Manufacturing is a small piece of Durango’s economy, but it is growing at such a healthy pace that employment for manufacturing jobs hit a 16-year high in 2016 in La Plata County.
“There is a post-recession story to manufacturing that is very, very positive,” said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
The sector employs more than 750 people representing about 3 percent of all jobs in the county, but it is outperforming the private sector.
Since 2010, manufacturing in the county has grown three times faster than the private sector overall, he said.
In the last seven years, manufacturing wages have grown 20 percent, while wages in the private sector are up 9 percent, Zalneraitis said.
Manufacturers in the area are poised to keep growing and hiring, despite challenges such as Durango’s isolation and lack of interstate highways and rail lines that help to provide cheaper shipping.
“I don’t see any threats looming on the horizon for the local manufacturers and what they are doing,” Zalneraitis said.
Artisans working out of their garages gave rise to many manufacturers in this area. Many businesses still fall into this category, he said.
Others, such as StoneAge Waterblast Tools, grew to be major employers and to distribute internationally.
StoneAge employs 150 people, and 115 of them work in Durango, CEO Kerry Siggins said.
“We were very lucky to get involved in water-blast cleaning when it was in its infancy,” founder Jerry Zink said.
The company has grown with the industry and is currently talking to La Plata County and Durango Fire Protection District about expanding its facility, he said.
StoneAge’s largest market is the petroleum-refining industry, but the water-blasting tools are used to clean many different types of equipment, he said.
Expanding into the Middle East and China and producing more semi-automatic equipment has also helped drive growth, Siggins said. StoneAge produces semi-automatic systems that help to remove a hose from an operator’s hands, which prevents accidents, she said.
“Due to safety concerns, chemical plants, refineries and other types of industrial facilities around the world are demanding that contractors performing high-pressure water blasting use more automated systems,” she said.
The manufacturer has also been able to overcome the high cost of transporting goods by shipping small, high-value items, she said.
But it is becoming more of a challenge because the company is starting to sell larger systems, she said.
One way to address transportation costs for manufacturers could be a rail line though Farmington, Zalneraitis said.
One issue the manufacturing industry is facing is a shortage of light manufacturing building and high infrastructure costs to develop new space.
In addition to traditional infrastructure, such as water, sewer and roads, a fiber-optic internet connection is key for businesses, Zink said.
Fiber optics and a water line were installed in Animas Air Park at the same time. The infrastructure helped StoneAge’s business because it had been hauling water and had been relying heavily on a microwave internet connection because it provided the most stable conduit for the company’s software.
“Getting that in the Air Park was a huge leap forward from where we were,” said Chester Brandt, information technology manager for StoneAge.