Economy of place

Economic Summit to explore ways sense of community stimulates business

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— Thomas Friedman is determined to convince all of us that the world is flat.

Friedman is the well-known New York Times columnist and the author of a new book, "The World is Flat -- a Short History of the 21st Century."

The book talks about the convergence of trends such as the worldwide availability of cheap tele-communications, and the entrance into the workforce of millions of educated workers in China and India. Such trends are changing the world and individual communities at a pace that societal institutions will be hard pressed to keep up with, Friedman asserts.

The trends he writes about are "flattening" the world into one even plane where, increasingly, highly motivated workers in emerging economies have the ability to compete with workers in developed nations, Friedman argues, and there can be no turning back.

Speakers at Steamboat Springs Economic Summit 2005, to be held May 18 and 19, will explore the demographic and economic trends that are "flattening" the American West, and how communities including Craig, Steamboat and Routt and Moffat counties can prepare themselves for the fallout.

"Geography attracts a lot of people," Economic Summit organizer Noreen Moore said. "People who come tend to have similar personalities, they share values and ethics and an appreciation of the place. People who have lived here for 30 years didn't come here for their careers or they would have already left. We're very place driven. We chose to live here at a cost."

Moore thinks she and colleague Scott Ford have uncovered a heretofore unknown trend that has been transforming the economy of Routt County and Steamboat for more than a decade.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau reveals that more than 600 "location-neutral employees" lived and worked in Routt County in 2000, Moore said. Such people work for out-of-town companies and may work from home or in a local office.

Using Census data about where W-2 forms are generated, Moore weeded out employees working for companies that really are based locally, but for reasons of business organization, their payrolls are managed elsewhere.

The rate at which location-neutral employees arrive here outpaces general population growth, Moore said. As recently as 1990, 250 location-neutral employees worked here. That means that in a county of 20,000 people (not all of them workers) the location-neutral group is growing at a rate 2.5 times faster that of the general population.

"The people coming here now have money and they have careers," Moore observed. "That's good for us, because they grow our economic community."

Moore theorizes that location-neutral employees -- people who have the luxury of living and working anywhere they choose -- arrive in the Yampa Valley because they are seeking the sense of community it offers.

Speakers at Economic Sum--mit 2005 will be asked to challenge Moore's theory.

Jim Westkott said the twin forces of retiring baby boomers looking for new homes and their unprecedented wealth, will bring about change in communities like Steamboat Springs. He is the director of the Colorado Demography Office.

"There's no question in my mind they represent a broad range of opportunities in communities that have been based on recreation," Westkott said. "The challenge is to adopt strategies that are smart and allow communities to grow the way they want to grow."

The most important strategy is to use sound planning principles that allow growing communities to continue to provide a level of services that "make it all work," Westkott added.

Another of those speakers is Daniel Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula, Mont., and director of the Center of the Rocky Mountain West. Kemmis wrote a series of books that explore the importance of place in policy-making decisions. He looks at how people in the West react to the landscape as well as to one another as they make policy for the future.

Kemmis often asks audiences, "How can we create sustainable, livable places for ourselves, where we can live in genuine community with each other?"

Gary Severson, executive director of the Northwest Colorado Council of Gov--ernments will talk about the chacteristics that contribute to vibrant rural communities.

Tom DeWolf, a former city council member in Bend, Ore., and current Deschutes County commissioner, will talk about how his community, which is not unlike Northwest Colorado, has managed growth and change.

Pitkin County Commissioner Mick Ireland also will speak. Moore expects him to touch on a theme similar to Friedman's: The pace of future change will challenge our ability to adapt.

Ireland suggests that the next wave of baby boomers to flock to Colorado mountain towns will be even more affluent than those who arrived in the 1990s, Moore said. That relative wealth is likely to act as an accelerant to change, he thinks.

"People in the Roaring Fork Valley are ahead of the curve compared to us, and it's incredibly important that we hear how they handled growth and the rate at which it's going to happen to us," Moore said.

She thinks the arrival of location-neutral businesses has added depth to the local economy by increasing the demand for business-to-business services such as those offered by financial, legal, insurance and accounting professionals. And that's a good thing. But she wants to make certain people in the Yampa Valley have a chance to glimpse the future and assess how steep the growth curve might be.

-- To reach Tom Ross call 871-4205

or e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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