Michael French, who in 2007 found Durango the ideal location to telecommute while raising a family, has been named the new executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
French, who started his own information technology company, Network Architechs, that was eventually acquired by Presidio, a publicly traded IT company, will begin his new position leading the alliance Jan. 21.
French served as Presidio’s chief marketing officer while telecommuting from Durango.
“I had the ability to telecommute from anywhere, the flexibility to move anywhere we wanted. We were attracted to Durango by the culture, the outdoor recreational opportunities, the community as a whole,” French said.
French replaces Roger Zalneraitis, who stepped down in December 2018 and now serves as the economic development manager for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe’s Permanent Fund.
Jameson Bobbin, Durango market president of Vectra Bank and chairman of the alliance’s board of directors, said at an alliance monthly meeting on Tuesday the necessity of a yearlong search for a new leader brought home the challenges the alliance faces in promoting economic vitality in the region.
“Getting candidates to move to Durango, we discovered you really have to want to be here when you look at the cost of living, the housing costs and the salary levels,” he said.
He noted French’s familiarity with mergers and acquisitions and his history of taking a small business from startup to eventual sale to a publicly traded company will provide insights into economic development for the alliance.
Immediately, the alliance will be focused on analyzing and choosing the winning plan that will guide development of sewage infrastructure to La Posta Road (County Roads 213), a key early step needed in creating a business park in the area, which has long been a goal of regional economic developers. Plans are due for a request for proposal from the alliance on Friday.
The alliance will also be creating a prospectus for companies looking to relocate to Southwest Colorado based on a new opportunity zone designation that allows for federal tax breaks for economic activity in areas designated distressed. The zones were created by the Trump administration’s 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.
French said his personal history of choosing Durango as the locale for his own telecommuting will inform his efforts to pursue economic infrastructure, especially broadband, that will attract other telecommuters. Access to broadband, he said, is the No. 1 factor that will attract new telecommuters.
Helping existing businesses to grow locally and developing partnerships with other communities and economic development organizations will be two other key areas French said he will prioritize.
“We want to focus on the businesses that are here and do a better job of retaining them and helping them grow and stay in our community,” he said.
He mentioned two obstacles in the quest to help existing businesses: building a stronger local workforce and working to eliminate the shortage of affordable business properties, especially light-industrial facilities, to accommodate fast-growing businesses.
One final area French is prioritizing is developing partnerships with communities surrounding Durango and La Plata County.
“It makes sense to start with the Southern Utes,” he said.
He noted his predecessor at the alliance, Zalneraitis, now works for the tribe and the tribe is one of the county’s largest employers.
“They have resources we should always consider in looking at growth opportunities,” he said.
Valuable partnerships, he added, can also be developed with towns around Durango and among the counties of Southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico. Those partnerships, he said, would create a more vibrant regional hub for economic activity.
“We will be successful through collaborations,” French said.