Mesa County’s Western Colorado Manufacturing Alliance off to a fast start

By Bart Taylor | Apr 15, 2014

The drive east on I-70 from Grand Junction, at 6:15 a.m. on a Friday morning, is more stock car race than commute. The highway’s packed with mud-caked pickups and dualies, all in a mad dash to the oil and gas rigs around De Beque, Parachute then Rifle. The frantic pace seems an apt metaphor for the sector.

I’m heading back to the Front Range after attending the first Western Colorado Manufacturing Alliance Summit, and guessing the surging pack on I-70 is welcome but also a reason to pause for the farsighted leaders who’ve worked to pull this industry group together. Oil and gas have been great for Mesa County, but diversifying the economy’s an objective here. Energy’s boom pace is hard to sustain, at the expense of related sectors in down times.

The rush is also a reminder of the workforce challenge here for non-energy manufacturers. Oil and gas producers tap deeply into the labor pool. Wages are high. It makes it tough on companies who would hire and train a new generation of tech-savvy machinists and equipment operators, welders and brewmasters.

Of course energy producers are manufacturers of the first order, but WCMA has gathered a group of light industry firms, primarily, to network and determine what can be gained from building a more connected maker economy. It’s a mix of established industry players and smaller process and component manufacturers.

It’s a good showing - it’s the group’s first event - but it’s who’s not here that also makes this event and initiative promising. When they’re engaged WCMA will grow.

Only one winery from Colorado’s jewel of a maker sector attended the summit - Talon. It’s not a slight; the vision for a truly integrated maker community, with disparate industries collaborating to advance their interests, is relatively new. Plus some wineries need to be reminded they’re manufacturers.

Also in the building stages is a community of small tech-shop startups and entrepreneurs armed with 3D printers and CAD-enabled means just beginning to provide component prototypes, and increasing production-ready parts that enable small batch manufacturing. The foundation is here; Jon Maraschin’s Business Incubator Center is collaborating with others like Colorado Mesa University and Colorado SBDC to build from the ground up. Meaningful collaboration with Mesa County’s maker community should only grow.

I was one of the few east-slopers who made the trip west to the Summit without a bike. Attendees were peeling off after the last session to ride the Monument, or Rustler’s Loop or planning trail rides the following day. Mesa County’s an outdoor mecca. A push to attract light industrial makers in the lifestyle sector, to leverage and shape fitness tourism into a true cluster strategy with industry a core component seems here for the taking. Companies like Mountain Racing Products (profiled in CompanyWeek) and Loki are vanguards.

The event’s grassroots feel seems the right track here. It’s unclear though whether it’s aligned with the state’s economic development efforts. OEDIT, Colorado’s Office of Economic Development, and CAMA, the Colorado Advanced Manufacturing Alliance, were here, outlining efforts to support manufacturers, mainly from programs in pursuit of federal dollars aligned with national advanced manufacturing initiatives. Colorado’s well-positioned, to OEDIT’s credit. But it’s a high-stakes game with uncertain outcomes, often with long-lead times involving myriad grant applications and lot’s of moving parts.

The top-down push is also expensive. Karla Tartz, Deputy Director at OEDIT, mentioned here that two new deputy directors are being hired to manage program development in advanced manufacturing. Governor Hickenlooper’s economic development bureaucracy is already big; it’s nearly doubled in size since FY 2011-12. And it’s getting bigger.

It’s worthwhile if a payoff follows, if initiatives OEDIT’s pursuing such as the Colorado Acceleration Agenda, or COAA, bear fruit. The ‘Manufacturing Corridor’ envisioned in COAA would first be established along the Front Range, from Larimer County to Pueblo, but eventually include Mesa County and more regional destinations.

Next to this complex and ‘advanced’ approach to advance development, Mesa County’s support of entrepreneurship, of connecting business to enhance collaboration, and tapping its lifestyle attributes might sound inadequate. And Reynolds Polymer and other established industry players here must see also see the benefits of being part of a cross-industry maker community that pulls the same direction.

But if the maker economy here engages, if entrepreneurship is nurtured, and municipalities widen their view to the possibilities, WCMA’s first summit will be a preview of great things to come.

Along with a more casual morning drive along the Colorado River.