Gov. John Hickenlooper wrapped up a four-day statewide economic development tour — and his first week in office — with a stop on Monday in Loveland, where more than 200 local government officials, business leaders and interested citizens joined a two-hour discussion on how to rev the business engines of the northern Front Range.
Hickenlooper, an unabashedly pro-business Democrat, began by telling the standing-room-only crowd that the state’s billion-dollar budget hole means that stimulating the economy — while protecting the beauty that attracts people and businesses to Colorado — is the only way forward.
“There’s no extra money anywhere, and yet there’s no appetite for taxes pretty much anywhere in the state — well, maybe a couple of neighborhoods in Boulder,” he joked before turning serious.
“When we realize there is no hidden pool of money, the only solution you have is to figure out how can we be more pro-business,” Hickenlooper said. “And this being Colorado,” he added, “that means we need to hold ourselves to the highest level of accountability, in terms of making sure we don’t compromise our environmental standards, our ethical standards.”
The challenge, Hickenlooper said, is to grow business while “at the same time make sure we don’t, in any way, compromise all the natural wonders, the incredible landscapes that attracted us here in the first place, and that’s a real balancing act.”
He asked for help steering the state between necessary regulations and burdensome red tape. Hickenlooper, a one-time petroleum geologist who helped launch the state’s brewpub industry before serving as mayor of Denver for almost eight years, peppered the discussion with anecdotes from both sides of the regulatory fence, including frustration at an over-zealous city inspector and attempts to tame regulations that slow down business for no good reason.
“Where is that boundary between appropriate regulation and red tape that’s just there because of inertia?” he asked, telling the crowd that’s one reason he took the economic development show on the road rather than assembling business and government leaders to decide on a plan.
“It struck us that maybe we might have more power if we start from the bottom and work up,” he said.
It was the eighth meeting the new governor held to solicit ideas and kick-start an executive order he signed immediately after his inauguration last week requiring each of Colorado’s 64 counties to write an economic development plan uniquely tailored to its own locale. The team visited community centers and hotels in Edwards, Fruita, Durango, Del Norte, Pueblo, Colorado Springs and Limon before arriving at The Ranch in Loveland on Monday afternoon.
Plans from each county are due by early May and will be merged into regional plans by May 15, then quickly becoming part of a state document that definitely won’t, Hickenlooper suggested, be one-size-fits all.
“Part of this process of 64 counties is to figure out where are assets we haven’t been using, and how can we knit those together to make Colorado an even more attractive place for young entrepreneurs,” he said.
One example he suggested was tapping the ranks of executives who have retired in Colorado “and would love to get involved, maybe would sit on the board of a young company.”
Other critical elements he said would be necessary to lure and stimulate business development include rural access to broadband Internet, transportation networks and a top-notch education system.
Hickenlooper and members of his senior staff were joined in Loveland by former state Sen. Al White, a Republican, tapped to head Colorado’s tourism office; Colorado Department of Economic Development and International Trade officials Alice Kotrlik and Dick Albair; Larry Burkhardt, president of Weld County’s Upstate Colorado Economic Development; and Mike Masciola, senior vice president of the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp. based out of Larimer County. Dozens of mayors, city managers and county commissioners from throughout the region sat in the audience and offered advice through the meeting.
Before the discussion got under way, it took a full 24 minutes to pass a wireless microphone around the room so everybody could introduce themselves.
“We’re going to get a little better at that, just like we need to get better at government, so next time we’re going to shave seven minutes off that,” Kotrlik said after the final introduction.
As at other meetings on the tour, Hickenlooper started things off with a dose of humility that immediately had the crowd on his side.
“I’m John Hickenlooper, I’m here supporting Al White,” he said.
He also batted back any attempts to draw the discussion along partisan lines, saying more than once that talk about tax rates didn’t belong in the room. “We’re going to keep it nonpartisan,” he said. “We’re not going to talk about raising taxes or reducing taxes, we’re going to try to really focus on what we want our economic future to look like.”
The state’s tax structure wasn’t entirely off the table, however. Weld County Commissioner Sean Conway urged Hickenlooper to take a close look at a study set to be released later this month. Commissioned last year by the Legislature and conducted by the University of Denver, the study purports to be the first comprehensive look at how the state raises revenue in more than 50 years.
Burkhardt also put in a plea to consider whether the state’s personal property tax was driving away businesses.
“We would like to encourage some relief of the personal property tax,” he said during a summary of economic activity in Weld County. Development officials, he said, have been stymied in attempts to attract large data centers and other major manufacturing facilities because “they have a $2 billion investment, and can go to Wyoming or Utah and don’t have to pay personal property tax, whereas if they come to Colorado that’s a huge deficit to their bottom line. In fact I think that’s why we’re not seeing those kind of projects.”
Hickenlooper agreed that those are discussions the state has to have. “We are probably due to look at a comprehensive examination of how we raise revenues,” he said, adding that, as an example, more fuel-efficient cars could soon drain already strapped revenue allocated for highway maintenance.
Burkhardt said Weld County is “doing quite well with regard to job creation,” calling the county “the energy capital of Colorado,” with more oil and natural gas wells than anywhere in the state as well as a thriving alternative energy industry, including plants devoted to wind, solar, biomass and electric propulsion. “We see energy as a driver, a very firm driver, of our economy, but it’s not the only one,” he added, pointing to massive investments in agriculture and food processing in the county.
“Our challenges include infrastructure planning and funding,” he said. “We need our partnership with the state to be working on all cylinders.”
Masciola sounded a similarly optimistic note about neighboring Larimer County.
“Larimer County is in great position to be very bullish about 2011,” he said. “Our economy is very strong up here, as you know it’s one of the strongest in the state.”
He pointed to burgeoning local clean energy, bioscience, geospatial software and water industries, all helping keep Larimer County’s unemployment rate several points below the rest of the state’s. “I challenge anybody in this room to find another area in the state, or maybe in the country that has that kind of coordination and concentration available.”
The county’s success, he said, is due in large part to higher education — not just Colorado State University, but also a network of community colleges — and added that funding for higher ed is key to keeping the economic engine moving, calling it a “critical partnership for us.”
Turning to another hot topic, business incentives, Masciola suggested the state needs to refocus how it thinks about attracting businesses from out of state.
“We don’t compete on incentives in Colorado, we compete on the total value proposition,” he said. “But it is a way of life, and to assume incentives will not be part of the equation in a corporate relocation is just simply not really facing reality. There’s just too much money going around. I’m not suggesting we increase incentives, but we make sure they’re flexible and usable to the end-user. It needs to be in the arsenal, and we just need to be able to use them as effectively as possible.”
Others in the audience lobbed a range of suggestions at Hickenlooper, including a man who said adding a five-cent tax to every bottle of beer sold in the state would be a painless way to fund higher education.
“I’ll have to run that by Pete Coors first,” Hickenlooper quipped.
Suggestions from the floor also included minding the state’s water resources, instituting a non-profit single-payer health care system, and better funding of White’s tourism office.
As the meeting came to a close, Hickenlooper summarized what he’s trying to achieve.
“We’re trying to create a sense of place about what’s different about Colorado,” he said, “and why young entrepreneurs from other parts of the country should automatically think, wow, this is a place where we’ve got access to capital, where there are people that care about their school systems, people investing in bike baths and outdoor recreational opportunities, where people are willing to maintain and protect their environment, and really promote a quality of life that is where a young entrepreneur would want to go and build a business and build a life.”