After first year, lobbyist’s work just beginning

Lobbyist Elise Pickering

It’s been about a year since lobbyist Elise Pickering was hired for an annual salary of $100,000 to represent the Pikes Peak region in Washington, D.C.

Since then, there has been little tangible progress and few federal dollars have made their way to Colorado Springs.

But no one seems to be concerned.

The public/private consortium that pays her salary isn’t complaining. Pickering says she’s making headway, and other officials here say they’re happy with the results so far.

Pickering says a tough political climate is to blame for the lack of progress, but contends that she’s making headway in laying the groundwork for better times.

It’s true that the federal government has been tied up with repeated continuing budget resolutions for months, and that few politicians agree on any single spending measure.

Pickering’s biggest focus is on upcoming transportation opportunities.

If Congress passes the transportation bill that’s being considered, Colorado Springs will have federal money to widen Interstate 25 north of Academy Boulevard to the county line.

But there’s uncertainty about that bill’s future, Pickering admits.

And that uncertainty, she says, has made her job so difficult in the year since she was hired.

Stephannie Finley, government affairs president for Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC, said Pickering’s work, especially on the transportation bill, is reason to celebrate.

“This is a major victory,” she said. “We’ve been battling to widen I-25 north of Academy for years — now it’s more than just talk, now it could be happening.”

The move is important for local business because it makes it easier for commercial traffic to move between the Springs and Denver and Fort Collins.

“It will really make a difference,” she said.”

Another major victory is one that doesn’t really rely on Congress, Finley said. Local businesses were concerned about being able to bid for federal construction projects — such as the ones available at Fort Carson or the Air Force Academy.

“There was a concern that the metrics the federal government used were keeping local bidders out, that the contracts were going to firms in New York, or Seattle,” she said. “Those decisions weren’t particularly helpful to small businesses.”

With the help of Scott Bryan, owner of Bryan Construction, the city’s lobbying firm was able to “turn the tide,” Finley said.

“They were allowed to bid on things they weren’t before,” she said. “And that’s huge for local construction companies.”

Finley also points to funding for the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center, the only one in the state, which is located in Colorado Springs. Money for the PTAC is assured for another year, provided the local office can match federal money.

Pickering agrees that there have been a few successes, but she also admits that the current climate at the capitol makes it difficult.

“It’s hard to find a consensus — on anything,” she said. “A few years ago, the money was flowing, particularly for defense. Now we’re held hostage to the political environment.”

But that’s not all bad, she said. Instead, she’s using the time to make sure the Springs coalition — made up of businesses and local governments — can get in to see the state’s federal delegation and can meet with senior members of the Department of Defense.

“The military is a vital part of the Colorado Springs economy,” she said. “Building those relationships is vital, should there be more cuts.”

Those cuts probably won’t include another base realignment and closure committee, she said.

“There’s not much appetite for that right now,” she said. “But that’s not to say we’re not prepared. We have to be ready and we have to give support to those missions the Springs holds. We’ll do that if it comes up. The Springs is in a good position to keep its mission, should we go down that road.”

Other priorities that Pickering is tracking on behalf of the Springs: health care grants, local business grants, recalibration of federal gas tax, energy opportunities. There has been little movement on those items.

The grants also don’t rely on Congressional consensus, but operating on continuing budget resolutions instead of passing new budgets makes it difficult for federal agencies to plan.

“We’re going after those, but again, the environment’s been difficult,” she said. “So we’re trying to be flexible, see what’s out there and get our name in.”

But Pickering doesn’t think the biggest success belong to her, or the lobbying firm of Mehlman, Vogel and Castignetti. Instead, she credits the partnership that made the lobbying effort available in the first place.

The Colorado Springs chamber took the lead, and brought in the Colorado Springs Economic Development Corp, Colorado Springs Utilities, Pikes Peak Realtors Association, Ent Federal Credit Union, El Paso County, the Colorado Association of Mechanics and Plumbers, the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments and Developer Gary Erickson.

Each chipped in $10,000 to pay for the lobbyist. The effort is the first of its kind, and Finley says it is gaining attention from other cities.

“We’ve been asked to present the idea at the National Association of Counties,’ she said. “People are interested in what we’re doing — it’s getting national attention.”

The entire process has had a steep learning curve, Finley said. The city has never had its own lobbyist and struggled to understand the way things are done in Washington. For instance, when Transportation Sec. Ray LaHood was in Denver, he spoke to the Springs coalition as well.

“And he told us exactly what it takes to get some of these transportation projects done,” she said. “These other communities, who have gotten millions had millions over the years, have done it the right way. They settled on one or two priorities, and they stuck with it. No matter what, they stuck with those priorities and presented them year after year.”

That was new information to the Springs’ coalition, which is working on developing a long-term plan to go after more transportation dollars.

Overall, both the chamber-led partnership and the federal lobbyist believe the city is poised to make things happen at the capitol.

“I think things are falling into place,” Finley said. “We’ll have successes to count. Believe me, if we don’t, we won’t be able to keep the coalition together. These are people who are very pragmatic, very results-oriented. But I’m confident we’ll see some movement.”