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A beacon to point the way

Don Cohen

So there I was in line at City Market, waiting for a flu shot. In front of me stood a strapping 20-something male who looked vaguely familiar. It took a moment until I recognized him. When we first moved to the valley, Eli was one of our son’s soccer teammates.Like our son, Eli had recently graduated from college. And after spending his college years in Boston, he wanted to come back to Colorado.Coming back to Colorado, and Eagle County in specific, meant that the career choices for Eli were seemingly more limited. Recreation? Real estate? Retail? Education? Hospitality? International commerce?Wait a minute. International commerce? How does that fit into the picture? Perhaps it’s an emerging picture of a different future in Eagle County.At the pharmacy counter, Eli was in line for a flu shot as he and the owner of the company he works for, Brad Cohen (no relation), were going on a business trip to southeast Asia and India.Brad Cohen is an outgoing Internet entrepreneur. One of the services of Brad’s business is a traditional e-mail direct marketing service (www.huladirect.com). Another one is called the World Mercado. It’s a fascinating concept of seeking out small businesses in emerging economies and providing them access to a worldwide market via the Internet.The next day Brad and Eli were flying off for several weeks of working with affiliates and suppliers abroad and then would return to the valley to oversee their venture via the net.Now keep all this in mind as we take a few moments to reflect on our local economy. In economic development circles, a lot of talk and action centers around economic diversification and creating jobs. Because of our high housing costs, adding more lower paid service and retail jobs isn’t something we should be actively recruiting for. For our county, economic quality should be less about head count and more of the quality of the “heads.” Attracting skilled professional jobs that aren’t limited by geography and can easily be plugged into world commerce with a broadband connection is an appealing possibility.Creating professional jobs in Eagle County is far more challenging than in an urban area. We’re not going to be building a large university campus or biosciences park. We don’t have the commercial real estate infrastructure to support a national headquarters or provide cost-effective warehousing.On the other hand we may be able to be an attractive option for creative entrepreneurs whose businesses rely more in intellectual capital and aren’t geographically dependent.Attracting youthful, upwardly mobile entrepreneurs seems like a pretty reasonable idea. However, we’re not the only county in America to think about this, and it won’t happen without some front-end marketing and recruiting effort. The very idea of actually spending time and money encouraging someone to move to Eagle County might make some people very uncomfortable that we’ll be accelerating growth at an even more torrid pace.The reality of today is that we’re already in the business of attracting people to live here. All you have to do is thumb through any of the county’s many commercial publications to see ad after ad selling homes. We’ve only been thinking about selling homes, not who’s living in them. What we haven’t been doing is specifically promoting the idea of living here to entrepreneurs like Brad Cohen.I know a handful of others like Brad, who are successfully running and growing businesses in high-tech marketing, electronics and manufacturing. For whatever reason, they found their way to our valley and have figured out how to build and run businesses from one of the best lifestyle communities on the planet. Right now they’re isolated points of light, but perhaps those small sparkles could become a much brighter glow.Identifying and actively targeting potential businesses is the bread and butter of any economic development organization. But while we’ve become comfortable with over 40 years of tourism marketing, it’s a lot different when you invite guests over to your home for dinner and then suggest they move into the house next door.In working closely with many of our top elected officials and community managers, I know that the welcome mat is still out. However, there’s a growing interest in thinking more strategically and proactively about creating conditions that will attract residents and businesses that will be viewed as economic, cultural and intellectual assets to our county.Community-wise, I think we’d all enjoy a few sparkling lights instead of a big carton of dim bulbs. Happy holidays.Don Cohen, executive director of the Vail Valley Economic Council, can be reached at dcohen@vvec.org Vail, Colorad


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