Award-winning KOTA Longboards is only one bright spot in Denver’s promising urban MFG landscape

By Bart Taylor | Jan 31, 2015

KOTA Longboard's Mike Maloney doesn't lack for confidence. Winner of the JP Morgan Chase Main Street Grant and $150,000, Maloney told me in September 2013, "We offer a product of high performance and high value, and I am living proof you can start a manufacturing company in the United States."

It was music to my ears. We featured KOTA in just our second issue, and finding Mike was not only a revelation -- my kids ride KOTA -- but an affirmation. He's in the leading edge of a tidal wave of inspired and modern manufacturing reshaping our economy. He's a poster child for CompanyWeek.

The wave isn't lost on city officials in Denver, who deservedly were included in the Denver Post story about KOTA's award. Not only was Paul Washington's industry team supportive of KOTA from the beginning -- I saw -- they're proving to understand the opportunity of light manufacturing in the city's future.

Denver's already the beneficiary of one high-profile lifestyle-manufacturing boom - its craft beer scene is nationally renowned. The Post mentioned a new initiative from the City called "Create Active Denver," conceived to lure 'sports action lifestyle' companies to the city. Denver co-hosted the inaugural Colorado Apparel Manufacturing Summit this past fall (with CompanyWeek). Denver's industry pros also work hand-in-hand with groups like Manufacturers Edge, to host other events like Beers-and-Gears.

Lifestyle's only one of a several high-potential manufacturing opportunities for the city. Another may be the technology-fueled Supply Chain -- small design and tech-shops armed with tools to enable prototyping and small-batch manufacturing. Growth here should not only inspire start-ups but also fuel a new era of big-company engagement with local suppliers and contract manufacturers.

It's an exciting prospect for Denver -- and others increasingly tuning in: an urban economy profoundly changed by its city producers.

If there's a quibble with Denver's approach, it's that its gaze may not yet extend far enough. In the future, it's easy to see the City (and State of Colorado for that matter) inviting all manufacturing into a 'key' economic sector, to better align resources and promote the community. The numbers convey the breadth of opportunity. As CU's Brian Lewandowski writes, in the second half of 2014, "Colorado ranked 3rd for manufacturing employment growth; over the past three years Colorado ranked 7th; and over the past five years, Colorado ranked 8th, even though Colorado ranks 30th overall for manufacturing jobs." The entire sector's booming. And Denver's in the middle of it.

But for now it's easy to celebrate the accomplishments of one of manufacturing's inspirational leaders and a community of supporters who've helped get him and the KOTA team this far. There's a journey ahead for everyone.