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Small Enough to Make a Difference

When you walk along Cañon City's Main Street, historic stone buildings line the sidewalk. Cars move slowly, potted plants and sculptures decorate downtown. It's the normal small Midwestern town where teenagers can't wait to move out, and the retired folks are glad they came back.

And when you walk up the stairs of 425 Main Street, the creak of the building whispers its ancient secrets while its smell suggests oils and metals no longer in use. Upon reaching the top, you walk down the halls, peaking in the open doors. A man in a polo shirt, shorts and sandals peers across his stand-up desk to his computer, mountain bike waiting behind the door. His intern constructs a prototype at the adjacent table. In the next room, a woman sits next to her computer talking to a visitor about her new invention, her rock climbing gear in a pile in the corner. Offices, meeting rooms and a few people in each complete the tour. 

What did you just see? An example of a stagnant culture transformed into one of new opportunities. Cañon City's tech center FEDC TechSTART has become the model for rural America's best kept secret - high income remote tech workers who have traded the city for the rural quality of life.  Fremont County is, indeed, morphing into a tech enclave in rural Colorado.

"When I go to Techstart, I don't see 23 different businesses," said Rob Brown, FEDC Executive Director. "I see 23 different people with the skills and ability to grow." And for Cañon City, that means a job creation engine and an economic revolution.

Our Individual Journeys

Who would've guessed that Fremont County would ever have a technology center? A building downtown that hosts emerging or established technology-related businesses?

Rob Brown did. Then FEDC (Fremont Economic Development Corporation) did. Then Brad Rowland did.... Then key partners in Fremont County did.

"People had been saying there aren't any techies in Fremont County," said Rob Brown, remote tech worker and FEDC Executive Director. But he had met other techies who lived here, and believed he could formulate an idea to attract more.  "I have been trying to float the profit cluster idea around the community. (The idea starts by) I'm asking ‘would you move (your business) to Cañon City?' People would if we have a supply chain, distribution chain, labor resources, etc. I explained that to people (in the community), but it seemed too obscure. I needed a more concrete example to explain the concept, so I used the tech sector."

Brad Rowland understood the idea, and began its implementation.  FEDC, a nonprofit that stimulates Fremont County's economy, gave the program seed money. "I got permission from FEDC to find a place," Brown continued. "Lois Kaplan helped get it, Brad Rowland championed it, and we formed a nucleus of FEDC TechSTART (techies)."

Rowland is himself a remote tech worker. He came to Cañon City a few years ago for the rural life, and in the meantime, he and some friends grew their software company and ultimately sold it to Microsoft. But he hasn't stopped there. Alongside his business, he is also leading the tech movement to Fremont County's rural mountain life as the FEDC TechSTART Program Director. 

"It took Brad to drive it," realtor Lois Kaplan noted. "They loved his vision. And for two years time, for it to be where it is, is amazing. But that's Brad!"

Rowland is building FEDC TechSTART to be a job creation engine. He knows that the fourth industrial revolution is technology. Armed with that knowledge, he wants to blow the horn to remote tech workers like himself, but he also wants to reverse Fremont County's rural talent pipeline.

"People stumble on Cañon City and say ‘I want to live in a place like this! I can have an amazing quality of life while being tied into the tech sector. Through that, we expect to attract at least 50 six-figure income earners to our area who will be job-producing tech entrepreneurs," Rowland said. "It also gives our students a reason to say ‘I want to stay in Cañon City'."

Indeed, plenty of remote tech workers are looking to escape the traffic and hustle of Denver. But some are returning, having realized what they'd left. Rob Brown is one of them, a graduate of the local high school. So did Luke Javernik of River Science. The 28-year-old grew up in Cañon City, then traveled the world as an expert with his business in water quality sensing technology before returning to open his headquarters at FEDC TechStart. So did Brock Predovich, who designed technology that aids in the diagnosis and correction of bruxism. So did Gregory Carlson, who developed software to revolutionize online education. So did Jason Veatch, a graduate of Canon City schools and CU Boulder who now works at Microsoft as well as the Associate Director of FEDC TechSTART. There are others. All of these local entrepreneurs did not want to be part of the rural brain drain. They returned to improve their hometown.

Our Community Journey

Until now, Cañon City has missed much of the economic growth and affluence that the rest of Colorado has realized. But until now, Cañon City didn't have the right ingredients. It took the community, and it took the right visionary people.

