Change at Colorado’s OEDIT an opportunity to upgrade Hick’s Blueprint

By Bart Taylor | Aug 26, 2014

The worst kept secret in Colorado economic circles is the impending leadership shake-up at the Governor’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, or OEDIT. Ken Lund, Executive Director of OEDIT and Karla Tartz, Deputy Director, Strategy & Operations, are leaving as early as September.

The change shouldn’t come as a surprise. Lund’s made it clear he’s a one-termer. A stint in Hickenlooper’s administration has only raised his profile in Colorado’s business community. It would be more unusual for him to stay.

The more interesting speculation will swirl around the direction of OEDIT with new leadership if Hickenlooper wins again this November and the legacy of OEDIT under Lund’s leadership.

On one hand his timing couldn’t be better. The Colorado economy has roared back from the wreckage of the late 2000’s, so much so that it’s hard now to go a week without the state being singled out as a national model for growth, entrepreneurship and innovation and rosy prospects. Opinions vary as to who should get credit (as does the recovery’s regional impact - some are faring better than others), but the upshot is that Lund’s OEDIT has presided over a powerful recovery.

But OEDIT’s also been challenged to live up to expectations developed early in Hickenlooper’s tenure. The collaborative, grassroots success and tone set by the Colorado Blueprint has given way to puzzlement about things like key industry sectors, questions about strategy and a Denver-centric gaze, and outcomes from its $150 million budget and growing payroll.

Our filter is manufacturing, and for makers and manufacturers, OEDIT’s support the past four years has also been a mixed bag.

There’s certainly a lot to like. OEDIT prioritized manufacturing by establishing CAMA - the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance - at a time when confidence in the Colorado Association for Manufacturing and Technology, then CAMT and now Manufacturer’s Edge, had waned. CAMA’s now an important advocate for regional manufacturing. Manufacturer’s Edge has also benefitted, free from obligations of a trade association to operate true to its federal charter as a service provider to industry.

“Advanced Manufacturing” is a point of emphasis for OEDIT, and as Tartz leaves is championing a program that would provide Colorado’s ‘advanced’ sector significant assets in the future. If funded, SMART - Strengthening Manufacturing by Accelerating Research and Technology - would create regional centers that would provide “immediate and sustained support to Colorado’s manufacturing industry”, with technology, tools, targeted programs and outreach.

Colorado’s other flagship manufacturing sectors are booming as well, but without the level of engagement with OEDIT or alignment with its priorities. In the Colorado Blueprint, low-tech manufacturing was scattered among the remaining ‘key’ industries. Natural and organic food manufacturing and craft beverages can famously be found beneath the Hereford cow on the Food and Agriculture Key Industry web page.

Yet the state’s natural and organic food industry is a national model. Innovations in manufacturing have been a driver. Co-packers like Fresca Foods have catapulted locally inspired brands onto the national scene. Colorado’s craft beer sector is juggernaut. There may be no more strategic sector than food and beverage manufacturing in Colorado’s future.

I’d suggest the following adjustments to new OEDIT leadership:

- Reduce the number of Key Industry Sectors from 14 to whatever is actually ‘key’. Acknowledge and feed anchor industries like tourism and ag but rally around the sectors that will drive growth in the coming decades.

- Lifestyle Industries is certainly one. Colorado’s a mecca for smart, capitalized lifestyle entrepreneurs intent on building the next New Belgium or Chipotle. Others will arrive in the future to emulate Voormi, Icelantic, Moots, Topo Designs or Boa. Use Colorado’s powerful national brand to develop a lifestyle industrial capability that's a catalyst for growth.

- Utah created a Director of Outdoor Recreation - but Brad Peterson’s not simply marketing the state to tourists. He’s leveraging Utah’s outdoor brand to attract industry - industry aligned with lifestyle. Align Colorado’s mega-tourism sector similarly.

- The region is home to a sophisticated industrial manufacturing and builder sector. Working with engineers from Colorado’s first-rate universities, benders, cutters, and fabricators are designing and building infrastructure products and industrial parts that are sold worldwide. They’re all increasingly high-tech and require skilled workers. Treat them as an ‘advanced’ industry.

- Colorado will be home to million more residents by 2020 - keeping pace with a regional boom in the intermountain West. The state is not an island - it’s an anchor destination in a desired national location that shares opportunity and challenges with its neighbors. If you believe Colorado to be the bellwether of the bunch, it should lead a new pan-regionalism that for one promotes the region as a reshoring destination for manufacturing. There’s much to build on.