From Pick to Pitch

Transitioning Coal Community is Powering a New Entrepreneurship Ecosystem
Rendering of the Hayden Co-working and Entrepreneurship Center (HCEC).

For longer than it has been a state, Colorado has been home to the coal mining industry, playing a significant role in the early development of its communities and economy. By the early 1920s, Colorado boasted more than 230 operating coal mines, making it a major state employer and industry. 

However, for every boom, there is often a bust. More than a century later, the use of coal to produce electricity has declined greatly, and the six remaining power plants in Colorado are all expected to close or convert to renewable energy by 2031.

In 2019, the Colorado General Assembly passed, and Governor Jared Polis signed, House Bill 1314, creating the Office of Just Transition and making ‘just transition’ for these workers and communities a state priority.

Another huge challenge for these communities is a shift in identity: ‘Growing up there wasn’t a lot of exploring what your calling is, because mining became a collective passion or calling. That’s the hardest part that I see in this transition, that we have to create a new identity for our community,’ Jennifer Holloway, Boettcher Fellow Alum and Executive Director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce, said.

These challenges, though great, are no match for the resilience and heart of Colorado’s rural communities and the individuals who live, work, and play within them.

Hayden – a town west of Steamboat Springs located in Routt County with a population of just under 2,000 – is one of the Colorado communities that has been affected by the decline of coal mining. Here, leaders like Town Manager Mathew Mendisco are creatively investing time and resources into actualizing Hayden’s purpose of existing as “a place to thrive.”

Town Manager Mathew Mendisco

Mendisco, a 2021 Boettcher Fellow, has worked with his team to lead a number of projects to meet community needs. These include creating housing initiatives and a community center for activities from fitness and dance to arts and culture. One initiative has created a lot of excitement around providing employment and economic opportunity within Hayden – the development of the Hayden Co-working and Entrepreneurship Center (HCEC).

“Entrepreneurship is sometimes an untapped resource for small municipalities or small areas because there are folks that have ideas, but sometimes they need help cultivating them,” Mendisco said.

The HCEC, a new, 2,000 square-foot space, will replace a building, once a forgotten structure on Walnut Street, now revitalized into a vibrant hub of innovation. The vision for this space is for it to be a central meeting place for collaboration, innovation, and connection between entrepreneurs in the community. Town leadership has high ambitions for features of the HCEC, including a 3D printer, software to connect local entrepreneurs to a national network of others doing similar work, and a virtual reality system.

Winners of the third annual pitch competition courtesy of the Yampa Valley Bugle.

Hayden has already seen the power of investing in its entrepreneurs through hosting pitch competitions. Three years ago, the Town of Hayden sponsored a competition where seven participants competed for prize money totaling $12,000. This year, the town is gearing up for 14 participants competing for prize money totaling $30,000. All participants either have to be already local to Hayden or commit to building their business within town limits – ensuring investment in the local economy.

The space itself will undoubtedly be powerful in providing entrepreneurial opportunities, but the real goal is to create not only a co-working space but a business accelerator.

“If you read about entrepreneurial philosophy … it says it’s important to create an ecosystem,” said Mendisco. “Businesses feed off each other. That’s a bit easier to do in Boulder, but how do you do it rural? That’s what we were grappling with.”

The efforts the town has made through its Hayden Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Project have already made significant progress in working towards this creation of a strong business ecosystem, and the new co-working and entrepreneurship center will play an integral role as well. Other key players in the ecosystem, such as the Hayden Economic Development Office, the Northwest Colorado Small Business Development Center, and the Routt County Economic Development Partnership will be involved – either remotely or physically – to provide training and mentoring for individuals transitioning from energy jobs.

This principle of an ecosystem is appropriate for Hayden, a town that is known as the “Heart of Yampa Valley.” Hayden’s proximity to the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, nestled amidst the breathtaking wilderness and sprawling ranches, enhances its allure as a prime location for both work and leisure. Despite the challenges the decline of the coal industry has presented, the hope of developing an entrepreneurial hub and leaning into elevating the community is alive and well.

“We really do consider people at the forefront of everything we do, and I think that is the whole point,” said Mendisco.

The Boettcher Foundation is proud to support projects like this and leaders like Mendisco who approach challenges with innovative solutions to improve the lives of people in their communities. 

That’s the spirit of Boettcher.

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