in the region.
“You need to make friends before you need friends,” Snow said. “As economic developers, we know we’re all connected with a shared labor pool, transportation network, health-care network. It makes it a lot easier to work together,” he said.
And while NoCo REDI was largely a Larimer and Weld county effort, economic developers in Boulder and Broomfield counties also benefited not only from what was happening north of them, but within their counties and in counties in the Denver region.
“There was no reason to reinvent the wheel,” Mehle said. “Everyone was willing to share.”
“One of the greatest partners has been public health folks. It’s important to get COVID behind us,” Romine said. Bringing public health tools and business tools together was important, he said.
Boulder, Greeley and Fort Collins saw both benefits and detriments from having public universities in their communities. While universities have always been a stabilizing force in the economy, last year, when students were sent home to study remotely, the communities felt the impact.
Yet because research at universities and at the federal labs continued, the communities felt an uplift, the developers said.
“Before this, no one modeled what happens when a university goes dark,” Sternberg said. He said universities around the nation have been gradually moving toward more remote learning, and the pandemic “accelerated the digital adoption rate by five or 10 years.” That could be a factor for university towns to consider in the years ahead.
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