Manufacturing’s rebound has even outspoken cynics taking note. Joel Kotkin from Forbes acknowledged as much in a useful take on the sector’s new boomtowns. The Cities Leading a U.S. Manufacturing Revival lists 10 communities experiencing measured growth, including Detroit’s eye-opening comeback:

“Since 2009 the Detroit area has seen a remarkable 31.3% rebound to 89,300 industrial jobs, including a 9.8% expansion last year. This growth has helped begin to reverse a long-standing decline in employment overall — still down 12.3% since 2003 — with overall employment up 5.9% since 2009.”

Kotkin’s list is rust-belt heavy, because, hey, that’s what we all think when we think manufacturing. The way economists measure manufacturing is also skewed to industrial metrics so it’s no surprise that Colorado is absent from the list.

But as we chronicle every week, a manufacturing revival is underway in the Rocky Mountain West. So after two years and over 300 profiles of maker and manufacturing businesses it’s time we ranked Colorado’s top manufacturing communities. Our criteria: a growing, compelling industry or cluster of maker industries, supported by purposeful public/private efforts to build a robust manufacturing economy.

  1. Boulder County. Boulder County’s modern manufacturing ecosystem is world-class and positioned for extraordinary growth. It spans multiple growth sectors that are redefining how we view manufacturing, none more so than BC’s natural products sector, a national juggernaut. BC is home to many of the state’s ascendant craft beverage brands. It’s high-tech manufacturing, with a news-making aerospace core buttressed by CU’s insanely rich R&D backdrop. It’s a lifestyle-maker magnet, a cycling- and outdoor-gear mecca. Manufacturing may be the sector that finally buries Boulder’s dated anti-business moniker.
  2. Denver. Sheer numbers aside, there’s heightened awareness across Denver’s business, government, and education interests that manufacturing may change the city’s urban economic landscape. RiNo is poised to breakout as a national model of mixed-use development with light manufacturing at its core. Its infrastructure assets including DIA now attract industry that once viewed its mid-continent location a global disadvantage. The Auraria complex, home to three complementary higher-ed outposts that each view manufacturing core to a workforce mission, is poised for great things. It also benefits from increasingly manufacturing-aware economic development and trade coalitions
  3. Ft. Collins/Loveland. Ft. Collins/Loveland is a wild card. Its combination of public/private assets gives it incredible upside. Its rich ag sector is an engine of food and craft beverage manufacturing. Tech-incubation is national-caliber. Otter Products is a global power and lifestyle-sector catalyst. Industry is leading innovative workforce partnerships with CSU — meeting an acute need. Economic developers are hip to manufacturing. Its not quite yet figured out that manufacturing is the tie that binds. When it does, it may top the list.
  4. Colorado Springs. Colorado Springs’ ambitious sector is hamstrung by aimless city government and lack of a more productive partnership with nearby Pueblo, one that might result in a regional industrial powerhouse. Nevertheless, a core industrial group is pushing hard to build awareness for a community rich in manufacturing brands — many that operate on a global stage — and defense-related legacy that’s left pieces of industrial acumen scattered throughout the region. A lifestyle sector simmers just under a combustible degree. Business here is trying hard to manufacture an industrial spark.
  5. Grand Junction/Palisade. Modern manufacturing is fermentation and fabrication, and Colorado’s western slope leads with a world-class agriculture/industrial complex that’s a catalyst for regional food and beverage manufacturing. The Slope’s wine industry is an established regional powerhouse. Grand Junction’s tech and industrial incubators are surprisingly manufacturing-aware. And with recreation assets to spare, gear and component manufacturing is poised for growth – if economic developers connect the dots.

Collectively it’s a strong group. Is it of national caliber? Yes, but there are reasons it’s not captured more attention. The state’s industrial soul may reside in Pueblo — absent from our Top 5. Pewag (profiled here), a well-known German firm, selected the city for its only U.S. location, in part because of its manufacturing heritage. Add a purposeful push from Pueblo industry to match the energy of its community college, and Colorado’s national bona fides might improve.

No matter. Colorado’s manufacturing star is on the rise.

Technician at Boulder's Research Electro-Optics

Contact Bart Taylor, founder and publisher of CompanyWeek.