For the first time in at least a decade, an effort will be made to attract new businesses to Durango – specifically back-office operations for firms such as human resource departments, auditing departments, health care technology firms and regional headquarters.
The push comes as the Four Corners – including Durango – has seen an increase in office space availability as regional oil and natural gas operations have downsized.
“The businesses we’re targeting are five to 10 employees that fit with the community and provide a direct economic impact,” said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of La Plata Economic Development Alliance.
The alliance is partnering with World Economic Development Alliance, which Zalneraitis picked for its knowledge of the region, its strong analytical department and its strategy for identifying firms looking to relocate.
“We are not trying to bring John Hancock’s global headquarters or a Toyota manufacturing plant that wouldn’t come here anyway,” Zalneraitis said. “We’re not trying to attract retail, restaurants, small accounting firms. We’re looking to help them.
“That’s what a primary employer does for you. What we’re looking for are small, back-office operations, human resources, marketing, white collar office functions for businesses
Jim Rosenberg, president and managing director of M10TEK, a technology consulting firm that moved to Durango from Atlanta in December 2016 is a model Zalneraitis is trying to replicate.
Rosenberg first built a vacation home in Durango, enjoyed the escape from the crush of big-city life and began pondering if he could relocate his entire firm here.
“The commercial real estate market is as competitive as Atlanta, but you don’t have to deal with the traffic. And here we overlook the river and see the train go by a couple times a day,” Rosenberg said. “From an aesthetic point of view, it’s a great place to work.”
The push out of Atlanta had something to do with relocation besides the attraction of Durango, Rosenberg said.
“We were in Atlanta for 20 years, and we had grown tired of the city. You leave at 7:10 in the morning and it would take you 40 minutes to get to school, and you had traveled like seven miles in bumper-to-bumper traffic,” he said.
M10TEK works with 140 technology consultants across the country, and at the end of 2016, it brought in back-office operations, including human resources, payroll and billing to Durango.
“Getting customers to Atlanta is easy – you have a large airport, hotels, restaurants. It takes more effort to get customers here, but when they come, they have an experience and you have customers for life, especially if you can take them skiing at Purgatory or rafting the river,” he said.
The other part of the equation that made a move possible from Atlanta to Durango was the quality of the workforce, Rosenberg said.
“Atlanta is a huge city, and when you had a job posting, you tended to get a lot of respondents who were not qualified for the position,” he said.
“In Durango, you have fewer responses, but the quality of the individual is high.”
Also, Rosenberg said the salary level in Durango is below that for a comparable job in Atlanta.
The quality of life in Durango, Rosenberg suspects, helps attract a quality workforce and provides benefits when he hires.
“We’ve got employees who were working at Kroeger’s who could type 60 words a minute. We’ve got two employees from the grocery store,” he said.
M10TEK benefits from employees whose skills were under-used stocking shelves and the employees benefit by holding down a job with more regular hours, he said.
“Our employees don’t want to work until 10 at night. They have small kids, and now they can go home at 4:30 p.m. and make their kids dinner. It’s changed their lives.
“In general, we find our employees are pretty happy here, and it shows in the quality of work. The quality of life makes them good employees. We didn’t have that same level of employee in Atlanta.
“We’re finding people here who go out of their way to find solutions, and help people out. We get comments all the time like: Where did you find these people?”
Rosenberg’s story is not unique, Zalneraitis said.
A lifestyle niche in the West and the Rocky Mountains has emerged for certain business owners looking to escape big cities, and it benefits mountain locales like Durango; Glenwood Springs; Bend, Oregon; and Boseman, Montana.
Besides the stunning locations with abundant outdoor opportunities, what small communities need are air service and internet, Zalneraitis said.
“The number of small businesses and telecommuters working in small, mountain communities is increasing, but we have not been deliberate in going after this opportunity,” he said.
“For instance, we don’t know if there is an alumnus of Fort Lewis College in Denver who is looking to move a small company back to Durango.
“It’s one of the things we’d like to find out.”
The cost of the program will be $18,000 the first year and $12,000 the second year. The program will target Denver, Phoenix and Dallas – areas already targeted by some $300,000 in tourism marketing for La Plata County, and the three markets also have direct flights to Durango.
“We are looking at areas where we already have brand awareness. If we went to St. Louis, people would be who, where is that? Is that Steamboat Springs?” Zalneraitis said.
Instead of an advertising campaign, the relocation program will focus on direct conversations with business, and World Economic Development Alliance will assist with targeting an initial pool of recruits to contact.
Eric Kleinsorge, CEO of WEDA, said “getting in front of businesses when they are first starting to think about moving or opening a new location is key. By the time most businesses reach out to local communities, you have already lost 90 percent of the opportunities that might have looked at you.”
The marketing campaign will be based on building a pipeline of awareness, engagement, and ultimately, relocations.
It will target more than 2,500 small businesses in select geographies to build awareness of the local business climate and lifestyle.
The targeted firms will be able to initially bring five to 30 new jobs to La Plata County that pay wages above the county’s average of $44,000 per year.
Zalneraitis said the goal is to have 400-500 businesses engaging with La Plata Economic Development Alliance online in 12 months. After that, he expects to have 20 to 30 conversations with firms over the phone or in person.
“It’s a long-term thing. We don’t expect to accomplish it overnight,” Zalneraitis said.
“We expect it to take 18 to 24 months to get a relocation. It takes a while, and it requires patience.”
Zalneraitis said he also will be going to existing business owners seeking help.
“We are reaching out to local businesses to see if they have leads on potential relocations. They may have friends come to Durango and mention they would like to relocate. We’d like to see if they can give us several leads to add to our database.
“These are ideal candidates,” he said, “because they have a personal contact in Durango, they have positive testament and they have knowledge about our community.”