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Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Where Have All the Mom and Pop's Gone?

One of the best northern Colorado assets I have noticed, to date, is the friendly personable people of this city. They are wonderful in one on one encounters. Open, sharing, full of great ideas, and just pleasing to interact with. Each city I've lived in always has its own flavor and I enjoy the challenge of exploring Greeley. Of course, as my mind tends to do, I like to deconstruct the systems and processes that make the Greeley Rolex tick, so to speak, and that way I can better understand the city which is my new home.

Cities are fascinating organisms to me. They live, they are dynamic, they change with the times and the generations in mostly predictable ways. What really sparks my curiosity though is how organized, or not-so-organized planning, impacts the future of the organic dynamic. If you go too slow the blood supply is cut off and the organism cannot flourish and change. Hence, eventually, it begins to decay and die. Move too quickly and growing pains spring up and conflicts sprout when the population can't emotionally keep pace or comprehend the changes going on. There is a balance in everything--the challenge is finding the point of balance (as my Grandmother used to say).

So just where is Greeley's balancing point? I thought I'd start from the "Geeks" point of view and look at the economic development zones. What I found was an interesting puzzle of pieces. The first piece belongs to northern Colorado at large--the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corporation. Since I've been interested in sourcing out locally owned businesses and community assets, and worked a long time ago for an economic development agency in another state, I specifically began my quest by looking for this resource and to understand the role their leadership or leverage of wealth plays around town.

Browsing through town again yesterday I noticed a rather large piece of real estate behind Kohl's and across from Safeway just off of 35th street. (I'd love to say I got the street right but I am still working on sorting out the difference between streets, avenues, and courts in this town). A perky but quivering sign gave the last name of Kohl as the Realtor. A coinky-dink? Now, as an aside, readers should know, one of my own personally worst assets is that my brain turns endlessly analyzing systems and strategies. One of my best assets (and sometimes my worst social asset) is that my brain turns endlessly analyzing possibilities. I am truly boring at parties. Enough said. I can hear the snoring already. But back to the point, I thought what a great place this little piece of commercial heaven would be for a development based on locally owned small businesses and start-ups. A real boost for those unemployed by the downturn in the economy. Of course it is a pricey piece of commercial land too. That wouldn't be the only hurdle to overcome. I am not that naive.

In particular I have seen economic development resources devoted to incubating small businesses do a great service, over time, to nurture a thriving local community-based business sector. What a great marketing ploy for Kohl's as well. Diving in and helping to develop small Mom and Pops would certainly make me choose to shop at Kohl's every time over Home Depot (which is the closer store). Food and beverage businesses, small niche fashion shops, a woodworker or two, a tailor, and so on. Maybe a small business marketing center and education development classes for entrepreneurs nestled in between the Mom and Pops.

Now the trick, of course, is to create a mix of businesses that create the traffic within the area needed. Although being located next to the big chains there is already abundant and diverse traffic to be found. Another issue that can arise is the diminishing of other retail areas within the city. Although it already looks like Greeley has chosen to abandon some areas to the advantage of the big box stores as my posting on the Greeley Barrio suggests. So this problem may be moot politically is a majority of concerned citizens have not raised it before.

A third problem is job creation.

There are two sides to the coin that needed to be included in this discussion though. One is that a town needs both high paying jobs with health benefits and it also needs lower wage jobs for the local youth to step into and hold while attending high school and college. This keeps your next generation around long enough and interested enough to sprout roots and then stay in the community, once educated, so that the community can take advantage of new blood entering their economy as the tired blood puts their feet up for rest and recreation. This creates a flow of labor and potential for developing businesses and future tax base (lessening the need, during hard times, to bring in factory corporations which other communities frequently reject on quality of life issues). It also helps diminish the possibility of small shoddy service towns cropping up outside the city limits of Greeley with a regular flow of minimum wage labor living in town with roots and investment in the town's care. When internal property values rise too high for service labor (clerks, gardeners, daycare workers) to afford the working class move out taking, in general, precollege youth with them. The investment is to keep the youth around and interested in the future of the community. Ever drive by Aspen or Vail lately? A perfect example of the previous situation. A two class standard. Spouses also often hold these services jobs secondary to the main household bread winner to add a little income during tight times but still be conscious enough when they come home to be able to take care of other household needs.

A fourth, and divisive, issue to look at is the cry of "foul" by established businesses. Often middle-sized businesses lead this verbal charge but it is usually championed behind the scenes by the large corporate entities. In my view there are two ways to deal with competition. You can spend your energy and money always improving your business so you are the better option. Or you can play social and economic politics and squash it flat before it sprouts. In the long run playing dirty never pays off in my view. So I always recommend concentrating on the first option. It is a better use of capital resources over the long haul. My other comment is that a small business development incubator is a big positive, in the short run and the long run, to the consumers (you and I). We just don't have enough political clout to get our needs met unless it is an election year and our voices are collective.

However, after going through some of the information on the NCEDC site, I see that they have endorsed another strategy--if I am reading the five year plan correctly

"Priority #1:
Retaining Talented Workers and Jobs

Knowledge workers are our most critical competitive asset, and they are mobile.
If we don’t put them to work, we risk losing them to other regions. At the same time, our existing businesses are our best hope for new job creation, and our best ambassadors to the global marketplace. Their continued success must be a top priority.

Target: Business retention that really works.

We will strengthen our business environment so that companies can create more and better jobs for the people who live here. This means:

  • Building better partnerships between government, education and business

  • More sophisticated business tracking software and data gathering

  • Regular visits to the headquarters of Larimer county employers

  • Consistent, responsive development review and permitting processes

  • Prudent incentive policies that help to create high-wage job opportunity

Target: Entrepreneurial Success

CSU and our high-tech employers spin off entrepreneurs with surprising regularity. We will work with our virtual incubator, SBDCs and other entrepreneurial support organizations to enhance entrepreneurial success rates, by:

  • Creating a "growth company alliance" to identify young, growing companies and match them to appropriate resources

  • Assist local efforts to bring Economic Gardening to Northern Colorado

Target: Higher Education Funding Success

CSU and our other higher education assets are a key part of Northern Colorado’s competitive infrastructure. We will advocate aggressively for a solution to the Tabor/Gallagher/Amendment 23 "perfect storm" that is placing higher education funding at risk in Colorado."

They, the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corporation, are about due for a new plan. It must already be developing. But it appears they have been targeting existing job expansion. There are some facts and pretty numbers posted that represent success so far. Without a context for comparison in the previous years or with a solid understanding of the portion of the population served (if you create 10 jobs in a population base of 100 that is pretty decent. If you create 10 jobs in a population base of 10 million--well that isn't such a plus). So I hold my opinion on the result of this strategy because I am still not familiar enough with the area.

However, if one looks at the Board of Directors who are guiding these policies, going by the information presented, it looks like they all have a strategic interest (except maybe the brewery gent) in seeing the targeting policies focused on existing businesses rather than new business development. Growth without actively attracting the competition. Where are the Mom and Pop representatives on this board?

I am told that Fort Collins has a greater wealth of economic diversity than Greeley. That is good news. I am going to have to hop on over and explore Fort Collins next. I noted also that is where a number of the directors from the economic development corporation have chosen to live.

So what happened to Greeley? It would be nice to have support in moving the middle classes into self-sustaining ownership positions. This is what developing and incubating small business sectors can help to make happen.

I'll look for that answer next.

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