As the city rolled out the red carpet for hundreds of techies during Denver Startup Week in October, a coffee-shop owner was mired in a two-month delay trying to open a new restaurant near Curtis Park.
As Mayor Michael Hancock declared that Denver would become " Silicon Mountain," a tiny ceramics manufacturer had to scratch plans to move into a city-owned building, vacant for decades, after finding that approvals would take three months longer than expected.
Owners of established small businesses, feeling brushed aside for the latest economic-development trend, question Denver's decision to follow the pack in attempting to become the nation's next tech and startup haven. They say the city and business organizations should place more emphasis on fostering the growth of those that are already committed to the community than on attracting volatile startups that are likely to jump ship at the first sign of funding.
"Hearing about this focus on startups and innovation, it's really trying to jump on a train that left the station years ago," said Brian Smith, president of the Space Creators, which leases real estate to about 150 small-business tenants at four Denver properties. "Having a focus on the businesses that exist here now and nurturing them will ultimately lead to greater economic impact than any startup work that we do here in Denver."
City and state officials say supporting small business is a top priority. They point to a number of initiatives that are geared toward the community, including plans to launch by year's end a website that will provide easy access to resources and tools such as training seminars, eliminating the need for small-business owners to make a trip downtown for the same information.
"(They) may have felt a little bit left out because we did have a lot of hoopla during Startup Week," said John Lucero, deputy director of the city's Office of Economic Development. "It was our first year doing it, and there's lots of excitement on anything new. But in any case, small business is our priority with this administration, and it has always been at the OED."
Lucero said the citywide business-plan competition wasn't just for startups, even though the $50,000 cash award was given to an early-stage tech company during Startup Week. Denver is revamping the Business Assistance Center at the Wellington Webb Municipal Building to provide more resources, such as opening it up for networking events. An A-to-Z guide will be released in the coming months to help aspiring businesses navigate different approval processes.
At the state level, the Enterprise Zones program, which provides tax incentives to encourage businesses to locate and expand in economically distressed areas, consists of about 90 percent small businesses. The Colorado Small Business Development Center Network offers free counseling and training programs and helped create 1,819 jobs in fiscal 2012, according to the state's Office of Economic Development and International Trade.
"We have put a tremendous amount of effort on growing the current companies within the state — big, medium and small," said Ken Lund, executive director of the state economic-development office. "The majority of our programs are oriented toward small business."
For businesses such as MemPro Materials, the efforts aren't evident. The Broomfield-based company sought to relocate to a Denver-owned building but ditched those plans two months into the process after being told it would take another three months.
"It really is a frustration on our part because we thought we were moving along quickly," said Seth Finley, MemPro's chief operating officer. "Honestly, I don't how the system works. Someone will tell us we're able to come in by a certain date, and that date will come by, and nothing happens."
Noah Price, co-owner of Crema Coffee House, also faced delays in opening the Populist restaurant in the Five Points neighborhood and ended up paying rent and labor for two months while not bringing in any revenue.
"It seems like the city just doesn't really care as far as when we get opened," Price said. "You'd think that the city would want us to be open and bringing in tax revenue."
The Populist opened last week with 17 workers.
Small businesses employ nearly 200,000 workers in Denver, representing more than 40 percent of the total workforce, according to city estimates.
While that figure includes startups, established business owners say it's important to differentiate the two and their separate needs.
Denver Startup Week, sponsored by the Downtown Denver Partnership, the Colorado Technology Association and others, featured sessions heavily geared toward the startup scene.
"Incubator programs, investor competitions or the chance to pitch my business idea for a quick turnaround are not the resources that my business or others like mine are looking for," said Cori Streetman, principal of Barefoot PR, a Denver-based public-relations firm. "What I do need are opportunities to sit at the table alongside established business leaders, government officials and other decision-makers, and contribute to the conversation about our city's growth and plan for the future, as our business fully intends on being here for the long haul."
Smith, of the Space Creators, said the rise of co-working spaces — where tech entrepreneurs share office space and services — isn't the long-term economic-development answer for Denver.
"You're bringing people in who aren't making a commitment to the community, and you're not asking them to make a commitment to the community," he said. "They're going to continually shift and move based on the whims of various changing things in the market — funding becomes more available somewhere else."
Smith believes the city can do a better job of reaching out to small-business owners, perhaps holding regular training sessions within the community. He said making it easier for business owners to find resources online, such as required forms for hiring an employee, is vital because making a trip to the Webb building is a daunting task for many.
"The way to Denver's prosperity is not going to be paved by startups," Smith said. "It's going to be by businesses that are developing beyond the startup world."
Justin Anthony — who sits in both worlds, as co-founder of tech startup BrightNest and owner of the Matchbox bar in the River North Art District, or RiNo — says the two sides can help each other.
"I like the idea of a healthy balance between the visionaries pushing to create the next big thing and smart people creating useful businesses that will serve as the backbone," Anthony said.
"The vast majority of the tech startups popping up are stacked heavy with people with an overwhelming amount of tech experience but very limited domain or business experience," he said. "The more that scene flourishes, the greater the need will become for businesses that can help them transition from the dream phase to the realities of running a business."
Andy Vuong : 303-954-1209, email@example.com or fb.com/byandyvuong