In June 2015, having profiled over 300 Colorado manufacturing and supply-chain companies, we ranked the state's Top 5 manufacturing communities. Today, 700 companies in, and armed with a regional perspective, here's our 2017 ranking. Our criteria: a growing, compelling industry or cluster of maker industries, supported by purposeful public/private efforts to build a robust manufacturing economy.
1. Ft. Collins/Loveland (2015 ranking: 3)
We wrote this in '15:
Ft. Collins/Loveland is a wild card. Its combination of public/private assets gives it incredible upside. Its rich ag sector is an engine of food and craft beverage manufacturing. Tech-incubation is national-caliber. Otter Products is a global power and lifestyle-sector catalyst. Industry is leading innovative workforce partnerships with CSU -- meeting an acute need. Economic developers are hip to manufacturing. It's not quite yet figured out that manufacturing is the tie that binds. When it does, it may top the list.
And top the list it does. It's more accurate to describe the community as Northern Colorado -- in part because today the region enjoys the state's most effective sector leadership in the form of the NoCo Manufacturing Partnership. But Northern Colorado industry speaks for itself. The sparkling new Woodward facility is adjacent to state-of-the art brewing infrastructure including the iconic Colorado brand Odell Brewing. The region is peppered with other other powerhouse homegrown manufacturing brands like New Belgium, Otter Products and Noosa. Makerspaces are easy to find, and nationally known EWI opened a facility in Loveland. Early-stage incubation is world-class. Colorado State University is waking up to manufacturing and its possibilities: CSU's Carol Engel-Enright has been indefatigable in supporting a fledgling apparel manufacturing initiative in rural Colorado. Economic developers are pro-manufacturing. NoCo is becoming a national manufacturing story. Purposeful messaging and recruiting may be all that’s missing.
2. Denver (2015 ranking: 2)
Sheer numbers aside, there's heightened awareness across Denver's business, government, and education interests that manufacturing may change the city's urban economic landscape. RiNo is poised to breakout as a national model of mixed-use development with light manufacturing at its core. Its infrastructure assets including DIA now attract industry that once viewed its mid-continent location a global disadvantage. The Auraria complex, home to three complementary higher-ed outposts that each view manufacturing core to a workforce mission, is poised for great things. It also benefits from increasingly manufacturing-aware economic development and trade coalitions.
Denver could easily become the city that defines the West's neo-industrial character. It's at the crossroads of literally every major economic trend shaping the country -- past and present. A thousand manufacturers across multiple growth industries are finding motivated allies in economic development and higher education. But today it's also a service-industries town, period, and well-intentioned efforts that would capture the imagination of brands and result in more manufacturing infrastructure remain unconnected. Manufacturers continue to be priced out of neighborhoods that, 18 months ago, we thought would be magnets for light industry and innovation clusters. Denver has resources. A citywide manufacturing strategy might provide a blueprint for the entire state.
3. Boulder County (2015 ranking: 1)
Boulder County's modern manufacturing ecosystem is world-class and positioned for extraordinary growth. It spans multiple growth sectors that are redefining how we view manufacturing, none more so than BC's natural products sector, a national juggernaut. BC is home to many of the state's ascendant craft beverage brands. It's high-tech manufacturing, with a news-making aerospace core buttressed by CU's insanely rich R&D backdrop. It's a lifestyle-maker magnet, a cycling- and outdoor-gear mecca. Manufacturing may be the sector that finally buries Boulder's dated anti-business moniker.
It's hard to drop Boulder County from its lofty perch if only for one reason: the county's brilliant natural and organic food sector, showcased each year by Naturally Boulder's Pitch Slam and Awards. Moreover, innovation in the food industry is manifest spectacularly in manufacturing. Co-packers are salve for growth brands that at some point, must scale. But despite Boulder's brand riches in food, beer, technology, aerospace, and the outdoor industry, there's still an enthusiasm gap relating to the manufacture of these products. Boulder celebrates it glitter but not its gears. CU might do well to take a page from General Electric's playbook, and connect its engineering graduates with the products they design. Manufacturing may indeed still be the sector that finally buries Boulder's dated anti-business moniker, but not this year.
4. Grand Junction/Palisade (2015 ranking: 5)
Modern manufacturing is fermentation and fabrication, and Colorado's western slope leads with a world-class agriculture/industrial complex that's a catalyst for regional food and beverage manufacturing. The Slope's wine industry is an established regional powerhouse. Grand Junction's tech and industrial incubators are surprisingly manufacturing-aware. And with recreation assets to spare, gear and component manufacturing is poised for growth - if economic developers connect the dots.
Grand Junction/Palisade moves up a spot on our list on the back of its extraordinary food and beverage cluster and an awakening around the outdoor industry. As we pay more attention and connect means of production with brands we favor, Colorado's wine industry should earn new respect -- and customers. The wine and beverage factories of the Western Slope are unsung assets in the regional economy. We'll guess Grand Junction also purposefully redirects its oil-and-gas and industrial acumen to the manufacture of outdoor industry products. Fabricating the tools and toys of millennial recreation is a natural fit for this gritty western community surrounded by Western mountain towns in need of a regional industrial base of operations. The expertise is here; rallying the varied interests needed to fullfill the vision is a work in progress.
5. Colorado Springs/Pueblo (2015 ranking: 4)
Colorado Springs' ambitious sector is hamstrung by aimless city government and lack of a more productive partnership with nearby Pueblo, one that might result in a regional industrial powerhouse. Nevertheless, a core industrial group is pushing hard to build awareness for a community rich in manufacturing brands -- many that operate on a global stage -- and defense-related legacy that's left pieces of industrial acumen scattered throughout the region. A lifestyle sector simmers just under a combustible degree. Business here is trying hard to manufacture an industrial spark.
Colorado Springs manufacturers are no dummies. They crave an industrial development strategy that embraces new defense-related, advanced manufacturing initiatives, but also envision new opportunities. No doubt a positive vibe now permeates public/private efforts to get the Springs moving forward in a cohesive manner. Mayor John Suthers has stabilized a dysfunctional local government. The Springs also boasts a game-changing component that could be a catalyst for purposeful manufacturing development: labor. Companies like the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company moved manufacturing to the area because of a deep, ex-military workforce. In a national sector starving for a new generation of employees, why on earth isn't manufacturing at the center of economic development efforts?
Disagree with our list? Send me your feedback. We’ll publish next week. And nominate your community’s best manufacturers in the 2017 Colorado Manufacturing Awards. We’ll announce winners at the Awards Finals in Denver on April 13.
Bart Taylor is publisher of CompanyWeek. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.