Return of the Rocky Mountain high
By Todd Wilkinson, CS Monitor, June 9, 2013
Bozeman, Mont.—Greg Gianforte, a charismatic man with a goatee who resembles Mr. Clean, is known for passionately stalking opportunity in the West—both in the boardroom and in the woods. He tells the story of once rising before dawn during hunting season, suiting up in camouflage, and disappearing into the rugged foothills around this small Montana city.
After shooting a black bear with a bow and arrow, he hurried home to put on jeans and a starched shirt, and headed into the office just in time for a 10 a.m. conference call with clients on the other side of the world. They, of course, had no idea what he had done that morning before work.
Yet the chance to get in some early morning hunting is a prime reason Mr. Gianforte, the founder and former chief executive officer of RightNow Technologies, a customer-service software firm, moved to Bozeman to begin with. After selling a different high-tech company in Silicon Valley in the mid-1990s, he and his wife settled here intending to retire as 30-somethings. But the restless entrepreneur soon came up with another idea for a start-up firm.
Venture capitalists in California told him he would never be able to make it work in such an isolated area, one closer to geysers than sales markets and software engineers. Undeterred, in 1997, he converted a guest bedroom into an office and put up $50,000. In 2011 he sold RightNow to Oracle for $1.5 billion. It had become the largest private employer in Montana, with 550 workers, and has inspired numerous spinoffs.
"The Internet removed geography as a significant obstacle that formerly prevented out-of-the-way places from being active players in the New Economy," says Gianforte. "I think this is the future."
Gianforte’s successful venture, and his passion for the outdoors, helps explain why the Mountain West is now one of the most robust regions in the United States. Drawn by the area’s natural amenities, a new generation of entrepreneurs and professional service providers, many of them well educated, is moving into towns like Bozeman and other scenic communities across the West.
From Kalispell, Mont., near the Canadian border, down the spine of the Rockies to places like Durango, Colo., and Taos, N.M., and over to Flagstaff, Ariz., they are adding an entrepreneurial dynamism to the region, a phenomenon first identified by analysts with the Federal Reserve banks of Kansas City and Minneapolis who track economic barometers.
These software engineers, biotech researchers, medical specialists, outdoor-gear manufacturers, and day traders are being joined by a wave of retirees who want to take advantage of the outdoor lifestyle and relatively inexpensive living costs. Together, economists say, they helped the Mountain West enter the recession later than other parts of the US and come out of it sooner. Now the region leads in population and job growth.
While the boom in energy production—coal in Wyoming and oil and gas in the Bakken formation of eastern Montana and the Dakotas—gets most of the attention, experts say the New Economy growth, rooted in the region’s scenic wonders, is one of the most important forces shaping the West. Call it the rise of the “Green Coast.”
"The notion used to be that if you weren’t mining the landscape of its ore, or cutting down the forest for its trees, or covering the range with cattle, you were doing something wrong and your economy would stagnate," says Ray Rasker, the cofounder of Headwaters Economics, a think tank in Bozeman that analyzes socioeconomic-environmental trends. "But Bozeman and a handful of other communities in the West have evolved beyond that frontier mind-set. They’re thriving not in spite of being surrounded by protected public lands and putting certain kinds of development off limits, but because of it."
A recent study by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a New York-based think tank, identified four economic provinces that it believes will shape America’s economic revival. One is the “third coast,” an area stretching from Texas to Tampa, Fla., along the Gulf of Mexico. Another is the manufacturing belt of the Southeast—extending from Alabama through Tennessee and the Carolinas—and a third is the Great Plains, from the Dakotas down through Oklahoma and Texas, where oil and natural-gas development is indeed helping spur a renaissance.
But the study identified the Intermountain West as having the highest rate of job growth over the past 10 years—14.7 percent, more than three times the national average. The region’s population climbed 20 percent. Its major urban hubs are Provo-Salt Lake City along the Wasatch Mountains of Utah; Colorado Springs-Denver-Boulder-Fort Collins along the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies; Spokane, Wash.; and Boise, Idaho.
"At some point, the Intermountain West could well become a true rival of Silicon Valley, as more trained workers and entrepreneurs flock to the area," writes Joel Kotkin, author of the Manhattan Institute study "America’s Growth Corridors: The Key to National Revival."
No one is suggesting that quaint Bozeman will become the next Santa Clara, Calif. It’s considered a generation behind the evolution, even, of Boulder. But many do believe it epitomizes the emergence of the Green Coast economy—and could be a model for other rural communities across the West.
Rasker estimates that 95 percent of the net new jobs in the region are professional service positions. These are not low-paying hamburger flippers in fast-food restaurants or ski bums operating chairlifts. They are software sultans, accountants, architects, lawyers, and “Internet cowboys” riding bandwidth in search of their fortunes.
Nor are high-tech companies the only new arrivals drawn to the West by its lifestyle and sylvan scenery. In May, rock climber Peter Metcalf, president and CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, a Salt Lake City-based purveyor of mountain-climbing gear, spoke at a conference in Jackson Hole, Wyo., sponsored by a confederation of Green Coast businesses.
Mr. Metcalf noted how the outdoor-gear industry is ascending as a 21st-century force in the New Economy. Destinations that have natural amenities are enjoying the fruits, he says, of an industry that contributes $650 billion annually to the US economy—$110 billion in the West.
K.C. Walsh is a member of the booming outdoor-recreation industry and a political conservative in the mode of Theodore Roosevelt—in other words, a green conservative. He was a senior manager with a Big Eight accounting firm in Los Angeles, and became so enthralled with trout fishing that he bought a Bozeman-based company, Simms, that makes premium waders. He calls Bozeman “the fly-fishing capital of the Western world.”
As the new entrepreneurs arrive with their REI wardrobes and collapsible hiking poles, so does new money to fund some of their ideas—the kind of start-up capital that Gianforte’s friends in Silicon Valley told him couldn’t be raised in the provincial West.
Some question how far the Green Economy can carry the West. How many Bozemans are there out there, really? It does, after all, have an idyllic setting—ringed by the Bridgers and not far from Yellowstone National Park, not to mention all those cutthroat trout. Its downtown is postcard quaint—historical red-brick buildings with boutique shops and trendy restaurants that serve more than just various parts of a Black Angus.
The town of 38,000 has a vibrant university, a citizenry steeped in athletic hedonism, and more people in Giro bicycle helmets than Stetsons. A dog seems de rigueur in every office warren.
No wonder Outside magazine has just named Bozeman as a top 10 finalist to be “best town ever” (readers to cast the final vote), which is just the latest publication to trumpet the community’s virtues—to the horror of many locals who don’t want it known.
Even Eden has its shadows. In Bozeman, rising real estate prices, rents, and cost of living have forced working-class people to outlying communities. In recent years, for the first time ever, the city has had to open up a homeless shelter in winter, and in the summer small hobo camps have sprung up on the edge of town where people live who came looking for nirvana and didn’t find it. Demand at a local food bank has been growing, too.
But many of Bozeman’s challenges stem from too much growth—an enviable problem to have—and the town remains one of the premier symbols of an isolated community, once dismissed as a parochial cow town, that has found new relevance in the modern world. Couple that with the self-sufficient, bootstrap culture of the West, locals say, and the town will continue to be a magnet for the Patagonia-wearing digital generation—and a model of the Green Coast economy.