City opts for vitality over economic development

Donna Nelson is the city’s new economic vitality specialist, a position that replaces the city’s traditional economic development efforts.

In the past, the city had as many as eight people working in economic development, through the city’s finance department. But Mayor Steve Bach said he doesn’t think the city should be in the business of economic development.

“That’s for the private sector,” he said. “But I think the city’s role should be economic vitality — creating a sustainable economy. So I elevated the position, and it answers to the mayor now, instead of going up through layers of democracy.”

Nelson will be assisted by city budget analyst Bob Cope in her effort to improve the city’s business climate and build goodwill between the city and business community.

She will earn $75,000 a year.

Just days into the job, Nelson said she will be the city’s liaison for the area’s small and mid-sized businesses. Bach, she said, will focus on meeting the needs of large businesses.

“I think the mid-sized businesses are the ones that need attention,” she said. “Everyone pays attention to the smaller businesses, and everyone pays attention to the very large businesses. There’s some opportunity there to improve things.”

Nelson said she plans to work closely with the mayor to improve the city’s business climate. All that is part of the “Spirit of the Springs” initiative, a plan still in development.

Nelson, who has been heavily involved with the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, will be responsible for helping new business achieve success, Bach said.

For her part, Nelson said many of her responsibilities are still to be defined.

“It’s been a whirlwind so far,” Nelson said. “But I think once we get going, people are going to see a real difference.”

Bach campaigned on the promise of creating a more business-friendly environment. Hiring Nelson is one of the first steps toward creating that environment, he said.

“I really believe that together we can create a strong business community, get people more involved, more engaged,” he said.

And that’s where the Spirit of the Springs comes in. Bach hopes to harness enthusiasm for Colorado Springs by encouraging and celebrating what’s good about the city.

“We’re looking for ideas on this one,” he said. “How can we really celebrate who we are? How can we really get people excited?”

Bach also hopes to use the initiative to create city partnerships and to get ideas about how to run the city more efficiently, and get people more involved in city government.

“I don’t think the city staff yet represents the demographic out there,” he said. “We need to get more people involved, as staff and on committees in running the city. The Spirit of the Springs, which Donna is helping with, is going to do that.”

Spirit of the Springs will encourage people to get involved, he said.

“I didn’t know how to get involved when I was younger, how to sign up for boards,” Bach said. “We’re really going to start reaching out.”

That outreach is a major part of Nelson’s new job. The city plans to have both a Facebook and a Twitter account set up to take people’s thoughts and ideas on how to improve the diversity of city government, and how to improve the business climate.

“We’re working on a mayor’s web site too,” he said. “We plan to have all three set up in the next 30 days.”

In selecting specific staff to work with businesses, Colorado Springs is a little late to the game, said Mark Radkey, policy adviser for the Colorado Municipal League.

He said 77 percent have some sort of economic development assistance — and 100 percent of the state’s large cities do.

Fort Collins has a liaison and works toward a cooperative business climate, he said. And Aurora has narrowly focused its efforts on alternative energy start-ups.

“But most large cities like Colorado Springs have a dedicated staff to help businesses,” he said. “And the ones that do have been very, very successful.”

Municipal efforts to attract and retain industry are as varied as the state’s cities, he said.

Most of the state — 91 percent — offer tax incentives, according to a mid-year CML survey. About 80 percent provide services to small businesses.

“In some cases, that could be a liaison or it could be an incubator, space for start ups,” Radkey said.

Colorado Springs contributes a small percentage to the budget of the Chamber of Commerce, the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp. and the Colorado Springs Technology Incubator.

Other cities also provide help with redevelopment — assistance for businesses that need a new site or for developments that need new tenants.

“Others have very strong ‘buy local’ movements,” he said. “In at least one case, the permitting fees are waived for small or expanding businesses.”