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Better Times Ahead for Boulder Area Economy, Business Leaders Predict

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A funny thing happened on the way through the Boulder Economic Council's economic forecast Wednesday night.

Most of University of Colorado business economist Richard Wobbekind's charts and graphs suddenly started pointing up for 2010. Nearly all of them except, of course, the federal deficit chart, which showed a plunging line downward illustrating 15 straight months of government red ink. Last year, the deficit hit $1.42 trillion, three times the record set in 2008 of $454 billion.

But that chart was just a mere diversion from the real localized message of the evening looking at 2010 for "Boulder & Beyond."

And both Wobbekind and a "power panel" of local business leaders examining retail, banking, technology, real estate and advertising generally had some good things to say this year's local economy.

If there was a consensus, it probably goes something like this: The U.S. recession was really nasty, and Colorado, which lost about 100,000 jobs in 2009, didn't too so good either. But if you live in Boulder County and still have your job, you should be thankful that the area's combination of government, professional services, university and manufacturing jobs at least made it better here than a lot of other places.

In a nutshell, here's what the business experts see:

Banking: Federal examiners are softening a bit, and healthier banks that have raised capital and improved their portfolios should start to lend more this year, said Pat O'Brien, market president of Guaranty Bank and Trust Co. Banks' loan portfolios in the county area are healthier than many across the state. Across the country, there are still about 575 problem banks being watched closely by regulators, but what he described as a "classic credit crunch" should be loosening.

Commercial real estate: Tebo Development Co. Stephen Tebo talked about the difficulty of borrowing against "more conservative" appraisals on commercial properties, but said his business had gotten back on pace in the fourth quarter after a slow nine months. "I think there was pent-up demand," for space, he said. A perception of a glut of commercial space for lease, especially in downtown Boulder, isn't true, he said, although cities in the county like Longmont, Louisville and Lafayette are not yet filling up vacant space. "If we were willing to rent" to medical marijuana dispensaries and growers, he added, "we would not have a vacancy."

Retail: Retailers didn't see a rebound until the holiday season, which turned out to be the best since 2006, said Kim Campbell, senior property manager for Boulder's Twenty Ninth Street shopping district. While the news has been glum, luxury chains like Saks and Nordstrom are doing better after consumers retreated to discounters for most of the year. In Boulder, Arhaus Furniture, the Colorado Athletic Club and several new restaurants have opened, with three retailers, the Container Store, XXI Forever and Ultimate Electronics filling up the empty anchor space at Broomfield's Flatiron Crossing vacated by Lord & Taylor. "Game changers" in retail include mobile applications like Red Laser for consumers to scan prices in stores from their smart phones, and social media getting the word out fast on events and special promotions.

Technology: The mobile Internet is a powerful trend in 2010, predicted Scott Green, engineering site director for Google in Boulder. A surge in sales of smart phones is completely changing the way people interact and work. Cloud computing is also making it easier for startups to run without their own IT person, and a trend for more vertical and "end-to-end" markets, such as Google selling its own phones, Amazon selling the Kindle reader and Apple selling both music and players is only going to accelerate. This will be good news for smaller entrepreneurs in the Boulder area who come up with innovative products.

Advertising: Smart marketers are going to get more into the "core" of the product, said Chuck Porter, co-chairman of Crispin Porter + Bogusky, which picked Boulder for a new office because they wanted something completely "opposite" of their offices in Miami. Boulder has the "right kind of juice" for the trend to more interactive digital media. CP+B created one Facebook promotion for Burger King, telling people if they would "unfriend" 10 of their friends, they'd get a free Whopper. After some 233,000 friends were dropped, Facebook asked them if they would pull the application, he said.

CP+B recently helped launch a new Boulder Digital Works program at CU, and although Porter agreed Boulder could keep moving toward become a "digital media Mecca," he'd rather not have the word get out too much. "I want to hire" the graduates of the school we started, he said.