Steamboat Springs To keep people like Dale Morris in Routt County, some say enhancing the area’s broadband network is the only way to go.
Morris is a location-neutral professional. His job as a computer architect for Hewlett-Packard doesn’t require him to be near the company’s corporate headquarters in Palo Alto, Calif. It doesn’t really require him to be anywhere specific.
He’s among a growing number of location-neutral professionals who have chosen to call the Yampa Valley home.
“Their presence and growth is helping diversify the local economy in ways we did not anticipate 10 years ago,” Scott Ford, former director of the Routt County Economic Development Cooperative and an adviser to data mining nonprofit Yampa Valley Partners, said in an email. “The catalyst for this important change to the economy of Routt County has been broadband.”
According to data from the U.S. Census American Community Survey, an average of 12 percent of the county’s workforce from 2007 to 2009 was location-neutral, said Yampa Valley Partners Executive Director Kate Nowak, who compiled the information. She said that’s up from 6 percent in 2000 and 3 percent in 1990.
Nowak said an estimated 1,421 employees of the 15,350-person county workforce of 16- to 64-year-olds are location-neutral — a percentage twice as high as the state and higher than Boulder, the next closest county.
“We’ve got a lot of that, and I think we can grow it,” Nowak said.
She added that according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ preliminary estimates for 2010, the average annual wage for the professional/technology/scientific industry sector that location-neutral professionals typically fall into is $53,538. The average for all industries is $39,283.
Economist Carl Steidtmann told the audience at the 2011 Economic Summit in May that attracting location-neutral professionals was “probably one of the most under-realized opportunities” for Steamboat and the valley.
Steidtmann, chief economist and director of consumer business for Deloitte Research, also is a location-neutral professional living in Steamboat.
He said at the Economic Summit that as broadband was enhanced, more workers would choose where to live based not on necessity, but quality of life.
“If you could live anywhere you wanted, wouldn’t Steamboat be high on the list?” Morris asked.
He and his wife, Lynne Garell, moved to the county from Menlo Park in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2000 to escape the big-city, traffic-congested, never-get-to-see-your-friends-because-you’re-all-so-busy lifestyle.
Morris is member of Ignite Steamboat, a networking group for location-neutral professionals.
Noreen Moore, former business resource director for the county’s Economic Development Cooperative, helped found the group, which has grown to 162 members.
She cited other services important to location-neutral professionals, such as cellular telephone service and access to air travel, both of which could be improved. Moore said she hasn’t heard from Ignite members or other location-neutral businesses and professionals that the local broadband service is inadequate.
“It’s not so bad right now, but that doesn’t mean we rest on our laurels,” she said.
Moore added that broadband needed to be as fast, as accessible and as affordable as it is in metro areas.
Moffat County Commissioner Audrey Danner has been working to improve Northwest Colorado’s connectivity since 1997. She’s coordinating one of four state-created Local Technology Planning Teams.
Danner said the region’s broadband has seen “phenomenal growth” in the past decade, which needs to continue to provide services and increase economic development opportunities.
“From the requests and the comments I hear, anecdotally, we are not there,” she said, noting that educational institutions and health care organizations have requested faster broadband. “The world is moving at a very fast pace. We will have to work diligently to keep up with it.”
Danner added that improving broadband is one of Gov. John Hickenlooper’s economic development initiatives.
Ford said the infrastructure was in place to enhance the local broadband network. He said technological improvements would make it faster, which was important as a “critical” infrastructure for the community.
Morris acknowledged the importance of broadband — he used a dial-up Internet connection when he moved to Steamboat — but said technology isn’t the only draw for location-neutral professionals. He said it’s the people.
“We really picked Steamboat, or Steamboat picked us, because of the sense of community, the ‘How about you come over for dinner?’ sort of thing,” Morris said. “People are so focused here on having fun, but also hanging out with friends. That’s hugely important to us.”
To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com