As the Denver business boom expands westward, Grand Junction finds the ideal blend of technology, agriculture and recreation. Businesses are taking note.
The first reflex for travelers upon arriving in Grand Junction is relief. They’ve either driven over the Rocky Mountains from Denver, just crossed 200 miles of pristine wilderness in Utah, or driven up from the rural communities to the south. After rides like that, they’re genuinely happy to be in Junction.
They’d be even happier if they knew what was happening business-wise in Mesa County. Grand Junction also happens to be the gateway to a thriving marriage of innovation, technology, agriculture, and recreation — exactly what is driving a strong business development boom in an area with a current unemployment rate of a microscopic 2.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“It’s been quick growth the last five years,” said Cilia Kohn, Director of Marketing & Communications for the Grand Junction Economic Partnership (GJEP), the official economic development partnership of the region. “We realized that in order to be proactive, we need to diversify from our traditional business base and go after new businesses. We’ve succeeded, with several either moving from other parts of the country or establishing a major presence here. We also realized we could benefit from the growth on the Front Range (greater Denver area) pushing this way. The businesses that relocated still want the Colorado lifestyle, but don’t want the congestion or cost.”
That growth is mixed with outdoor recreation, the sport of choice in a region that features ski resorts, the Colorado River, and the majestic Grand Mesa, the world’s largest mesa, with more than 300 lakes and hundreds of miles of trails. It also hosts the annual Grand Mesa Ultra — a 100-mile running race. It’s a very passionate outdoor community.
To address that, Grand Junction spent the first half of this decade developing Las Colonias Park, a 140-acre space along the Colorado that provides kayaking, white-water rafting, and other river recreation, along with hiking trails, picnic areas, and the other features of well-designed parks.
Meshing Nature, Recreation, and Business
Within Las Colonias is a truly “peek into tomorrow” development, “RIVERFRONT at las colonias PARK.” The 15-acre mixed-use development will integrate nature and recreation with businesses, with companies moving in as anchor tenants. Since ground broke in April, several businesses have committed to anchoring in RIVERFRONT, including Bonsai Design, a fixture in Grand Junction’s business community.
On top of that, every building in RIVERFRONT will incorporate sustainable design practices from LEEDS and Green Globes, two sustainability best-practice certifiers. Colorado has been a natural wonderland forever, and the industry sectors within Grand Junction are working together toward a solid, sustainable future in an area where resources such as water and available farmland are sometimes scarce.
Grand Junction has positioned itself extremely well, using its three biggest natural assets — the Colorado River, spacious land and 265-plus days of sunshine per year — and strong focus on key technology growth areas to become a force. Grand Junction is a member of the Smart City Alliance, and Mesa County, in which it is located, is the first county in Colorado to receive a Jump Start Tax Credit.
“The Smart City Alliance designation means different things to different people,” said Page Tucker, CEO of ProStar, a geospatial intelligence software company, specializing in mapping. “For ProStar and Grand Junction, it’s about improving maintenance and management of the city’s infrastructure — roads, bridges, highways, and everything underground. Underground, subsurface, is where you’ll find the fiber optics, cables, and the technology for the networks to work hand in hand.”
“We’re really excited about the Jump Start Tax Credit, which is like Start Up New York,” the GJEP’s Cilia Kohn said. “Advanced technology and manufacturing companies that come here get to operate virtually tax-free for up to eight years. It stimulates the economy in rural areas.”
The first recipient of the grant? ProStar, whose CEO, Page Tucker, was the 2016 Colorado Entrepreneur of the Year. He’s also set up a small incubator through his company, which has spun out several businesses and entrepreneurs already. His larger goal? To create a tech center in the Grand Valley.
That’s the type of forward thinking that is transforming Grand Junction in a way that works well for residents, local businesses and incoming companies alike.
Growing Non-Traditional Sectors of the Business Portfolio
Traditionally, Grand Junction’s economic engines have been tourism-hospitality, mining-logging-construction, energy-natural gas, education-health services, and agriculture. Those are still the primary drivers, though with those companies adopting more and more digital technology and equipment, Grand Junction’s tech world is increasingly integrated. However, as Kohn notes, many other business sectors now call the area home.
“Outdoor recreation is growing into one of our biggest sectors,” she said. “Aviation is also big and growing, with companies like West Star working with us. We’re seeing more business from Colorado wine country — which we’re in — and everything that comes with more digital technology-focused businesses: IT jobs, social media jobs, more construction contracts to build it out.”
A perfect case to illustrate this marriage of old industries, new technology and cutting-edge, life-changing solutions is Violet Defense, which is moving its Violet Gro operations to Grand Junction. Violet Gro will be hooking up the company’s landmark indoor lighting system to the hemp industry (see related story on page XXX).
“The epicenter of indoor growing is Colorado, and we’re very fortunate to form partnerships in Grand Junction and open up there,” noted Terrance Berland, CEO of Violet Defense and Violet Gro. “When we got to know what was going on with the hemp side of the cannabis world, we engaged with local farmers and found a great fit for our products and their needs.”
The beat goes on. Among the other diverse companies that have set up shop in Grand Junction and the nearby Western Slope are Kaart Group, known best for mapping in third-world countries, which is creating apps for multiple business and recreation uses; and Wren Industries, a Lockheed-Martin supplier that provides parts for the Orion Spacecraft. Then there are the recreation stalwarts such as DT Swiss USA, Mountain Racing Products, Leitner-Poma, and Loki Outdoor Clothing, all headquartered in Grand Junction.
“Typically, many kids who go to college here have gotten their degrees and moved on, to Denver or beyond, because there was nothing for them in their fields,” Tucker said. “We’re now starting to change that.”
Added Violet Gro’s Kurt Kucera, “the Western Slope is one of the best places, if not the best place, for hemp growing and CBD production. We have strong relationships with both general agriculture and hemp growers, and Grand Junction has been there for everything we’ve needed thus far. When you’re looking for a place to anchor, this is exactly what draws businesses to your region.”