Economic vitality chief facing an uphill battle

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Steve Cox, the city’s new economic vitality manager, has a long to-do list.

He isn’t daunted by the size of the task or by his lack of business experience.

A public servant of sorts for most of his career, Cox has served as fire department chief, interim city manager and deputy city manager. The economic vitality manager position is his latest government job, and comes with one of the city’s highest annual salaries — about $184,000.

Cox says it’s his community roots that qualify him for the job, rather than business experience.

“I am uniquely suited to the position,” he said. “I was born and raised in Colorado Springs, I can get people on the phone, I can get in touch with the right people to make things happen. I am aware not only of how public safety works, I know how all of government works.

“I’ve never pretended to know everything there is to know about business,” Cox said. “But what I do need to know will come over time.”

Making government work more efficiently will be part of his job — something he calls “getting government out of the way.”

“We’re going to take a look at internal city policies and procedures and see if we can’t make those more efficient,” he said. “We don’t want businesses to have to go through a long list of policies, procedures and permits, ones that could be unnecessary.”

While regulatory reform is on the top of Cox’s priority list, creating incentives for job development isn’t.

“Right now, we’re giving tax breaks on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “But fundamentally, we don’t want to pick winners or losers. We want to work to build the entire region.”

Jobs aren’t high on his list either — although he admits they are needed in Colorado Springs, a place where the unemployment level is higher than in other urban areas in the state.

“We think that creating the right business climate will bring jobs here — and grow new companies,” he said. “Jobs are important, but governments don’t create jobs.”

So if he isn’t counting jobs or incentive packages, how will he gauge his success?

Cox said it isn’t about a checklist but rather about building relationships.

For instance, he recently traveled to California with Gov. John Hickenlooper and Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. The three made the trip to thank companies that have a presence in Colorado, as well as pitch the state to other businesses.

It’s the first time someone from the Springs has been along on a state recruiting trip.

“We just don’t have the relationship with the state that we should,” he said. “There’s not been any relationship at all. And we definitely don’t have one with Denver.”

Even if no new businesses move to the Springs as a result of the trip, Cox said new businesses in Denver benefit the region as a whole.

He won’t be recruiting new business, either. That’s the job of the Economic Development Corp.

“I won’t be competing with them, or copying what they do,” he said. “When appropriate I might go on a recruiting trip, but that’s only when they need to show that they have the government’s support.”

Part of Cox’s salary comes from $70,000 the city used to give to the EDC. Colorado Springs Utilities is still a major investor in the EDC, however.

Regulatory reform and better statewide relationships are just two of the items on Cox’s list. He plans to keep an eye on developments at Banning-Lewis Ranch, as well.

The planned development at Banning Lewis Ranch fell flat when the developer filed for bankruptcy in 2010. In the foreclosure auction last year, Ultra Petroleum bought the lion’s share of the property for oil and gas exploration.

Since them, the city has been dealing with drilling regulations, something that’s new to city leadership.

“It’s a big issue,” Cox said, “and we want to make sure we’re doing the right thing. It’s important to the city.”

He’s also planning a downtown renaissance, he said. And that renaissance could include space for start-up companies who need offices, telephones and Internet connections.

“Think about it,” he said. “If you’re a small startup, you might just need a place to get on a computer, and start to brainstorm. I think there are places downtown that will make that sort of micro-incubator possible. It’s definitely an idea. Those are the people we need to keep here — the ones with ideas for businesses, for new products, new technologies.”

Cox also plans to visit the five military bases in Colorado Springs — The Air Force Academy, Fort Carson, Peterson Air Force Base, Schriever Air Force Base and Cheyenne Mountain Air Station.

The military, he acknowledges, is a vital part of the city’s economy.

“We are maintaining a relationship with them, and they all say that the city has been very responsive to their needs, and in showing their appreciation,” he said. “So, what we’re hoping is that we can attract more missions to the area’s military.”

During a time of military cutbacks, that could be possible if the base realignment and closure commission start meeting again.

“We have 100,000 veterans here, so obviously, the military likes to live here, and they like to live here when they retire,” he said. “It’s a big plus for us — and we hope that gives us a headstart if they start moving missions.”

The South Academy Great Streets project is also one of Cox’s priorities in 2012. South Academy has many empty strip malls and empty retail spaces. Cox hopes to fill them, with redevelopment and infill projects.

Finally, his job will be to oversee the city’s participation in major tourist events. He cites last year’s Pro-Cycling Challenge as an example.

“That was a huge success,” he said. ‘And the city is always a partner in those events. We need to make sure we’re attracting as many of those types of quality-of-life events as we can.”

The reason is that Cox said they not only bring in outside tourism dollars, they also keep young professionals engaged and involved.

“We have to become a city that attracts and keeps these young people,” he said. “A vibrant city, where there are things to do, always something going on.”