Rana Foroohar’s latest book, Homecoming, has inspired my thinking about the work I do at Prosono, and about my hometown. Foroohar is an associate editor of the Financial Times and a global economic analyst for CNN, and she’s done a lot of deep thinking about the current problems facing our economy. Among other things, Foroohar feels that our focus on shareholder value has come at the expense of economic resiliency. She explains that we’ve gone so far overboard on globalization that when we find ourselves needing face masks during a pandemic, we have to ring up factories in China for help.
The antidote, Foroohar says, is to think local.
Which brings me to my hometown. I’m fortunate to live on the western slope of the Rockies, in the city of Grand Junction, Mesa County, Colorado, with a population just shy of 70,000 and growing, and median family income around $60k. Grand Junction has two excellent medical centers, St. Mary’s Medical Center and Community Hospital. Because we’re in a place of unparalleled natural beauty, many residents find jobs in the outdoor recreation industry. And because of the fertile soil and climate conditions, the Grand Junction area boasts 20 small wineries. We also grow plenty of peaches, cherries, apples, pears and corn. Grand Junction is a town that’s done lots of things right.
As a proud Grand Junction resident, I’ve sometimes thought about what I might do if my hometown were a Prosono client. At Prosono, we like to think of ourselves as “social impact engineers,” as “transformers” and “catalysts” and “accelerators of change.” So how could we “think local,” as Foroohar advises, and take a great city and try to make it better, or even exceptional?
Grand Junction’s economy today has a diversified base, relying on energy, health care, outdoor activities, real estate, education, technology, and finance to employ most of its citizens. But the City has a long history of boom-and-bust cycles, as its dependence on the national and international economy proved unreliable.
While the economy has diversified and stabilized, there are still confounding anomalies and inefficiencies. For example, the supply chains we’ve adopted to make the global economy work mean that the fruits grown on Grand Junction and area farms are first shipped to cold storage facilities in Denver, then shipped back to grocery stores in Grand Junction for sale to me and my neighbors. By the time our local peaches land in my grocery cart, carbon fuels have been burned to transport them to and from Denver, and they’re not as fresh as they were a week or often weeks earlier. Clearly, we need to reengineer outdated supply chains that might have worked when energy costs were cheap and our collective desire for clean air less of a priority. Building commercial cold storage facilities, for example, would empower the community to have control over the local supply of fresh fruits and vegetables for the people of Grand Junction. This would be a relatively small initiative, but it would demonstrate how localism could work to the benefit of our community – and might lower our food prices in the bargain.
In Homecoming, Foroohar also writes about the role of education in making localism work. Specifically, she feels that we’re pretty good at providing a liberal arts education for our knowledge workers but we’ve fallen short when it comes to providing a comprehensive “skills” education for the people who grow things and make things. If we want to bring agriculture, businesses, and manufacturing back to our local communities, we need a workforce that has the skills to make them successful.
Colorado Mesa University checks most of the boxes for locally relevant higher education. It’s one of the fastest growing Universities in the nation, and it’s affordable. But Grand Junction’s elementary, middle and high schools lag behind. To put this in perspective, Colorado ranks 49 of 50 states in per pupil funding and our school district is in the lowest quartile of per pupil funding in the State. This funding shortfall limits our students' ability to thrive. So item number two on the agenda would be to revitalize Grand Junction’s public school system through local public-private partnerships (so-called “P3s”). Increasing funding to bring a higher level of parity to other districts in the state won’t be easy, but case studies across the country have shown how P3’s can help address the infrastructure challenges of dealing with deferred maintenance and capital improvements to ensure that existing funding streams go toward teacher salaries and student outcomes, and not to a random patchwork of capital improvements.
Prosono has had experience in this space, working with Pickens Technical College in Aurora to align educational attainment with workforce needs in the local community. Specifically, we have supported the organization’s strategy to be the first electric vehicle maintenance certifying facility in Colorado through an expansion of its facilities to include a state-of-the-art transportation education center. We have found that this effort, while in the works, requires significant investment from the public school district, private industry and government to make this project come to life. D51 is no different, and aligning career and technical education, concurrent enrollment and college prep options to the market needs will ensure all students have access to meaningful education that will result in living wage jobs and a thriving local economy.
We also need to make work accessible for parents with young children. In practical terms, that means providing secure and reliable childcare and, more specifically, quality preschool education for the children of working parents. The demand in our area is growing, with over 3,000 kids in Mesa County alone in need of a pre-k facility. Hopefully, with the new Universal Pre-K (UPK) law in Colorado, we will finally have a real opportunity to expand our county’s quality preschool facilities.
Prosono has been working with our clients on unpacking the UPK effort and supporting its implementation. This program has the potential to create an expanded market in rural communities for new high-quality preschools to emerge and support the needs of our 2 to 6 year-old community. The tuition credit that the state provides for tuition for our youth helps to cover the vast majority of the cost of education in rural communities like ours. In cities where the cost of living is significantly higher, UPK is an added bonus but not as substantial as what it will cover in rural areas. As a proud owner and manager of the HeartSong Montessori School in Grand Junction, my wife and I have seen first-hand the importance of quality early childhood education and the ability of UPK to support our efforts to close the 3,000 student gap.
The key problem in Grand Junction is affordable housing. Like so many American cities, our town needs more of it. We have plenty of nice single-family homes, but not enough houses for starter families and not enough apartments for young people and less affluent workers. If we want to attract those young knowledge workers – not to mention teachers for our Montessori school – who are leaving the big cities for peaceful and more affordable destinations, we need to have attractive and affordable places for them to live. And as our population ages, we’re going to need more hospital workers and caregivers to take care of our seniors. So, item number four on our agenda should be creating incentives for the development of affordable housing solutions that are a win-win for the future development and care of our workforce and aging population.
Some of these initiatives will certainly be a lot more difficult to execute than others. It might not be all that hard to incentivize the construction of cold storage facilities, for example, but – as towns and cities across America have discovered – it will undoubtedly be a lot harder to incentivize the construction of affordable housing or transform public education. But at Prosono, we pride ourselves on making our advice actionable, and I’m convinced that with some central planning and forward thinking, Grand Junction could actually go from “grand” to “exceptional.”
Final note: Rana Foroohar’s book, Homecoming, is available at most bookstores and, of course, on Amazon. I bought mine at Out West Books, on Main Street in Grand Junction. Think local!