Best of the West: Innovation spurs investment in western rural towns; new program in Utah focuses on social determinants of health; Oregon preps for Murder Hornets; scuba divers clean up Lake Tahoe

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting May 19, 2021. (Photos courtesy of Harvest Hosts and Clean up the Lake)

The population of rural western towns surged during the pandemic and created new opportunities for small businesses. Empowered by expanded broadband access and supported by a growing number of business accelerators, these small businesses are helping to reimagine the West and build back more diverse and resilient economies. Here’s a look at a few examples:     

Despite the economic uncertainty of last year, nearly 400,000 applications were filed for new businesses during 2020 in WGA member states, a 9% increase from the year before. At least one veteran investor believes small towns in the Rocky Mountain West are the new “forefront of the future of Main Street” as broadband access and remote technology has opened global markets to all. “Founders can choose their ideal hometown and pursue unlimited ambitions,” he writes. 

Rerouted, an online marketplace for used outdoor recreation gear, is the perfect example. Chap Grubb and his wife Samantha started the company in Taos, New Mexico in 2019. During the mandated quarantine, they adapted the business model to operate purely online. But rather than moving to a big city to grow their business, they moved to Durango, Colorado, where they received support from the Southwest Colorado Accelerator Program for Entrepreneurs and increased investor support by 25%.

Harvest Hosts is a Vail, Colorado-based membership program that allows RVers to access unique overnight stays at over 1,900 wineries, breweries, farms, golf courses, museums and other scenic attractions across North America. They recently announced a $37 million investment from Stripes after its membership doubled in 2020 and generated more than $25 million in revenue for the small businesses their members visited. Bushel, an app created by students at the University of North Dakota, created a digital marketplace for grain growers and grain facilities across the country. With the app and website now in the hands of 60,000 producers, roughly 40% of our countries’ grain supply, the company recently received $47 million in funding, all without leaving Fargo, North Dakota

This move away from traditional business centers stretches far beyond traditional western industries. Brave Care, a pediatric health startup based out of Portland, Oregon that offers around-the-clock remote care through an app and via phone lines staffed with pediatric nurses, recently received $10 million in funding from several venture capital funds based out of New York. Continuous Composites, an Idaho-based startup in Coeur d’Alene that specializes in 3D printing, entered into a joint development agreement with the French industrial conglomerate Saint-Gobain. 

In hopes of fostering more of these success stories, the city of Grand Forks in North Dakota will use a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to build a tech accelerator that they hope will attract new technology companies to the region. The city of Topeka, Kansas approved plans for a $13 million, 70,000 square foot innovation campus that includes a wet lab to handle various types of chemicals and potential "wet" hazards, coworking, event and meeting spaces, as well as private office suites for innovation-focused companies and the GO Topeka’s Wheelhouse Incubator program. The New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division created grants to fund accelerators that can help individuals and outdoor recreation companies improve their business plans, hire New Mexicans and amplify the state’s reputation as a leader in the outdoor industry.

To learn more about how western towns are evolving their economies, read about the policy recommendations developed during WGA’s Reimaging the Rural West Initiative

NEW HEALTH FOCUS: Thanks to a multi-year $50 million investment and partnership with Intermountain Healthcare, the University of Utah is developing a first-of-its-kind medical education program. The Population Health Student Scholars Program is designed to train physicians to consider a person’s immediate medical needs, along with their life circumstances, known as the social determinants of health, which play a key role in influencing illness and injury. Determinants include housing, neighborhoods, education, transportation, food security, personal security, and the opportunity to have meaningful work.

DRIVER-FREE SYSTEM: Antioch, California joined Pittsburg, Brentwood, and Oakley in a partnership to use driverless electric cars to shuttle passengers between public transportation and business hubs. The proposed closed 28-mile transit system would have 56 boarding locations with customers hailing cars through a phone app or from kiosks along the closed routes. 

ON GUARD FOR HORNETS: Emma Eakins, a senior at Glencoe High School in Oregon, is teaching people to build traps for giant Asian hornets, also known as “Murder Hornets.” Though the invasive species spotted in the state of Washington has yet to be documented in the Beaver State, the traps will function as an early warning device. Her work has earned her one of 10 Foundation Earth Day Scholarships from the National Society of High School Scholars Foundation. To learn more about invasive species management and the traps for giant Asian hornets, listen to WGA’s Out West Podcast The Buzz About Murder Hornets – Separating Fact from Fiction.

WATERY CLEANUP: A team of California scuba divers recently completed the first dive in a six-month effort to rid Lake Tahoe of trash along its entire 72-mile shoreline. The team from the non-profit Clean Up the Lake collected about 200 pounds of garbage during their first session and found 20 large or heavy items, including buckets filled with cement and car bumpers, that will have to be retrieved later by a boat with a crane. Ultimately, Clean Up the Lake estimates the effort will cost $250,000. 

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