After Betsy Markey moved her young family to Fort Collins in 1995, she felt stir crazy.
She and her husband had relocated from Maryland, where the technology company they founded was running smoothly and pretty much independently. That life didn’t really need her anymore.
So she bought a little coffee shop in Old Town Fort Collins. And there, she learned the joys of running a small business. She figured out how to make a cup of cappuccino. She managed the cash register. She cleaned the bathroom.
“I thought, ‘I don’t know anyone here so I’ll buy a business and get involved.’ It was so much fun,” said Markey, who now has a similar role for the state of Colorado but on a larger scale. “Instead of hiring programmers, engineers and sales people, I was hiring college students who were so fun and such hard workers. It wasn’t my dream job, but it fit my lifestyle at the time. I had three small kids at home and they could come to work with me.”
Markey may never have been meant for the small business life. She’s since served as a U.S. representative for Colorado’s 4th Congressional District, served as an assistant secretary at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security under President Barack Obama and ran unsuccessfully for Colorado treasurer in 2014.
But the small business world continues to influence her choices. After serving as the regional leader of the U.S. Small Business Administration starting 2016, the Fort Collins resident was tapped by Gov. Jared Polis to become executive director of the Office of Economic Development and International Trade and help shape Colorado’s economy.
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A priority? Small business, especially in rural areas.
“Companies are coming here because of our culture and lifestyle. But I also want to see us put a renewed emphasis on helping small businesses,” Markey said in a recent interview at her office. “I would like us to really focus on the small to medium-sized businesses that are already here.”
That’s also something that appeals to Polis, who before jumping into politics had a few of his own startups, which he later sold for hundreds of millions of dollars. The two became friends in 2008 when both were first-time politicians for the state in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“Betsy’s incredible background made her an easy choice to lead our Department of Economic Development and International Trade,” Polis said in a statement. “As a former business owner and public servant, she understands what it takes to ensure that Colorado’s economy continues growing sustainably and that everyone in our state can benefit from it.”
Since becoming executive director of OEDIT in January, Markey has maintained the status quo for the state’s key industries, including tourism and film, agriculture and exports, aerospace and advanced manufacturing and more. She recently returned from a trip to South Korea, which last year became the largest international buyer of Colorado beef.
But because of her small business background, she created a new “rural prosperity” position (filled by Glenn Plagens, who was at the Larimer Small Business Development Centers). The office also introduced a program offering employee-owned companies access to experts, attorneys and mentors.
And she just spent two days this week touring the eastern edge of Colorado with a group of other state agencies to visit local businesses in Lamar, Burlington and Holyoke.
“First time I’d ever seen that many agencies here ever,” said Rol Hudler, director of economic development for Burlington, a city of about 4,400 people that relies primarily on agriculture for its economy. “It was really well done. They basically wanted to talk to people individually.”
Hudler was impressed that the group, which also included representatives from the state labor and agriculture departments, shared actual resources for the community. But he’s not sure someone like Markey can help with the larger problem in rural communities.
“We’re always looking (to diversify the local economy), but it’s rather difficult,” he said. “Rural America has this problem nationwide. If you don’t have a huge labor force and a company wants to come in, they have to bring employees with them.”
State’s focus on small business
Before Markey, the state’s economic development office was already working with small businesses and rural communities even as the agency got a lot of attention for providing job-growth incentives to entice numerous out-of-state companies to relocate here, including Amazon.
That’s not changing, Markey said. She said she’s just emphasizing a focus on rural and small business communities. Her team is working on programs for succession planning among retiring small business owners, and helping rural areas build a remote workforce. Those initiatives will be rolled out soon.
“There are things we’re focused on as a state government that reflect the governor’s goals, including 100% renewable energy by 2040, eduction, lowering the cost of healthcare and rural economic development,” she said. “Everything we do has that lens.”
The backlash of luring big business to a state and plying them with incentives was felt nationwide when Amazon awarded its second headquarters search to New York and Virginia last November. But after protests by local lawmakers and activists, Amazon pulled out of New York — and the $3 billion in government incentives the state offered — in February.
Colorado, one of the 20 finalists for the so-called Amazon HQ2, is limited by state law when it comes to incentives. State officials have said the value of incentives to Amazon would have likely exceeded $100 million, but they mostly would be a tax credit offered to any relocating company in a targeted industry — and kick in only if the company met job growth targets.
Since Markey started her job, the state has announced the arrival of San Francisco background-check firm Checkr, which aims to hire 1,500 workers in Denver over 10 years; and Nebraska construction and engineering firm Kiewit, which is building a new regional headquarters in Lone Tree and plans to hire 1,100 people. Both are opening “second” or regional headquarters here and both received job-growth incentives — $27.8 million and $18.65 million, respectively. Attracting outside companies is still part of her job, she said.
“That continues to be a priority. We want to continue to keep the unemployment rate low. We have companies choosing to come to Colorado,” she said. “But we also have a renewed focus on helping the small businesses and supporting their need to grow whether it’s a startup or a three- to five-person company that wants to expand. We have an emphasis on those particularly smaller companies.”
Fiona Arnold, who held Markey’s job between 2014 to 2016, is now president of Mainspring, a real estate developer building condos in Denver. She said Markey’s on the right track if she focuses on small businesses, which is something Arnold did as well.
“We started to think about the entire ecosystem and one thing that became apparent, and you’ve seen a lot of this in the (Denver) mayoral election, it’s increasingly difficult for Colorado-born small businesses to make it. It’s really hard to find the space and to afford to live here,” said Arnold, who is working on a five-story hotel/hostel in the Five Points neighborhood of Denver. “The other thing is everyone thinks we’re in this amazing boom time and are reading about all the amazing businesses. But actually, there are fewer startups now (in the U.S.) than in the ‘70s.”
Arnold prefers to focus on locally grown small businesses, rather than getting larger ones to relocate an office to Denver or Colorado.
“Small business is where you get your bang for your buck,” she said. “Home-grown businesses are sticky. They want to stay. Home-grown businesses don’t leave for the highest bidder.”
David May, president of the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce, said an issue he hopes the state focuses on is retention and expansion of primary employers. His area has seen a decline in tech companies and chip makers that once dominated the region.
“We believe OEDIT should focus on the retention and expansion of primary employers,” he said. “To do so, they should advocate for reliable and affordable electricity, advise the administration and legislature to minimize mandates on employers, support increasing road and interstate capacity, and advocate for the expansion of training funds. In other words, in addition to marketing the state to existing and new primary employers, be advocates for issues that fundamentally impact the business climate.”
Markey sold her coffee shop to CooperSmith’s in Old Town Square in 2001. She still lives in Fort Collins, but rents an apartment in downtown Denver so she can walk to work. But she’s willing to travel as much as needed and just like her life as an elected official, she wants to hear from the business community statewide. More road trips are planned for the year.
“Ideas, they bubble up from the communities,” she said. “Those are the best ideas.”