More than 100 business leaders from Northwest Colorado gathered inside the Albright Auditorium on the Steamboat Springs Colorado Mountain College campus and listened as experts fueled a conversation about the economic landscape.
“It was really interesting just to hear from the local leaders and from the economics professor on overall trends — not only in Routt County, but also in the Western Slope and Colorado,” said Chris Mihnovets, co-founder of C4 Crypto Advisers. “It was also great to hear from local agriculture producers, and what they’re seeing in the economy.”
Friday’s session began with coffee and networking at 8 a.m. in the auditorium. Nathan Perry, an associate professor of economics at Colorado Mesa University, took the floor, providing insight and numbers explaining what many Western Slope business owners have seen the past few years.
He explained how the pandemic and worker shortages have impacted businesses. He also took time to address how new issues like higher gas prices and increased costs from inflation may affect tourism-based economies moving forward.
The day moved on as Jessie Ollier, founder and CEO of Wellutations, gave a case study in employee retention and Michael Santo, co-founder and partner of Bechtel & Santo, offered an update on what’s happening in the Colorado legislature.
The morning session ended with an agricultural panel discussion moderated by Hayden Town Manager Mathew Mendisco that included Colby Townsend, owner of Hayden Fresh Farm; Sydney Ellbogen, owner of Mountain Bluebird Farm; and Chef Hannah Hopkins of Besame, Mambo and Yampa Valley Kitchen.
The afternoon session started with Charles Barr, the founder and president of Spring Born, and ended with a presentation from Joelle Martinez, president and CEO of the Latino Leadership Institute, who spoke about diversity, equity and inclusion.
Barr’s experience getting Spring Born — a 3.5-acre indoor hydroponic farm in Silt in Garfield County — stood out in Routt County’s agriculture-based community.
“We’ve all heard the story about the agricultural land that when somebody dies, or when there’s a transfer or when somebody retires, the whole thing gets split up,” Barr said. “Putting the greenhouse on that land and showing that there is a way to grow food and maintain agriculture, I think, has a lot of benefits to the community, and it’s something that motivates me.”
Barr, a San Francisco-based businessman, admits that when he bought the 254-acre parcel in October 2019 for $1.5 million, he was not a farmer.
“We’ve all read the economic textbooks on how you build something, how you create a new business, how you get things going,” Barr told the audience at the Economic Summit. “But having said that, most new businesses fail.”
While this may be his first agricultural venture, Barr came into the enterprise with plenty of business experience.
He said there are five things to focus on to make economic growth viable: people, economic conditions, the right resources, motivation and the ability to turn problems into opportunity.
“I was not a farmer. I have no agricultural experience in my past business dealings,” Barr said. “I am a person who enjoys creating new businesses, who enjoys working with people, who enjoys starting new things and enjoys problem-solving.”
It was that spirit that inspired him to enter the world of agriculture hoping to create a space that emphasizes sustainable practices and state-of-the-art technology to bring year-round growing operations to Silt.
Spring Born’s process uses 90% less land, 95% less water than a traditional farm and is now offering its products on the Front Range.
Barr told a story about how his idea almost came to an end before it got off the ground, and he was told that he could not get a necessary permit. However his drive and the support of the bank that offered him the loan are what brought Spring Born to Garfield County.
“I wanted better food, healthier food, and I wanted to grow it closer to people that were eating it and at an inexpensive price,” Barr said. “Originally, I took this idea to another county and tried to get a permit. I did all the design, I did all the permit work, I signed all contracts, I got all the buildings manufactured, and I lined up all the financing.”
But the county he was working with said, “No.”
“You have to approach the development like it’s going to be good for the community. If the development is not good for the community, there’s no sense in doing it,” Barr said. “If you’re just going to develop something for money, you’re going to fail. It has to be about the people.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.