Jamie Finney is a partner with the (GCVF) which invests in rural Colorado based startups. He is a sixth generation Coloradoan and lives in the San Juans. If you are interested in writing a blog for Community Builders, click here.
In 2020, the inevitable changes our hometowns predicted (such as , in-migration, and outdoor recreation usage) arrived years ahead of schedule. In the face of uncomfortable change, it is easy to default to protecting the past. In reality, change is inevitable. Instead of protecting the past, the challenge for our communities is to embrace it with the right priority in mind: people.
Amidst a backdrop of quaint buildings, privileged wilderness access, and “the feeling of home,” our job is to ensure prosperous futures for our people. Someone has to open the coffee shop and employ the baristas and instill the welcoming atmosphere. Someone has to perfect the recipes. Someone has to tell the riddles. These “someones” are our neighbors. All the victorian charm, stunning views, and buy-one-get-one-free burger nights can’t replace the people that make home special.
So what does prioritizing people look like?
“The only wrong action is no action at all.”
Everyone has their own ideas to steward their community into the future, and it’s important that we encourage and foster this entrepreneurship as a collective community building endeavor. The key is to choose a direction and go, and then encourage and support your peers to do the same.
Examples From the Road
After a long COVID pause, I recently resumed travel amongst small-town Colorado. COVID was extremely media-heavy, and this was a much needed chance to do my own firsthand research. I found plenty of anecdotes showing the brutality on this pandemic on our small towns. Mental health issues, impossible hiring, business closures… you name it. The media does a fine job of summarizing the negatives. They are real and heartbreaking.
However, visiting in-person often highlight the positives that often go unnoticed. As small-towners, we all tend to believe that “my little thing here” isn’t newsworthy. Funny enough, when I show up as a guest in these communities, I’m often blown away by just how many newsworthy efforts I come across.
In Pueblo, I visited the oldest building in town. Inside, an ad agency, theatre, and mattress empire were coming to life. Their laboratory of entrepreneurship even caught the eye of The Discovery Channel for a recent episode of . Next door, an old meat-packing building, once left to decay, revealed numerous founders building 21st century businesses amidst the century-plus-old red brick walls.
Just up the Arkansas River, Fremont County has its own renaissance in progress. Like many other rural communities, housing is short and affordability is vanishing. In response, Wyatt Reed and Barna Kasa are taking shipping containers, remodeling them with upcycled materials and sleek craftsmanship, and embarking on a 30 unit development. By focusing on all the square footage one needs, and no more, these container homes share the Pikes Peak views and price per square foot of nearby trophy homes. Fremont County residents will be able to purchase a rare entry-level, high-quality housing option for less than a hundred thousand dollars.
Better yet, the container development is one of numerous other ventures Wyatt and Barna are tackling, and just two of countless founders I met that day while touring the . Similar to Watertower Place, the Emergent Campus is the rebirth of the 1950s era Florence High School. Instead of students, this mainstay building now host entrepreneurs.
As Emergent cofounder, Brad Rowland, led me through the Emergent hallways, he had a knack for simultaneously informing me and reminding the businesses owners why we were all connected. Drawing off of his “dayjob” as a marketing leader for large software companies, Brad knits together my role as a VC, the founders role as the creator, his campus’s role as the host, and quickly combines it all into a shared vision for Fremont County and rural America.
Stepping back, these are all efforts to build a bright future for the people in our communities. Some are tackling affordable, stable shelter. Some chase revenues to then recycle into local hiring and local tax revenues. Others purchase grandiose buildings of previous generations to create shared office/manufacturing space, friendship, and consolidated resources.
Our individual successes look different. None of us will single-handedly deliver the future we all believe in. Rather, we rely on the collaboration and support of our peers today to ensure that the future we arrive at is one built for our fellow people.