Nurturing Microbusinesses And Building A Diversified Economy In a Rural Community

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Nurturing Microbusinesses And Building A Diversified Economy In a Rural Community

John Bristol grew up on a ranch in northwest Colorado that was started in the 1980s by his great-grandfather, a homesteader. Five years ago, after two stints in the Peace Corps and a decade as a congressional aide, he returned to nearby Steamboat Springs to be director of economic development for the city and surrounding Routt County. Now, he’s continuing work that began more than a decade ago to build a diversified economy in Steamboat, particularly to make it a great place for people to work remotely or to create their own microbusinesses.

Bristol was thrilled when told that Steamboat and surrounding Routt County has 13.2 microbusinesses per 100 residents, according to data from Venture Forward, GoDaddy’s multiyear study of the economic impact of 20 million microbusinesses started by people who use our services. That’s among the highest density levels for any county in the nation, and almost six times the average for rural counties, of 2.3 microbusinesses per 100 people. Venture Forward caught up with him to discuss the area’s success in nurturing a diverse, resilient economy, and how it can continue to make itself a great place to start and build microbusinesses.

Were you surprised to learn that Steamboat had so many microbusinesses relative to other cities?

A: I wasn’t totally surprised, given all the good things that are happening here. But it was great to see that the data exists. I’m always trying to figure out the impact of this microbusiness activity, especially because we don’t have a business licensing system here in Steamboat. So I look forward to digging into the data more deeply.

Why did Steamboat Springs get serious about building a diversified economy?

A: This economy used to be dominated by agriculture and then by coal mines and coal-fired electricity plants, and in the last few decades by tourism. Around 2000, we realized that we had about 10 years until the power stations were retired. And while tourism is great, it’s very seasonal and has a lot of peaks and valleys. To have a sustainable economy, you can’t put all your eggs in one basket.

How did the town get started in its diversification efforts?

A: You start by asking “what are our assets, and what are our strengths and weaknesses?” For us, the answer was obviously natural resources, particularly tourism. But I really believe that tourism is the first date of economic development. Once you get people to start engaging with the experience of being here, how do you get them to start thinking about their own life and how they can build their dreams here?

How important was broadband adoption to the city’s success?

A: It’s very important. We’re ahead of a lot of rural communities when it comes to providing fast, reliable broadband. I used to hear stories of architects and engineers who wanted to live here, but had to move to Denver. I don’t hear those stories any more.

Some cities around the nation are focused on convincing big employers to relocate there. Steamboat seems more focused on attracting location-neutral employees of large companies, and on being a place where microbusinesses can grow and thrive. Why?

A: Communities that offer a high quality of life like ours are facing a lot of growth-related pressures. A lot of people want to move here, but there’s not a strong desire to attract companies with 10 or 20 thousand employees. Where are they going to live? For us, microbusinesses and startups make a lot of sense. They feed stable growth.

Speaking of growth-related pressures, real estate prices have soared in Steamboat Springs as they have in other places. How can you make sure Steamboat remains affordable and retains the character that has made people want to start businesses here?

A: It’s an important question, because there’s definitely such a thing as rural gentrification. It’s hard when people who have volunteered in the schools and invested in the community for years are replaced by somebody who walks in and says, “Here’s a million dollars for your house.” You have to have an onboarding process and be thoughtful about that transition, to help new people get involved themselves. It doesn’t happen overnight, but you have to be thoughtful about the social values of the community.

There are a number of microbusinesses in town that focus on products for people who love the outdoors, from paddleboards to energy bars. What is the city doing to build on that?

A: For starters, there’s no better place for people in that business to do R&D. If Peter Hall at Hala Gear wants to go test a new fin on a paddleboard, he can just go in the river and test it. It speeds up the business cycle. And I want to bring people like that together and ask them, “What is keeping you from hiring one more person? Do you know anyone that is tinkering with an interesting idea in his or her garage?” Anything we can do to incentivize and motivate those people, we want to do it.