The first FEDC TechSTART tech entrepreneurs volunteered their time to get the space useable.  One man painted the ceiling, a board member came in to help, a business owner donated the carpet, a realtor came in to help paint, and more. Local anonymous donors gave financially. "It wouldn't have happened without the fact that people leant a hand," said Kaplan. "Everybody pitched in."

These visionary people, many having grown up in Cañon City, also have vision to provide an immediate education and career path to the youth of the community. In doing so, they are creating a talent pool to attract industry and innovation that will drive economic success.

Our Internships

One of those visionaries is Cañon City High School principal Bill Summers. He organized for his school's professional writing class to apply for the Pathways in Technology Early College High School (PTECH) grant. In a PTECH school, students earn a high school diploma, an industry-recognized associate degree, and gain relevant work experience in a growing field. PTECH represents the best of what public-private partnerships can look like, with students taking high school and college coursework simultaneously and engaging in industry-guided workforce development.

With the help of FEDC TechSTART business leaders, the CCHS professional writing class submitted a winning application. CCHS won the fourth PTECH grant in Colorado, and the first rural PTECH grant in the nation. CCHS and Cañon City's Pueblo Community College has a robust partnership to make that happen. This partnership has helped make CCHS the number one school in Colorado per capita for students being involved in college preparatory programs.

At the time the class wrote the grant, 35 local industry partners aligned with CCHS to offer internships. Last year, 75 students had internships. This year, 175 students interned with 100 industry partners. To date, nineteen students have participated in FEDC TechSTART internships.

"TechSTART is key," said Summers. "Cañon City has a unique opportunity. Students get to interact with entrepreneurs, code writers, and other techies. There are opportunities to work with real, small businesses as opposed to a giant tech company where you do surface level work with a middle manager."

Cañon City Economic Development Director Ryan Stevens agrees. "When you're working with big companies, there's little impact." With a company like Amazon, it can offer internships that will benefit the company and give the students an industry-recognized name. But small, local businesses can utilize interns to grow on a practical level, see more one-on-one training for the interns and provide a greater overall benefit to the county. "When it is community led, the impact is exponentially larger."

One of those small business owners, who also doubles as a FEDC TechSTART visionary, is native-born Chris Koehn. Koehn was the high school head boy and an all-star athlete. After finding success following a CU Boulder education, he founded numerous successful businesses. Instead of early retirement, Koehn decided to return to his hometown to make magic there. He developed a business that provides 24/7 technical support to the military, and is operated out of FEDC TechSTART. His growing company plans to employ 30 people in Cañon City by the end of 2019. With Koehn providing specialized computer software training, student interns can go straight from high school into a high-paying job.

As a community, FEDC TechSTART and its partners desire to shape and steer Fremont County's economic future, transformational community goals, and home in the technology marketplace. This year's Small Business Revolution competition recognized Fremont County's efforts and potential in awarding Cañon City "top 5" place in the national competition of over 12,000 entries.

"We are starting to hear in Colorado that we are onto something here," Brown said. "Our biggest asset is we're nimble, and we can change quickly and adapt. We can do things that generate opportunities quickly. We are a community filled with people with a common destiny. We are a community of human resources, and we can accomplish a lot in a short time period."

Our Vision

Accomplishing a lot by attracting job-creating entrepreneurs is Fremont's goal. The community aligns industry influencers, government leaders, and educational resources to collectively focus on the creation of a laser focused target: to build, educate, and deploy a highly skilled labor force for those entrepreneurs. The requirements include sustainability, highly targeted and sought-after education tracks, and focused industry internships, combined with youth work programs to develop and deploy highly technical skill sets in the local market - the Upper Arkansas River Valley. Fremont County's developing and persistent talent resource is its key capability for strategic economic development and future innovation.

These developments will attract the businesses. Low competition within the Fremont tech community means that employee retention is high; expensive and detailed training will not be lost by employees drifting to competition.

Colorado-based Secom wired high-speed fiber Internet along Main Street, which is a significant draw for many of the internet-based businesses at FEDC TechSTART. Rowland said major tech centers are spreading out their support call centers and other jobs involving technology to communities across the country, and more and more people are working remotely, especially from more affordable communities. Rural communities like Fremont, Custer and Chaffee counties... the counties in the Upper Arkansas River Valley.

"Part of the equation is trying to find people who want to be in a remote rural environment," said Stevens.

