STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. — In Colorado and nationwide, small metro areas, dubbed micropolitan areas, have found that mixing outdoor recreation with business and manufacturing has led to prosperity post-pandemic.
Four Colorado communities — Edwards, Breckenridge, Steamboat Springs, and Montrose — made the list of Heartland Forward's top 25 micropolitan areas in the country for 2022.
On the far northwestern edge of Steamboat Springs, tucked just off Main Street, sits a cluster of warehouses where small businesses and small manufacturing come to thrive.
“We are doing 60 pairs of poles today,” said Andrew Beckler, founder and owner of Grass Sticks bamboo ski poles. “We make bamboo ski poles. And we’ve started doing bamboo plungers, too. We’ve got 12 plungers going out today.”
The prosperity of businesses like Grass Sticks and Town Hall outdoor kids gear speaks to the diversified economy, workforce, and infrastructure in this small mountain town.
“We do sustainable outdoor kids gear out of Steamboat,” said Robin Hall, CEO and co-founder of Town Hall.
Grass Sticks’ business is booming.
“It’s a lighter, stronger, more durable ski pole than a lot of people are used to right now,” Beckler said. “And bamboo is going to bend and flex with you when you crash and then spring back into place.”
And Town Hall is finding a niche, too – in just its second year after launch.
“We saw a gap in kid’s gear,” Hall said. “No one really focusing on the kid, making sure the kid has the right zippers and pockets and pouches and everything that they need and want. Instead of snaps, we did a magnetic because the kiddos can’t do snaps very well.”
In Colorado and nationwide, small metro areas – dubbed ‘micropolitan’ by Heartland Forward, have found that mixing outdoor recreation with business and manufacturing has led to prosperity post-pandemic.
“Investing in entrepreneurs and new start-ups and being thoughtful about diversifying the economy,” said John Bristol, executive director of the Routt County Economic Development Partnership.
Bristol says investment in state-of-the-art infrastructure like broadband has made Steamboat just as viable as any cosmopolitan big city in attracting companies and individuals.
“We’re far beyond other mountain communities and that’s one of the items that we’ve learned has been really helpful,” Bristol said. “It’s the mix of agriculture, there’s a coal-fired power plant, the tourism industry and then you have these outdoor recreation gear companies and gear brands.”
And Steamboat’s not the only Colorado town on Heartland Forward’s 2022 list of top 25 micropolitan areas in the U.S.
Edwards near Vail is No. 10, Breckenridge is No. 15, Steamboat comes in at No. 16 and Montrose on the Western Slope rounds out the top 25 at No. 25.
“It means people want to live here,” said Eric Mamula, mayor of Breckenridge and owner of Downstairs at Eric’s.
Mamula says Breckenridge saw a huge influx of people moving in and staying as a result of the pandemic-fueled work-from-home, work-from-anywhere phenomenon.
“It really accelerated that Zoom economy with people deciding, 'I’m not living in the city anymore,'” Mamula said.
Heartland Forward – the group that puts out the list of Most Dynamic Micropolitans in the U.S. – is a nonpartisan, nonprofit that calls itself a think tank focused on improving economic performance and renewal in America’s heartland.
The focus is on 536 towns and cities with populations from 10,000 to 50,000 people.
Researchers used a formula of growth in employment, GDP, per capita income, degreed workers and young firms and employers to come up with the list of the most dynamic micropolitan areas.
“If nothing else, COVID has proven a diverse economy is the best way to hedge against the unknown,” said Lisa Popovich, executive director of Main Street Steamboat. “For us – it really is where people want to be.”
Steamboat is a town with more than 80 independently owned restaurants.
“Downtowns reflect what’s happening in your greater community,” Popovich said. “We shop in the stores that are here, we go to dinner, happy hour, we’re very social.”
Popovich says what Steamboat does better than anyone is leverage tourism dollars for arts and other programs that benefit locals.
“What town of 15,000 people has a local symphony or an opera?” she said. “It’s not a one-dimensional life. That’s by design, not by accident. Investing in entrepreneurs and new start-ups and being thoughtful about diversifying the economy.”
“The people that we like are the ones that want to be a part of the community after they move here,” Mamula said. “They give to the non-profits; they want to be part of the local government and be on boards and commissions.
What Breckenridge and Steamboat are doing can be looked at by other towns as a roadmap to grow their economies in a post-pandemic world.
“We do everything here in Steamboat with the exception of growing the bamboo and molding our plastic parts,” Beckler said.
“The Yampa Valley is an incredible place to raise kids, have a family, recreate,” Hall said.
“There’s always challenges to manufacturing in a small mountain town,” Beckler said. “Some extra costs and stuff like that, but it’s worth it. We get to go skiing every day, still.”
“The goal is – how do we bring manufacturing here to the states, but specifically to Colorado,” Hall said. “We’re proving it can be done.”
NOTE: Glenwood Springs, Durango, Fort Morgan and Sterling, Colorado also landed in the top 200 on Heartland Forward’s list of top micropolitans.
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