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Two towns in search of economic development

John Colson
Post Independent Staff
Glenwood Springs, Colorado CO
Kelley Cox Post Independent
ALL |

GLENWOOD SPRINGS, Colorado – This city and the town of Carbondale are acting together but separately to come up with economic development ventures.

And the nonprofit Roaring Fork Business Resource Center is in the middle of it all.

“I’ve been preaching this whole regional thing forever,” said Randi Lowenthal, CEO of the RFBRC, also known as the Center. She said she believes the only way towns can be successful is to work together to attract new business and tourists, and to encourage economic growth.



Her ideas have gotten a good reception from the officials in both towns.

“I think Randi’s plans might offer us a chance for some tangible success,” said Glenwood Springs Mayor Matt Steckler.



And Carbondale’s town manager, Jay Harrington, said her ideas already are percolating through Town Hall in a variety of ways.

“The board [of trustees] seemed supportive of what she’s come up with,” said Harrington.

Lowenthal, former director of the Carbondale chamber and a Carbondale resident, has her office in Glenwood Springs.

She founded the Center three years ago partly as a nonprofit “virtual business incubator that nurtures startup business,” according to the firm’s website (www.rfbc.org).

But it also is a resource to help established businesses expand and thrive.

And it is the expansion of existing businesses, in both Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, that is behind the Center’s embrace of the twin concepts of “creative industries” and “economic gardening,” Lowenthal said.

Using grants for $20,000 each from Glenwood Springs and Carbondale, Lowenthal spent a year doing research and in May submitted reports outlining her ideas for economic development in the two communities.

The next steps are up to the local governments.

For Glenwood Springs, she suggested the town capitalize on its position on Interstate 70, its citywide broadband Internet access, and its high vacancy rate in commercial real estate to attract businesses interested in the creative industries concept.

She said it is possible the local effort could be assisted by Colorado Creative Industries, a division of the state’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT).

Citing an example outside of Denver, called Battery 621, she said Glenwood Springs could identify a large, vacant building that could house several businesses in one related field, such as software development or other high-tech enterprises.

Businesses that locate in the building could collaborate on new business ventures, cooperate in terms of resources and personnel, or work together in any number of ways to improve their chances for success.

The OEDIT, she said, is eyeing the Western Slope for such opportunities, looking for locally sponsored commercial projects rather than trying to attract large manufacturing plants to the area, which is a more traditional kind of economic development.

“Our focus is, develop it locally, whatever it is,” Lowenthal explained.

She noted that two valley firms were selected by the OEDIT as “companies to watch,” including Fiberforge in Glenwood Springs in 2011, and the Clean Energy Collective in Basalt this year.

The concept of economic gardening, Lowenthal said, came from the former economic development director for the city of Littleton, Chris Gibbons, after the city lost its biggest employer in 1989 and needed to figure out how to recover from that loss.

The idea, Lowenthal said, is to find ways to spur expansion and improvements among existing businesses. She calls these “second-stage companies” because they are not start-ups.

Gibbons’ work appealed to Lowenthal, she said, because it reflects an understanding that “we have more resources than we think we do.”

In Carbondale, she said, there is a building need for lodging beds to accommodate tourists who come here for the recreation, the arts, historical tourism and other attractions.

In the current economy, she said, it is unlikely any new motels or other large lodges will be built in Carbondale in the near future.

“So, what we could do here is, instead of building one facility that takes a lot of resources [such as a motel], let’s do a lot of them, but small scale,” she said.

They could be bed-and-breakfast places, she suggested, or renting out local homes on a short-term basis through the Vacation Rental By Owner website.

The key, she said, is that it would boost and diversify the local economy, as well as generate lodging tax revenues for local government.

“And now is the perfect time to do it,” Lowenthal added, explaining that interest rates are low, and small projects are easier to accomplish than big ones, whether they are remodels of existing structures or new construction.

Leslie Bethel, executive director of the Glenwood Springs Downtown Development Authority (DDA), confirmed that her organization is working with Lowenthal’s ideas, and incorporating them into the DDA’s own thinking about economic development.

She said the DDA currently is talking with real estate brokers, property owners and others about a possible location to try the creative industries idea.

“We’ve got a lot of irons in the fire right now, but nothing that’s settled,” she said.

One idea, from a recent DDA feasibility study, she said, was to find a building that could be an “outdoor products incubator,” where companies that make outdoor products could locate, collaborate and grow.

One remaining uncertainty is whether the city’s financial assistance will be required to implement the ideas based on Lowenthal’s report.

“The city is looking at ways to help make them happen, if it needs to help make them happen,” said Glenwood Springs City Manager Jeff Hecksel.

He explained that the city will wait to see if private-sector investors can supply any needed backing before moving to provide public funds.

jcolson@postindependent.com


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