Business: Start-up hub / Colorado
The towns of Grand Valley are shining new beacons for businesses abandoning expensive US cities
With the promise of 300 days of sunshine a year, people in Grand Junction, Colorado, like to start the day in the great outdoors. A paddle down the river before work, perhaps, or a mountain-bike ride at lunch – or a few runs at the Powderhorn Ski Resort, a charming throwback built in 1966, where the longest wait-time at the gondola is 10 minutes.
The so-called “Colorado lifestyle” is what draws thousands of people to move to the state. But as these cities have filled up in recent years, word has spread about this once-remote outpost on the Western Slope of the Rocky mountains, where the roads and ski runs are quieter. Cheaper labour and land – house prices are 60 per cent that of the state average – are also enticing entrepreneurs to put down roots and start businesses in the town, at a time when America’s largest cities are struggling with population decline and shaky post-pandemic reputations for crime and homelessness.
Grand Junction sits in the Grand Valley, a row of small cities with a backdrop that’s straight out of the Old West, complete with monumental mesas and mountains the colour of fool’s gold. Lance Canfield moved his performance bike design company Canfield Bikes from Washington State to the valley in 2020. He now makes hundreds of frames every year, shipping them internationally. There’s also a growing number of high-end bike parts manufacturers based in town – companies such as DT Swiss, who wanted to be close to an area that’s a magnet for the sport, with abundant trails and reliable waves of tourism. Canfield tackles the 3,350-metre ride down the Grand Mesa on his weekends. “You can’t be a half-assed athlete in this valley and stay safe,” he says. Aspen and Telluride, key destinations in the Western Slope, continue to haul in huge numbers of visitors. But the mountain outposts in between are lighting up: Carbondale, Steamboat and up-and-coming ski resorts like Glenwood Hot Springs have all seen an influx of new arrivals; many putting down roots, others seeking quieter climes. There are already grumbles of housing shortages echoing between the Rockies but in Grand Junction there’s space to grow, positioning it as a base for the region.
While the road into the area is a whistlestop tour through every known fast-food joint, growth is bringing a change of tastes. Ben Parsons, originally from Kent in England, was the founder of Denver’s best-known urban winery, The Infinite Monkey Theorem, before sensing opportunity out West. He lived briefly in the Grand Valley 20 years ago but returned to find the quaint town of Palisade, with its peach farms and vineyards, of which there are more than 25, much changed. “A crowd that appreciates the finer things in life is moving out this way,” says Parsons, whose winery The Ordinary Fellow opened in a historic peach-packing building in 2021.
Old businesses are also being revived. Carboy, another major Denver winery, expanded into the valley in 2021 and bought a vineyard at the foot of Mount Garfield, attracted by the hot-by-day, cool-by-night climate in Palisade that is ideal for sparkling wine. It’s run by James Melling, who spent years selling property in San Francisco before realising his dream to start a vineyard, while Kevin Webber, chief executive officer of Carboy, says this long-overlooked wine country is attracting attention from Californian growers. “You can go out to this new frontier and, for a fraction of the cost elsewhere, plant vines – there’s a lot of energy right now.”
In tandem, new restaurants are capitalising on the changing crowd. In Palisade, Pêche was started by a couple who met working in the kitchen of the Michelin-starred Alinea in Chicago before striking out for the mountains on their own. Josh Niernberg, a former pro-snowboarder turned food entrepreneur who moved to the Western Slope a decade ago, is about to open his fourth venture in the valley. “This first was more successful than we ever expected,” he says, from behind the bar of his popular Bin 707 restaurant in downtown Grand Junction. “Colorado wine doesn’t really have this hospitality side to it, so we tapped into that, and as more people came for mountain-biking or heading to places like Telluride, this became a destination restaurant and a best-kept secret.”
Those who grew up in the Grand Valley remember it as a place where people with ambition left. After all, you don’t have to go too far afield in Colorado’s mountains to find eerie ghost towns with names like Goldfield, which emptied when the local mine went dry. Grand Junction could almost have gone a similar route: its primary industry had long been oil and gas extraction, with flashy cars on the roads and all the trappings, but in the 1980s ExxonMobil pulled out, triggering an exodus of jobs and people from the city.
“When the oil and gas industry pulled out again in the 2008 financial crisis, we lost about 14,000 people in our labour force,” says Curtis Englehart, executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership (gjep), which was set up to diversify the economy and protect it from boom-bust cycles. In the 2000s, the city poured money into building a first-rate medical industry – lauded by then-president Barack Obama as a model for other American cities to follow to create cheap and accessible healthcare – which brings plenty of well-heeled doctors to the city.
Oil and gas did, though, leave behind a skilled industrial workforce. Leitner-Poma, one of the world’s biggest manufacturers of ski lifts, is headquartered here; they built the capsules for the London Eye. West Star Aviation, at Grand Junction’s airport, is an aircraft-maintenance firm servicing private jets and the military.
To attract newer businesses, gjep has created a Jump-Start initiative with cash incentives and tax breaks. One recipient is Phoenix Haus, which was founded in Detroit by Bill McDonald, who was later joined by his sister, Kate, to bring Central European methods of house pre-fabrication to the American market, built with the option of operating off-grid. “Almost 100 per cent of our homes were going to Colorado and so, after our last long roadtrip, we said that we had to make the move,” says Kate. Phoenix Haus has caught a wave of growth in communities around the Western Slope and is booked up right through the next year, with its first project coming online in Aspen. Once a house leaves the factory, says Kate McDonald, it can be assembled on-site in four days. Phoenix Haus received $250,000 (€237,000) of investment from Denver-based Greenline Ventures and similar investors are increasingly looking around the Western Slope for new ideas. Gavin Brooke, a developer who has worked in Aspen and elsewhere, has backed the creation of Farm, 20 studios for small retailers and businesses in downtown Fruita, a biking town in the valley. “It’s fascinating to watch the transformation of these small towns on the frontier,” says Brooke. “There’s probably the demand in every small town in Colorado for one really great restaurant right now.”
Indeed, many of these mountain outposts are hungry for new ideas. “The whole Western Slope has been under-developed for decades,” says Aaron Young, originally from New Jersey, who adds that mapping company Kaart, in Grand Junction, competes with similar companies in California and New York because of the cheaper cost of labour locally. Young has just returned to his desk after a few runs down Powderhorn that morning, where he’s also developing a boutique hotel. “I see bright things on the horizon.”
Why it works:
With access to its skilled labour force, excellent healthcare and cheaper rents, the Western slope is thriving at a time of urban uncertainty in parts of the US. Come with fresh ideas – and bring your ski boots.