Noreen Moore and Scott Ford want to know all about your favorite watering holes, and they mean business.
Don't get the wrong idea. This isn't one of those stories about the best ski town bars. This is a story about an economic trend that has begun to transform ski towns and almost everywhere else that has drop-dead views.
Watering holes, Moore said, are the places we go to feel connected to our community. Churches and schools are obvious choices. So are coffee shops, soccer fields and ice rinks. And in Steamboat, institutions such as the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and Strings in the Mountains also qualify. And yes, even honky tonks could be added to the list of watering holes.
These places and institutions play an important role as an increasing number of location-neutral businesses and employees migrate to attractive rural towns across America. Watering holes provide a means of finding the community these migrants sought out in the first place, Moore said.
They are affluent people at the height of their careers who can afford to live almost anywhere they choose. Increasingly, they choose beautiful small towns such as Steamboat Springs, with good schools, good hospitals, cultural and recreational amenities and a strong sense of community.
"Our place -- our community -- is becoming our primary economic asset," Moore said. "That poses the question, how do you define it? How do you understand and keep your economic asset" healthy?
Moore intends to find answers to those questions and more. She's preparing to mail a questionnaire to 500 location-neutral businesses here. Her goal is to learn what they need. She'll use the results of the survey to stimulate the exchange of ideas at Economic Summit 2005, to be held May 18 and 19.
Location-neutral businesses, empowered by modern telecommunication, are playing an increasing role in the economies of towns such as Steamboat. But very few facts are known about the trend.
The import and wholesaling operation Australia Steamboat Connection is an example of a location-neutral business, Moore said. So is Applied Geodynamics, the geotechnical firm that was featured in last week's Pilot & Today.
"It's about any pretty place," Moore said. "It's an emerging economic world, and nobody's monitoring it. We're probably one of the few resort communities to have a handle on it."
Location-neutral businesses typically are small businesses that have located here not because Steamboat and Routt County are close to financial centers but because the owners seek the lifestyle. They can conduct business here almost as easily as they can in Denver, Dallas, Chicago or New York. They may do most or all of their business outside of Routt County, or even Colorado.
Scott Ford of the Economic Development Center at Col-orado Mountain College has used data available from the federal government to learn that Routt County is also home to 567 location-neutral employees -- people who work here for companies based elsewhere.
In the absence of business offices, many of these employees work out of their homes -- and those "watering holes" become their key link to the community in which they live.
Location-neutral employees represent roughly 5 percent of the 11,442 jobs provided by companies based in Steamboat. Their employers can be found in 32 cities outside Routt County.
Although most of those cities are in Colorado, they are as widely spread as Alaska, California, New York and Florida.
Ford expects the list of cities from outside Colorado that have employees living and working in Routt County to grow significantly in the decade to come. He suspects the trend reflects a gradual shift in the attitudes of employers who find themselves doing everything possible to retain key employees.
"You're getting a growing employee acceptance of having remotely located workers," Ford said. "They're responding to a growing demand for workplace flexibility."
If a multinational accounting firm is faced with losing its lead expert on international tax policies because she doesn't want to live in Chicago anymore, Ford said, her boss might decide to allow her to spend the majority of her working days in Steamboat rather than lose her to a competitor.
Moore and Ford agree that location-neutral businesses and employees represent highly desirable forms of economic development. Instead of prospecting for companies that might consider relocating here, the community can watch as the trend unfolds.
"We don't have to hunt," Moore said. "We just have to take care of what we have."
However, Moore worries that an influx of affluent people, all seeking to enjoy the sense of community that exists in the Yampa Valley today, gradually could erode that very quality. That's why she's urging residents to acknowledge the trend and adapt to it.
Ford takes it one step further. He thinks it's in the best interest of existing residents to engage new arrivals and help bond them to the community.
Almost inevitably, location-neutral employees represent the future of the community, he said, and we cannot afford for them to grow disaffected.
"We've constantly wished for a vibrant, diverse economy," Ford observed. "This is one piece of a puzzle. Location-neutral businesses bring a diversity to this town. We need their assistance to perpetuate the sense of community we all enjoy. We need them, and they need us."
-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org