VAIL — Colorado’s first regional economic initiative was completed before statehood. What comes next?
As the first transcontinental rail line was built in the 1860s, it soon became clear the line would skip Colorado — due mainly to the giant mountains bisecting the state. A group of business leaders in Denver communities to the north banded together to finance a rail line north from Denver to Cheyenne, the closest town to the transcontinental line.
The line was a boon to the mostly-farming communities along the new north-south line. Today, “Denver is Denver, and Cheyenne, is, well, Cheyenne,” Kelly Brough said.
Brough, president and CEO of the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce, was one of the keynote speakers at the recent Vail Valley Business Forum. That annual event, sponsored by the Vail Valley Partnership, brings together people who usually talk about big topics.
This year’s forum included discussions about Interstate 70 — the subject of a previous Vail Daily story — as well economic development and education.
Those two topics — addressed by Brough and Colorado Mountain College President Carrie Besnette Hauser — have a lot in common.
The college, founded in 1967 and funded by property taxes in a sprawling seven-county district, was created to provide job training and education to students in an area bigger than the size of Maryland. During the past several years, the academic and vocational programs have grown to include areas from culinary arts to nursing and from firefighting and paramedic training to four-year degrees in business and elementary education.
Hauser told the audience the college’s mission is evolving as the region’s population changes.
Of particular interest is what Hauser called a “structural deficit” in terms of who’s going to college and who’s finishing.
Hauser said Colorado is in the “bottom five” in the U.S. in terms of the percentage of low-income students it sends to college.
That’s going to have to change if the state is to provide its own people for a growing economy.
Brough said while the Denver metro area is one of the top destinations for young adults — who, in many cases, love to come to the mountains to play — the state’s own young adults are lagging behind.
Right now, Colorado’s high school graduation rate is a rather anemic 75 percent. Only 24 percent of Colorado kids entering ninth grade this year will complete a four-year college degree within five years of finishing high school, Hauser said.
“We need to double the rate of people with at least a two-year degree,” Brough said.
And the change has to happen quickly. Hauser said that by 2020, 75 percent of all jobs in the state will require some form of higher education, whether a vocational certificate or a four-year degree.
Those jobs won’t all be filled by young people. Hauser said that today, the number of kids who head straight to college from high school, then graduate in four or five years, has plummeted.
Colorado Mountain College has to adjust the way it provides classes and training to adjust to that new reality.
Colleges in Colorado also have to find ways to provide educational services to a burgeoning Hispanic population. In the Colorado Mountain College service area, the Hispanic population has increased 71 percent in the past 15 years, Hauser said.
Colorado Mountain College’s status as a regional school fits well with Brough’s comments about regional cooperation.
Dealing with different business and municipal priorities in service of a larger goal can be tricky. Brough said it requires all parties to start with an understanding of what the goal is.
She used the example of the country’s drive to put a man on the moon in the 1960s. More than just a technical accomplishment, Brough said President John Kennedy set the goal with the idea of cementing this country’s status as a world power.
Brough summed up the extent of understanding the mission with an anecdote about Kennedy visiting one of the labs doing the initial work on the space program. Kennedy is alleged to have asked a janitor at the lab what he did.
“I’m putting a man on the moon, sir,” was the reply.
That level of dedication is hard to come by. Brough said there was no regional structure for cooperation in the 1980s, when the state’s oil industry went bust.
Since then, though, Front Range communities have worked together on everything from the area’s light rail system to highway expansion and creating a scientific and cultural district that has funded projects including museums, Coors Field and Sports Authority Field, home of the Denver Broncos.
That sort of effort will be needed again to solve statewide and regional problems, Brough said.
After the forum, Brough and Hauser found a new fan in Bonnie Peterson, the executive director of Club 20, a Western Slope lobbying group.
“We really need to work on all of these state issues together,” Peterson said. “We need to look at these issues and find answers together.”