Collaboration Resources

Boulder County economic groups continuing collaborative spirit fostered amid coronavirus pandemic

Nearly eighteen months ago, when the COVID-19 pandemic threw the world into chaos, businesses in the Boulder area found themselves in an unprecedented situation. As lockdowns, mask mandates and capacity limits were put in place, altered and removed, information flowed so quickly and the situation changed so rapidly that simply keeping up placed another burden on businesses already struggling to survive.

To address this, local chambers of commerce and economic-development organizations collectively stepped up, sharing information, resources and ideas in ways they hadn’t previously. This new level of collaboration allowed chambers and economic-development groups to help their members weather the pandemic in ways they would not have been able to alone.

“What happened in the pandemic is that Boulder County relied on all of us, all of these organizations to get the info out to the businesses,” said Vicki Trumbo, executive director of the Lafayette Chamber. “That was a huge collaboration between a lot of agencies in Boulder County.”

This model also isn’t going away. Executives from chambers and economic-development organizations said that this approach of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic as a regional issue, rather than just in their own municipalities, is an approach that they can carry forward to the other critical problems facing the Boulder area: housing, transportation, workforce development and more.

“Ultimately, this power of collaboration has now become the standard for operation across our region,” said John Tayer, president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber. “Now we realize we are living in a larger ecosystem that is beyond our own independent municipal boundaries.”

This isn’t to say that business organizations in the Boulder Valley never worked together before the start of the pandemic. Prior to the last few years, though, many of those efforts were ad hoc.

“It’s not that we were at odds, or anything like that,” said Scott Cook, CEO of the Longmont Area Chamber of Commerce. “It was just that we decided we had to work more closely together.”

In 2016, that idea took shape as the Northwest Chamber Alliance, in which the Boulder, Broomfield and Longmont chambers of commerce decided to work together on policy issues, legislation and lobbying. The alliance has since come to also encompass the Lafayette, Louisville and Superior chambers, as well as the Boulder County Latino and LGBTQ chambers. It now represents more than 3,600 businesses and more than 370,000 employees throughout the Boulder Valley. Though the alliance focuses on state and nationwide lobbying and policy, it provided a framework that would allow chambers and economic-development groups to collaborate more easily in the event of a crisis.

“At the Northwest Chamber Alliance, we were already meeting monthly, anyway,” Cook said. “[When the COVID-19 pandemic started] we were regularly sharing different stories and information about what was going on.”

As the pandemic gained steam and the crisis became more dire, that informal sharing of information turned into an organized effort to collate and disseminate the latest news to Boulder-area businesses as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“We had to rally together to support our businesses,” said Jessica Erickson,  president and CEO of the Longmont Economic Development Partnership. “We started thinking more seriously about cooperation to support economic development throughout the region.”

So local chambers of commerce — Boulder, Broomfield, Lafayette, Longmont, Louisville, Nederland, Superior — along with economic-development groups from those cities began meeting weekly with the county health department, city and county officials, Workforce Boulder County, the Small Business Development Council and other sources. The chambers and economic-development groups would then take the info they got from those briefings and deliver it straight to their businesses.

“It was a pretty far-reaching group,” Trumbo said. “It covered every community in Boulder County. There was no one who wasn’t represented.”

Trumbo said that the regular meetings would consist of up to 40 people from all the represented groups. They would receive vital information about topics that affected their member businesses, ranging from the latest updates about the coronavirus, to lockdown plans, to mask mandates to Paycheck Protection Program loans that they could pass on to their constituents.

“I can tell you that in my community, we were their main source of information about what was going on with COVID,” Trumbo said. “They were unbelievably appreciative. To a business, they all let me know how much they appreciated what we were doing. I know other businesses in other communities did, too. We were sort of their lifeline. They’re trying to keep their heads above water and didn’t have time to digest all of that info. We’ve become their information source, and I think that businesses have come to rely on all of us in our respective organizations to get that info out.”

The collaborative efforts also worked in reverse. By working together, it was much easier for all the organizations involved to survey their members about their needs, then collate that data and present it to policy-makers.

“We started working on surveys of the business needs of our member businesses to ask them what they need and how they’re struggling,” Cook said. “We had really good, on-point info from our businesses saying what they need and what their struggles are. We used that information to put our workload together. We also used that when our elected officials called us and asked what they could be doing to help our businesses. We would not have been able to do that as just the Longmont Chamber.”

This collaboration also made it much easier to implement programs such as the Boulder County Five Star Certification Program, which allowed businesses to operate at a lower level of COVID restrictions if they met certain criteria.

