On August 10, 32 eager San Luis Obispo County residents gathered in the wee hours to fly to Denver to kick start a community visioning process that will serve as the foundation of countywide collaboration and economic opportunity.
“What’s possible?” was the question on everyone’s lips. Nine years prior another such delegation visited Boulder, Colo., to better understand our shared challenges and bring back ideas that could be repurposed within our region. The 2008 trip resulted in increased collaboration between the business, government and university communities with the goal of growing the economy by supporting innovation and entrepreneurship. These strengthened partnerships and a commitment to work together have lead to years of consistent meetings and joint support of initiatives including the SLO HotHouse.
The 2017 trip was a packed three days. In a series of meetings that took place at an array of institutions, the delegation met with 35 locally-based professionals who presented their challenges and successes. Through these collaborative conversations, we recognized the riches available to us through the experience of others, and engaged in meaningful dialogue about the future of our respective communities.
“We learned a ton, but the greatest outcome from the economic vision trip to Colorado was not WHAT we learned about, but WHO we learned about – namely one another,” SLO Chamber Board Chair Ryan Caldwell said. “Conversations on the shuttle bus, the plane and at meals were some of the most valuable moments of the trip. The relationships formed and the understanding developed within our group are by far the best assets we have returned home with and something I believe will prove valuable long into the future, especially as we look for regional economic development opportunities in preparation for the closure of Diablo Canyon.”
The SLO contingent included government staff, elected officials, leaders from Cal Poly, Cuesta and K12, as well as a diverse mix of minds from the SLO County nonprofit and business communities.
Major Takeaways and Themes
- You get more, better things done when a region pulls together
Denver has made a concerted effort to move from a region of competition within local jurisdictions to one of cooperation through establishing trust, growing opportunity for all and collectively (and respectfully) navigating the pitfalls along the way.
“Regions that learn to work together will do better for their citizens, their future and the quality of everyone’s lives.” – Tom Clark
Similar to the closure of Diablo Canyon Power Plant, Denver as a city faced near economic disaster when oil and gas companies left the area in the 1980s. They rose from the ashes by inviting the not-so-usual suspects to participate in their planning efforts and adhering to a strict code of ethics in their business dealings.
- Instill a culture of giving back
Whether it’s giving back through a culture of mentorship and intentional professional guidance, encouraging startups to pledge 1 percent back to their community before they even make a profit, or putting careful thought and time into planning processes for public works, such as mandating that a portion of new developments include affordable housing, Boulder, like SLO, is a community made up of people who care and want to give back.
“What makes the community (in Boulder) work is a mix of talented people with local resources, a sense of community and a series of meaningful relationships that help put people together.” – Ian Hathaway, senior fellow, Brookings Institution
- Supporting innovation supports the economy
With 141 startups in 2016, and ranking at the top of the Kauffman Foundation’s list of highest density of startups nationwide, Boulder is small but mighty when it comes to the entrepreneurial community. The city, university and businesses collaborate with entrepreneurs, offering multiple incubators and accelerators that supply opportunities for mentorship, access to venture funding and the supportive ecosystem that both attracts and builds entrepreneurs from the ground up. The entrepreneurial ecosystem is a hotbed of creativity and innovation, evidenced by 2,000 high-paying high-tech jobs in Boulder tracing back to startups in the last decade and attracting tech giants such as Microsoft, Uber, Twitter and Google to take up residence by acquiring Boulder startups.
“Startups are responsible for most net new jobs in America. As big companies continue to cut back, we can continue to look to startups to create our future.” – David Cohen, co-founder, Techstars
- Quality of life is key
Boulder’s commitment to preserving open space, Denver’s innovative approach to funding the arts and both communities’ focus on placemaking has created big yields in economic development. Tourism is a huge part of the economy, with mountain and park open space in high demand. Boulder’s Chatauqua Park draws more visitors per year than Rocky Mountain National Park. And in the core of its downtown, the Pearl Street Mall, a vibrant pedestrian mall that includes numerous pieces of interactive public art and community gathering spaces, makes Boulder a highly attractive place to live. Many leaders have credited the successful startup community, in part, to the attractiveness of the region as a place to live.
- Strengthening a skilled workforce
Denver and Boulder are shifting the way they approach growing the workforce and we need to do the same. Leaders in Boulder and Denver have begun to focus on hiring for skills but not necessarily education level and have brought back apprenticeship-style training to more efficiently and effectively boost the talent pool. This nimble approach has been a win-win, enabling businesses to have a skilled workforce and individuals to be prepared for the jobs they want.
After three days spent in intense discussion, the group returned home galvanized to use the lessons learned to work together to create a better future for San Luis Obispo County.
See photos of the trip here.