Comparing economic stats with our northwest region neighbors

When comparing Grand County’s most recent batch of economic development stats to the numbers for our northwest region, one thing becomes clear.

Grand County is not the big kid on the block. In terms of population, wages, wage growth and jobs, we consistently rank fourth out the five counties in the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments regional economic update. Those five counties are Eagle, Grand, Jackson, Routt and Summit.

And believe me, it’s not that I want to be the biggest when it comes to these numbers. There’s a lot to be said for not having the highest number of jobs, the highest population and highest number of housing units. In other words, more and bigger isn’t always better because the bigger counties just have bigger problems with housing and jobs.

It all starts with population, a simple metric to understand. Eagle County, consistently the best performing county of all five, has a population of 55,285, which is nearly a full 40,000 more people than Grand County with 15,796. Summit County, a place about the third the size of Grand County, has 30,585 residents, while Routt County has 25,007 people. The outlier of all these counties is Jackson County, with 1,302 residents.

The trend with population drives almost all of the other metrics in the regional economic update. The median household income for Eagle in 2021 was $94,928 compared to $78,779 in Grand, $96,316 in Pitkin and $93,776 for Routt and $90,297 in Summit. Jackson’s median household income in 2021 was $55,535.

A number I found interesting in these numbers was the average annual wage, based on numbers from the first quarter of 2023. In Eagle County that number is $63,024, with Grand at $49,712. Pitkin, the home of Aspen, comes in at $73,736 in this category, with Rout at $60,216 and Summit at $55,640. Once again, Jackson County has a much different number at $42,900.

The report is important in getting a feel for the jobs available and the job market in general. Here are the numbers for total jobs for each county for the first quarter of 2023: Eagle - 36,437; Summit - 24,687; Pitkin - 19,328; Routt - 17,108; Grand - 8,089; Jackson - 555.

And yet with all these jobs the unemployment rate for all the counties ranged anywhere from 2.6 percent to 2.9 percent. Grand is at that 2.9 percent number. The differences in those percentages are almost meaningless because with unemployment percentages like these, the entire region is really fully employed.

While in general most of these counties are heavily dependent on tourism and the outdoor recreation industry, Routt County and especially our neighbor to the north, Jackson County, aren’t as dependent on tourism as the other three counties.

Routt County is more diverse in terms of industry when compared to the other counties in the Northwest region in that 70 percent of jobs come from outside the tourism sector. In Jackson County, 60 percent of its jobs come from outside the tourism sector.

“Grand County’s economy is dominated by the tourism and outdoor recreation industry,” the report states. This accounts “for 40% of all jobs: accommodations and food service (25%) and arts, entertainment, recreation (15%). These sectors pay below average as compared to average annual wage for Grand County, the State of Colorado and the U.S. . . . 52% of the jobs in the county pay $44,356 and below. This high concentration of low paying jobs results in Grand County reporting an annual wage of $49,712 for all industries, which is below average for the state and the U.S.”

Grand County reports moderate job growth year over year of .8 % and 11% over the last decade. While wages are relatively low compared to the region, State, and U.S., the county has seen substantial wage growth over the short term (14.6% year-over-year) and longterm (up 73.2% over the last decade).”

What accounts for what is essentially a fourth place finish of five counties in terms of economic performance? Several factors. Lower overall population limits chances for momentum in growth. Grand County is not as centralized as most of the other counties where large and well-connected towns in each county tend to dominate, resulting in a better economies of scale. Three of the counties have the advantage of Interstate 70 passing through, although Routt County seems to do well without that transportation juggernaut that shovels money and people into and through those counties.

So what’s different in Routt County? They have a more diverse economy. The report states: “Routt County is more diverse in terms of industries when compared to other counties in the NWCCOG Region in that 70% of jobs come from outside the tourism sector. While accommodation and food services do account for the most jobs (17%), higher paying sectors such as healthcare (11%; paying annual wage of $66,872) and construction (8%; paying annual salary of $63,596) account for a large portion of jobs. Health care continues to be a strong sector in the Routt County economy.”

In this case I think Routt County benefits from being that much farther away from Denver. In Grand, I think many health care dollars go to Denver because the big city is so close. In Routt, those dollars mostly stay in the county. It makes a difference.

I’m not so sure I would want Grand to be first place in overall tourism numbers. But it sure would be nice to be higher on the regional totem pole when it comes to average annual wage and total number of housing units.

The numbers continue to point to the fact that Grand County is truly an “Island in the Rockies,” as Bob Black’s history book celebrates. We’re an island, really, even within our region.

Patrick Brower is the Enterprise Facilitator for the Grand Enterprise Initiative. He provides free and confidential business management coaching for anyone who wants to start or expand a business in Grand County. He is also the author of “KILLDOZER: The True Story of the Colorado Bulldozer Rampage.” He can be reached at 970-531-0632 or at

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