“The work we did to launch and implement that was incredibly effective,” Erickson said. “We were able to pull together leaders from across all the cities throughout the county to get that done. It was a heavy lift, but we realized it was possible and it was important.”

When the pandemic began to ease and information began flowing at a more manageable pace, the group of chambers and economic-development organizations began meeting less frequently with county officials. They stopped entirely for a few weeks, but have since gone back to meeting every other week because of uncertainties surrounding the delta variant and potential future mandates and restrictions.

While construction on the 30Pearl Apartments began before the pandemic, it is representative of a regional issue, housing, that Boulder County business groups are working together to address. (Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

However, eventually the pandemic will be over completely, and businesses in the Boulder area won’t need up-to-the-minute updates on its attendant topics. But that doesn’t mean that the chambers and economic-development groups who represent those businesses will stop cooperating.

“When you take off the purely parochial lens of your own community, you recognize that there is a much greater commonality of interests across our region,” Tayer said. “That itself leads to opportunities for collaboration. We are living in a larger ecosystem that is beyond our own municipal boundaries. Within that ecosystem, businesses don’t think about municipal boundaries. They think about operating efficiently within this ecosystem. For us, as business supporters and economic developers, we know we need to collaborate to make sure we support our businesses in a way that allows them to meet their needs.”

Executives of chambers and economic-development groups identified three paramount issues that affect all of Boulder County and must be addressed for the region to enjoy continued economic vitality: housing, transportation and workforce development.

“Those issues have to be solved at a regional level, not a municipal level,” Erickson said. “It doesn’t matter if we make a difference in one municipality if it doesn’t benefit the whole region. If we don’t get those three right, not a whole lot else matters. We can’t be successful at anything unless we get the challenges of housing and transportation and talent addressed.”

Erickson sees all three issues as intertwined. While she praised the efforts of city and county leaders in the area to provide more affordable housing, she said that the lack of workforce-attainable housing — homes in the price range of people who earn between 80% and 120% of the area median income — is a huge barrier for prospective employees of Boulder County businesses.

“That is the biggest challenge we face today,” Erickson said. “People in that 80% to 120% range have no housing inventory, no development. That has us really concerned for the future of our workforce. We have to be as focused on workforce-attainable housing as we are on truly affordable housing.”

If employees struggle to find attainable housing in the Boulder region, that means they have to live further away, which compounds the transportation issue. Boulder County and its municipalities are already making efforts to reduce car commuting and other forms of motor vehicle traffic by offering greater public transit options as well as walking and bike paths.

“Transportation investments are by their nature regional in terms of the impact they have on all of the businesses and workforces within our region,” Tayer said.

Transportation collaboration has already started to take form. The Northwest Chamber Alliance has begun delving more into policy advocacy. In July, for example, it sent a letter signed by executives of all its member organizations to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg in support of a grant application to improve the intersection of Colo. 119 and Hover Road in Longmont. The $27.1 million project aims to transform Colo. 119 between Longmont and Boulder into a multimodal transportation corridor with improved Bus Rapid Transit service, express lanes and a commuter bikeway.

“Speaking as a unified voice at our state legislature is going to make us much more effective in advocating for the needs of our region,” Tayer said. “Policy leaders recognize that we’re representing the wide diversity of our business community.”

Addressing the issues of housing and transportation should go a long way toward solving the third, workforce development; more talent will be attracted to the Boulder area if housing is attainable and it’s easier to get from place to place, Erickson said. Still, chambers and economic development groups are pouring resources into helping their member businesses attract talent.

“We are actively working right now to address the talent and skills gaps in different industries,” Erickson said.

For example, to help fill the need for medical workers at area hospitals, regional chambers and economic-development groups worked with Front Range Community College to create a training program to get employees into those positions faster.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of skills-based-hiring training across the region to change the narrative on how to improve hiring practices,” Tayer said. “Skills-based hiring is a way to approach talent attraction beyond credentials by focusing on the skills that people can bring to the position. It’s much more relevant. We’ve been working as a region to adopt these practices.”

None of these issues are solvable easily or quickly, if indeed they can be solved. But by creating this new paradigm of cooperation and collaboration, chambers of commerce and economic-development organizations in the Boulder area now have a framework in which they can tackle these problems together and hopefully address them in ways that benefit the entire region.

“I definitely think this is going to be the new model going forward,” Cook said. “I’ll go so far as to say that I don’t know if there’s another way forward without strong local and regional partnerships. We are going to accomplish so much more this way. Once we learned better how to work together, we were able to deliver so much more to our members because of those partnerships than we would have otherwise. The needs of our business community are so large that we need creative ways to tackle them.”