Small footprint, outsized potential Microbusinesses help strengthen, diversify local economy ~ The WATCH

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Lisa Issenberg in her Ridgway metal shop putting the final touches on steel trophies. (Courtesy photo)

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  • By Amy M. Peters, Watch Contributor

Many of this area’s businesses are based in real estate, agriculture and tourism, but the tri-county region also brims with craft manufacturers. Smaller companies may be less well-known. But they are important, because they help strengthen and diversify the economy.

Big businesses are “very unstable,” said Paul Major, the Telluride Foundation’s executive director. “They get overconcentrated (and lack) diversity, so when commodity prices go down, they’re all standing with their pants around their ankles asking, what happened to our economy here?”

Major says that even when big businesses go bust, niche businesses can still compete.

 “(Niche businesses) are not commodified because they’re so specialized,” he said.

In 2011, Chris Fish co-founded Telluride Brewery. The company brews 30 different types of beer in Lawson Hill with 23 full-time employees, all of whom recently gained health insurance benefits.

“In the last election we heard a lot about diversifying our economy and having jobs that aren’t tourist-based,” Fish said. “And we’re the very definition of that.”

“Tourism does contribute to our business,” Fish added. “But beer is pretty recession-proof. And our number one goal is taking care of (our employees) so that they don’t have to leave us.”

Regional advantages

Through branding, Fish has turned his company’s isolation into a business advantage.

“The branding we have built around the name Telluride has really given us an advantage in selling around the state,” Fish said. He also cited the exposure that his brand has achieved in partnering with Telski during the winter months. The brewery has served as  co-sponsor of the mountain for the past two years, and will for the next five years.

In the winter of 1991, Mick Hill opened the first Steaming Bean coffee shop in Telluride at the base of Lift 7. The following year he opened his flagship shop on main street; the success of that business financed additional shops in Durango and Gunnison. By 2007, he forewent retail in favor of wholesale, and has been roasting whole-bean and ground coffee from his current Lawson Hill location ever since.

Today Hill imports up to 15 different, single-origin beans. From them he produces six blends that are always in stock, for a total of 25 rotating coffee types, along with flavored coffees.

Like Fish, Hill taps into the Telluride name to gain an edge when it comes to branding. He also points to local feedback and support as an advantage  — not just from long-time business supporters like Telski and The New Sheridan, but from local consumers.

“If something’s off (with the coffee), people come in and let us know,” Hill said. “And that’s invaluable.”

Mixed-metals artist Lisa Issenberg moved from Ophir to Ridgway in 2006, and launched her custom trophies and engraving company, Kiitella (a Finnish word that means “to thank, praise, applaud”).

Issenberg claims that the region is “only an advantage” to her business because not only does she live the life she loves to live, her business depends on the connections she makes across the outdoor industry with retailers such as Marmot, sporting event organizers like the American Alpine Club, the American Mountain Guide Association and USSA skiing, and various environmental organizations — all of which are simpatico with her mountain spirit. 

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