Kevin Molick found a new calling when he started his camper trailer company, Timberleaf Teardrop Trailers. The custom-made, technicolor retro campers were a hit. After two years, it was time to expand.
But suddenly, Molick's home of 40 years was no longer a comfortable fit. Real estate was too expensive for his burgeoning business to survive. Timberleaf sells about 30 trailers a year, each starting at $20,000.
"It's just too competitive there," Molick said. "I don't have that much of a mark-up to be able to afford twice the rent."
Timberleaf started looked around Colorado and even out of state, in Houston and Salt Lake City. But the outdoors environment there wasn't the right fit.
Molick found that "just right" moment when he landed on Grand Junction earlier this year. As it turns out, Timberleaf is just one of dozens of companies fleeing the Front Range for the Western Slope.
It's a trend that's flipping the economy in Grand Junction from underground to above ground. That is, from oil and gas to outdoors and tourism.
"I think for many years, the Grand Valley, the city of Grand Junction and Mesa County have been able to focus on our natural resources that are so rich here, namely the natural resources underground,” Grand Junction city manager Greg Caton said. “For the foreseeable future, our focus is on the resources above ground.”
Drilling's still big in the Western Slope. But that industry led the area through many booms and busts. More and more, Grand Junction is focused on becoming a destination for outdoor lovers and the companies that serve them.
Carrying out that new vision is the job of Grand Junction Economic Partnership director Robin Brown. She’s fielded hundreds of companies interested in relocating to the city. When she started her job last December, the prospective businesses list was already 300 names long, and four were onboard. Now 30 are working with the GJEP, and Brown can no longer fit all the names on her whiteboard.
“So, now we are working on a new data system beyond the whiteboard. Our customer service needs have quadrupled,” Brown said.
About a third of those companies are from outdoor industry, followed by tech businesses. Grand Junction has benefited from the state’s Jumpstart Program, which grants companies relocating to the Western Slope four to eight years of tax relief as long as they are not competing with other Colorado businesses.
RockyMounts is one of the beneficiaries of the Jumpstart tax relief program. The car and bike rack company announced it was leaving for Grand Junction this year when they could no longer afford to expand in Boulder.
To Western Slope business advocates, the incentives go beyond tax breaks and infrastructure. Timberleaf Teardrop Trailers owner Molick cites the lower cost of living and higher quality of living.
While Molick misses the zoo and other Denver cultural centers, the lifestyle in Grand Junction is so preferable it's even brought Timberleaf better, happier employees.
"I think more the people that have chosen to move here like myself have chosen it because of the quality of life," Molick said. "So I may not get 50 people applying for an opening -- I may only get 10 or 15 -- but almost every single one of those are very qualified, sometimes even overqualified."
Two major recreation projects are coming to the Western Slope and feeding the interest of outdoors companies. The Palisade Plunge will carve out a 34-mile mountain bike trail from the top of the Grand Mesa down to Palisade. In Grand Junction, the Las Colonias Park project will add an industrial and recreational park to the riverfront redevelopment area. RockyMounts was drawn to Grand Junction in part because of Las Colonias, Brown said.
Building up pre-existing infrastructure goes hand-in-hand with flashier ribbon cuttings. The Grand Junction Regional Airport recently got the go-ahead to establish a customs office so businesses can import and export goods straight out of Grand Junction. Similarly, Brown is working to attract a transit company that will take advantage of the city’s railroad tracks in order to streamline shipping.
Brown knows the changes that come with a growing Grand Junction haven’t been easy for some long-term residents. But to her, embracing the new is embracing the inevitable.
“But the fact of the matter is that this area is going to change,” Brown said.
Even now Brown sees the city begin to shrug off its nickname, "Grand Junktown." When she read through the comments under the Facebook post where RockyMounts founder Bobby Noyes’ announced the company’s move, they were effusive about the Western Slope, even punctuating their congratulations with #WestSlopeBestSlope.
“I don't know if it is fair to say we are cool yet, but we are certainly getting there,” Brown said