Can La Plata County become a manufacturing hub to rival the great manufacturing centers of the Rust Belt? Well, probably not.
But a budding effort to create better networking among the region’s small-scale manufacturers may make life in a remote part of the country far more practical and profitable for those manufacturers who do call Southwest Colorado home.
On Wednesday afternoon, about 60 people involved in small-scale manufacturing and support industries – from StoneAge Waterblast Tools to Ska Brewing Co., to finance firms to industrial arts and engineering educators – gathered at Ska Brewing Co. at the behest of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
The group gathered to hear a pitch to form a countywide or regional manufacturing alliance and to take the first steps to developing such a business-to-business alliance.
Cindy Nowak, regional director for Southern Colorado for the Manufacturers Edge, described successful efforts to develop manufacturing alliances, regional organizations that help form partnerships among small manufacturers so they can pool their resources to create new products and bid for larger jobs than any one small business can handle.
“The alliance holds business-to-business events. Everyone gathers around and drinks beer and gets to know each other, and then they sit down and solve problems,” Nowak said of one such alliance in Colorado Springs.
Among the issues the Colorado Springs alliance deals with are joint concerns on workforce development, business development and legislative and regulatory issues.
The alliance, she said, forms “action-oriented” teams to solve problems and take advantage of shared opportunities, and it is particularly effective in developing partnerships.
Nancy Zimmer, program coordinator with Pueblo Corporate College, described a sector partnership in La Junta that identified and solved a problem plaguing many of its small-scale manufacturers: The manufacturers were suffering productivity losses at lunch because their remote location meant workers’ travel time to distant restaurants cut time spent on the shop floor.
The common problem was solved by the businesses gathering to coordinate lunch-hour visits to the manufacturing sites by food trucks.
“It was something they were able to tackle right away and solve,” she said.
In La Plata County, the manufacturing sector employs more than 750 people representing about 3 percent of all jobs in the county, but it is outperforming the broader private sector.
Since 2010, manufacturing in the county has grown three times faster than the private sector overall, said Roger Zalneraitis, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
In the last seven years, manufacturing wages have grown 20 percent, while wages in the private sector are up 9 percent.
Andy Black, director of operations at Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, and David Thibodeau, co-founder of Ska Brewing Co., discussed solving transportation issues at Ska by using Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory semi-trucks to transport beer to a dozen states. Rocky Mountain, beyond making chocolates, operates a transportation division to employ its semis when not needed to deliver its sweets.
“The great thing is they have refrigerated trucks. We ship to Arizona in the summer. We have to find refrigerated trucks,” Thibodeau said.
Seven manufacturing consortia exist around Colorado.
“There are great lessons to be learned from them,” Zimmer said.
One of the most appealing aspects of a manufacturing alliance, she said, is they are led by businesses and directly respond to their concerns; they are not led by schools, educators or economic-development agencies. “It’s the manufacturers driving the ship,” Zalneraitis said.
A formal meeting to form a regional manufacturing alliance would likely be scheduled for the summer.
“We’ll look to create a formal manufacturing alliance that will help you solve problems and allow you to grow and thrive in La Plata County,” Zalneraitis said.
Kyle Hanson, a partner and coach with Coaching for Value Inc., has seen the value of a manufacturing alliance work in the Midwest when he left teaching to work for Anchor Industries Inc., an Evansville, Indiana, manufacturer of special-event tents.
“What it did so much was to help people to find confidence to take risks,” he said of his time spent with the Tri-State Manufacturers’ Alliance, which served southwest Indiana.