Springs should focus on improving its sports and outdoor economy

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The economic development research is increasingly united around the finding that industry clusters are critical to long term, sustainable growth.

This is not news to the economic development leaders of our community. Most of the studies, reports and consultant reviews have advocated cluster development.

What seems to be more at issue is where to focus the region’s energies to ensure that cluster-building efforts have a fighting chance to succeed. That is a reasonable debate, but sooner or later the debate must come to an end and a decision to focus on one or another cluster must be taken.

There are some who advocate for traditional, well-known clusters such as high technology. High tech has certainly proven to be a formidable wealth and job generating engine in the various pockets where it has thrived. Silicon Valley, Research Triangle Park, and even Boulder have distinguished themselves as global high-tech hubs and attractors of high-tech capital and talent.

Others advocate that the region pursue aggressively some of the more faddish, politically favored clusters such as cleantech, alternative energy, or sustainability ventures. This approach has some definite short term advantages in the allocation of federal and state largess. However, the long term implications of chasing one or another politically popular industry category can be damaging.

I am not alone in advocating that the region has the potential to leverage its comparative advantages in the sports/outdoors/health wellness industry category.

Comparative advantage is defined roughly as advantages that accrue from the region’s natural amenities and historical circumstances. For example, the U.S. Olympic Committee could have located somewhere else in the United States, but it happens to be here.

That is a comparative advantage of significance, and can be leveraged in many ways. It’s an accident that Pikes Peak dominates our skyline, but it is unmatched as a majestic symbol for the region’s outdoor lifestyle.

A recent issue of the Wall Street Journal featured a story on seven economic development “hotspots” in the United States. Six of the hotspots were: Albany, Asheville, Nashville, Indianapolis, Kansas City, and San Antonio.

The seventh hotspot, Ogden, Utah, was highlighted as a regional hotspot that is growing rapidly based on its developing sports/outdoors cluster.

The Wall Street Journal said, “Manufacturers are pouring into this small city, lured by easy access to Olympic facilities and pristine terrain for testing products.” Given a choice between Ogden and Colorado Springs, I doubt many would choose the former.

So why has Ogden — Ogden!! — become the go-to hotspot for sports/outdoor gear makers?

I continue to believe that there is significant upside for the region if it deliberately builds upon its comparative advantages in the sports/outdoors/health wellness category. It is imperative that the region attract what economists call “exogenous” resources to spur growth.

That is to say, the region must become an attractor of talent, money, and other resources that come from outside the region. The more exogenous resources we attract, the more there is to go around. And, importantly, if those resources are deployed and used wisely for greater productivity and growth, the region will attract even more resources in a positive cycle of success.

Entrepreneurs outside the region, when deciding whether and where to set up shop with their new sports venture, don’t currently think of Colorado Springs as the most promising place to do so. That must change.

It is vital also to note that branding exercises, banners, murals, and other promotion oriented efforts are fine, but insufficient. What will matter most is success “on the ground.” Expectations must be level set that cluster building is a decade-long process that will undoubtedly suffer some setbacks, but will also certainly realize cumulative success. It takes only a single “home run” to change the region’s prospects for generations.

One Nike or UnderArmour will provide steady employment for thousands, as well as generate numerous spinout ventures for those ready and willing to engage in riskier startup ventures for higher reward potential.

That regional economic development must be cluster-focused is no longer in dispute. The debate about which cluster to develop here seems to be narrowing to just a few, with sports/outdoors/health wellness at the center. It would seem timely to put that debate to rest and resolve to take actions that will test our common assumptions.

There can be no guarantee that success will follow, but further inaction seems inadvisable. Ogden has taken the lead, and there is no time to lose.

Duening is director of the Center for Entrepreneurship in the College of Business and Administration at UCCS. He can be reached at tduening@uccs.edu.