For a measure of what the downtown presence of technology company Woodward Inc. means to Fort Collins businesses, look no further than the Back Porch Cafe on the southwest corner of Lincoln and Lemay avenues.
The homey, breakfast-and-lunch restaurant is about 300 feet from the two Woodward buildings where 1,100 people are employed; it is a prime beneficiary of Woodward’s 2013 decision to build its headquarters and a manufacturing campus on the eastern flank of downtown Fort Collins.
“On every weekday, we’ll have Woodward people in here,” co-owner Gene Fiechtl said. “They are really the major contributors to our business.”
The Back Porch Cafe’s location on Woodward’s literal doorstep is just the most visible example of how the company’s workforce bolsters the fortunes of restaurants, retail stores and property owners throughout Fort Collins’ urban core. Likewise, in symbiotic fashion, the urban attractions that the city offers have given Woodward a clear competitive advantage.
“We looked all over Northern Colorado, and our due diligence required us to look outside the region, too,” said Tom Gendron, the former Woodward CEO who guided the building of his company’s new headquarters campus.
“We had to think, first, about what would enable us to attract and retain top talent,” he said. “We knew that our new people, those with high-level professional, technical and operational talent, would want to have all the urban amenities nearby. They would want to have great restaurants, great places to live and all the other things that downtown Fort Collins offers.”
Woodward was formerly known as Woodward Governor Co., a company that in the 1950s manufactured controls that kept aircraft engines from revving too fast, and not much else. It opened its first Fort Collins factory almost 70 years ago and became the city’s first major industrial employer.
Today, Woodward Inc. (Nasdaq: WWD) is a cutting-edge provider of control systems for a broad range of applications from aerospace to global shipping to energy generation, and its Northern Colorado presence has grown with its broadening range of products.
Stakes were high for both the company and the city as Woodward scouted the territory for a new headquarters site. The company in 2007 moved its headquarters from Rockford, Illinois, to its Fort Collins site at Drake Road and Lemay Avenue.
Hemmed in at that location, the company and new CEO Gendron looked abroad.
The 101-acre Link N’ Greens Golf Course (the name played off its Lincoln Avenue location) was available for $15 million, or a whopping $150,000 per acre. After a decision to put most eggs in the downtown Fort Collins basket, Woodward purchased the land in early 2013.
So began a three-year development and construction process that defined the company’s relationship with downtown, and vice versa.
“Because Woodward chose to locate there, it gave us all the reasons to make a concerted effort for Lincoln corridor improvements,” said Matt Robenalt, executive director of the Fort Collins Downtown Development Authority. “All of the beautiful street connections that we have in place came out of that.”
Woodward was the beneficiary of DDA improvement grants that defrayed costs of campus entry features and relocation of a major Platte River Power Authority high-voltage line that bisected the property.
Fort Collins benefitted immediately from Woodward’s donation of 30 acres of land arching across the parcel’s southern tier — almost a third of the land purchased — for the development of Homestead Natural Area, tying Woodward’s campus to the Poudre River Trail and adding another direct route to Old Town’s amenities.
Woodward also invested $2.9 million in renovating the cavernous, 150-year-old Coy-Hoffman barn on the original homestead, turning it into a unique conference and meeting space that is a favorite among the company’s employees.
No matter how much money Woodward invested in its downtown location decision a decade ago, the biggest and most enduring benefit to the city is the investment that Lincoln campus’ employees make in the district’s businesses, and in their purchases and leases of downtown residential property.
While the city of Fort Collins and Larimer County each have more downtown employees than Woodward does, the company is by far downtown’s largest private employer and is likely to remain so with expansion in the forecast.
Gendron, who retired as Woodward chairman, CEO and president in early 2022, said the results of the company’s commitment to downtown line up exactly with his original intentions.
“We had two goals with that decision,” he said. “No. 1, we wanted to ensure that Woodward would have the talent that we needed going forward. Second, we wanted to enhance the city. I think we’ve done both of those things.”