Although training local talent is making it so Fremont County doesn't have to import people, Rowland's strategy to attract business owners unfolded before his eyes. He first met a man named Keith who had become lost and found himself in Canon City. Before he could find his way out, he fell in love with the town. He bumped into Rowland at a Main Street coffee shop, and after a conversation, decided to move his remote techie business here from the big city. Keith is one of many techies who live in the city, but who long for the relaxed rural/mountain lifestyle. Many are just waiting for the right infrastructure to be in the right location and for the right price.

Now Rowland is looking to recruit "100 Keiths" - those techies that want to move to a place like Cañon City. But he points out that Cañon City is really not that remote. Only an hour from Colorado Springs, and two and a half hours from Denver International Airport, techies in Cañon City are positioned to have the best of both worlds. There are many draws to Fremont County. In addition to being the climate capital of Colorado, it has the best outdoor recreation opportunities. For mountain bikers, Fremont has 200 developed trails. For rock climbers, Shelf Road boasts 1,200 routes. For rafters and kayakers, the Arkansas River plunges them through Class 5 whitewater underneath the Royal Gorge Bridge before spilling out into Cañon City's boater playpark. Hikes, free camping locations, fishing holes, swathes of hunting grounds, and a new Via Ferrata are among the activities that Fremont County offers.

"The corrections industry is an important component of our economy, but it's not our identity," Brown said. "We have to take advantage of core competencies. This will be the battle cry of the rural sector.

While Brown and Rowland want to continue growing FEDC TechSTART, Brown has visions of more "profit cluster" satellite opportunities. He sees Fremont County as a growing rural leader in the agricultural and health industries. His team will create career pathways that are distinct and missing in rural communities.

Our Contribution  - Creation of the Upper Arkansas Technology Sector Partnership

"The overall vision of how we lay the groundwork, as the first rural TechSTART program, is to show how rural communities can do it right," Brown said.

Now, the neighboring communities are perking up. The FEDC TechSTART team, alongside area economic development offices, decided that our sector could benefit greatly by forming a technical partnership.

Background

In order to qualify for the government USDA workforce opportunities, states have geographically organized regions within their states as sectors. Within those sectors, industries can form partners within the industry to help promote and grow the industry within the sector.

In Colorado, sector 13 comprises Fremont, Custer, Chaffee and Lake Counties. The goals these counties have are recruiting individuals, recruiting businesses, and developing a "tech ready workforce." Towns like Salida, Westcliffe and Florence will have their own TechSTARTs, collaborating with Fremont's.

"These towns are only an hour from Cañon City, which is a typical commute in the Bay Area. We've started thinking of ourselves as one big community that can offer a variety of services and lifestyles to remote workers," said Rowland.

Rowland explains that FEDC TechSTART was key to the development of the Upper Arkansas Technology Sector Partnership (UATSP), the second official tech sector partnership in the state. FEDC TechSTART, alongside representatives from each region, helped create the UATSP to extend the economic dreams and opportunities to other area communities. In doing so, the UATSP has established a blueprint for other rural mountain towns for how to build a thriving business community like FEDC TechSTART.

"What we discovered in rural Colorado was a growing base of individuals pioneering a new life as a remote tech worker," said Rowland. "These people already had a shared vision and were looking for ways to connect, work with each other, and grow their businesses. The UATSP provided a vehicle to transform the vision into a reality"

To support these efforts, the UATSP created targeted advertising packets for each county. Created from two versions of their realtor information kit, FEDC TechSTART provides a template and vendor sourcing allowing each region to customize their message and marketing material. These packets are distributed at key events like Space Symposium in Colorado Springs, Denver Startup Week, and industry meetings hosted by industry groups like Colorado Technology Association.

While Fremont County is morphing into a tech enclave in rural Colorado, its partnership with neighboring counties aims to double the economic impact. FEDC TechSTART is bringing high-income earners to Southern Colorado counties, bolstering Colorado's economic bracket. And, by being in the UATSP, opportunities have opened up that weren't there before. New sector partnerships have developed, driving economic development in the communities. In Fremont County, FEDC TechSTART is a model for Fremont's satellite opportunities like AgSTART for the agriculture industry and WellSTART for the health industry.

According to Brown, these kinds of economic successes are already happening in rural Colorado. There is a groundswell of community-based activities in places like Gunnison, Montrose and Grand Junction. The thread is human capital, and for Cañon City it is technology.

"It is a beacon that Cañon City does have a tech community. We're showing it can be done remotely, and we're doing it in a rural community," said Stevens. "Big egos don't get in the way in smaller communities. Smaller communities have a better opportunity."

Published Tuesday, August 27, 2019 9:02 AM by David Marshall
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