But when a recruiter called with news about an economic development position in Colorado Springs, there seemed to be something interesting going on that caught his attention, he said.
The Springs had changed its form of government; the leading business development organizations of Colorado Springs — the Chamber of Commerce and the Economic Development Corps. — had merged. And, Colorado Springs’ business leaders were out visiting innovative cities to learn their secrets of success.
“It intrigued me,” he said. “This looks like something I want to take a further dive into.”
Raso, who built his economic development career in Iowa most recently as president and CEO of the Iowa City Area Development Group, is the new president and CEO of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber and EDC. He takes the helm of the merged organization May 14.
He’ll be responsible for Main Street and regional economic development with the goal of retaining and recruiting jobs. Raso has the perfect balance of imagination and practicality, said Doug Quimby, CEO of La Plata Communities and chair of the Chamber/EDC.
“He believes in the passion of the power of ideas,” Quimby said. “But, he takes action routed in actual data and reality.”
Raso understands the Chamber/EDCs vision on how to build economic vitality, said Chris Blees, Biggs Kofford president and CEO and Chamber/EDC board member.
“We like this term ‘economic vitality,’ which the Chamber/EDC would like to better define,” Blees said. “We believe, and Joe shares this belief, that economic vitality is a combination of economic development as historically pursued by the old EDC as well as community development and business support as historically provided by the old Chamber.”
In the backdrop of retaining and recruiting jobs to the region, Raso will be structuring a new merged organization, one with a combined staff of 27, according to its website. In August, the boards of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corps. agreed to merge after 20 years of doing business separately. In January a combined board of directors was named.
Among the many issues left to resolve will be staffing.
“Merging is going to be a delicate management task,” said Dan Malinaric, Atmel managing director and Chamber/EDC board member.
The merging process has already begun, Quimby said.
“I don’t think it will be as difficult as some might think,” he said. “And, that is because of the dedication and professionalism of the staff there — they want to do what is right for the community.”
Colorado Springs taxpayers, through City Council and Colorado Springs Utilities, help fund the EDC. In 2010, taxpayers provided $310,000 of the EDC’s $1.4 million budget. The county puts in about $75,000 and major investors supply the rest. The organization, in November, reported that in the past decade companies announced the creation of 19,000 jobs in the area. Meanwhile, in November the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce reported 1,600 members.
Main Street, regional economic development and running a new merged business development organization is a tall order. But, according to Raso’s old boss — the chairman of the Iowa City Area Development Group board — he’s just the guy who can do it.
Raso has headed three regional economic development organizations, and been the director of a successful Main Street Program, which was focused on the preservation and improvement of downtown Cedar Falls, Iowa.
“One of Joe’s strengths was a good working relationship with the county, the city and the University of Iowa,” said Scott Fisher, ICAD board chairman. “He was charged with trumpeting our specific competencies and the advantages of the region — he’s done a great job.”
Raso, a native Iowan, headed the ICAD Group, a nonprofit private and public economic development group with a mission of retaining and recruiting business, for 11 years. In 2000, the ICAD Group board said they hired Raso because of his regional approach to economic development. Expanding the workforce was his No. 1 task.
Fisher said he did that. Under Raso’s direction, ICAD Group assisted in more than 79 primary business expansions and relocations that created more than 6,000 jobs including the recruitment of Acciona, a wind turbine generation assembly plant that invested $30 million into a West Branch, Iowa plant.
ICAD Group works with 10 communities across five counties along a corridor from Iowa City to Cedar Rapids. Raso said he sees great potential of a regional economic outlook along the Front Range, from Pueblo to Denver.
“You have to start by understanding who you are,” he said.
For example, the Iowa City region was perfect for the wind energy sector. The University of Iowa taught renewable energy courses, the region is located along Interstate 80, it has a skilled workforce and the state had money targeted to wind energy companies.
Once the Iowa City region decided that wind energy was an area it wanted to zero in on, Raso identified 450 companies involved with wind and developed a marketing plan that leveraged the region’s assets, Malinaric said. Development is more than just identifying a sector, like sports — a sector identified by the Colorado Springs Regional EDC as one to pursue. There has to be a targeted plan to attract businesses in those industries, he said.
“We have to be purposeful going forward,” he said.
Working with city’s economic development team, ICAD Group rolled out a “Shovel Ready Sites Program,” which takes care of issues including utilities, zoning, mapping the site, environmental protections to further attract companies. The city, Raso said, has to invest in economic development to attract heavy hitters like an international wind turbine company.
“We worked with the city of Iowa City, which invested $10 to $15 million dollars on building infrastructure,” Raso said.
Incentives have a role in economic development, Quimby said. But, they should not be the only focus.
“There are things, given where we are politically in El Paso County, that we are not able to do, like hand out cash or provide land,” Quimby said. “I don’t think, as an organization, that we are in favor of doing that anyway.”
Instead, he said the Chamber/EDC, the city and the county should develop an articulated policy regarding economic incentives for attracting new businesses but also for existing businesses.
“I think there is a commitment by the Mayor to work on economic vitality of the community,” he said. “The Council shares that desire and vision of big picture economic development.”
Raso was one of 100 applicants for the Colorado Springs Chamber/EDC post and one of eight people interviewed. He was the clear cut choice, Malinaric said. Raso matched the direction the new combined board wants to go in, he said. That includes spending as much time on small and medium business recruitment as time spent going after the big guys.
“I look at companies like Diamond Wire, when they came here they had two people and now they have 200,” Malinaric said. “We have to create an environment where business can be successful, regardless of size.”
Economic development isn’t always about recruiting the next big company, Raso said. Seventy percent of growth in any economy is from existing companies expanding. Any incentive packages and benefits should be for both incoming companies and existing companies, he said.
“Incentivizing the drivers of the economy, in my opinion, makes sense,” he said. “In all markets, those companies, that are creating a product or service, they are bringing dollars into the economy — we work with companies that have two people, 200 or 2,000.”
A community can count jobs and number of employers to tell its economic story, Fisher said. But, there has to be more to sell to potential companies. Raso developed a metric and counts everything, even the things that are out of his control, like grade school enrollment and cost of living and shares his numbers with the community, Fisher said. Last year, Raso released a report that looked at 18 metrics, including such things and bank and credit union deposits.
“It’s counting things that count,” Fisher said. “Like, what kind of mojo does the town have?”
Raso said he is not in the business of picking winners and losers in the game of economic development. Instead, he said, he would rather build a framework that helps accelerate new ideas, products and services.
“I like to frame the conversations much larger,” he said. “I don’t’ think you ignore (counting jobs.) It’s a dangerous game not to talk about it and it’s a dangerous game to only talk about it.”
Raso declined to give the details of his contract with the Colorado Springs Chamber/EDC or his salary. But, he said he’s excited to get to work. He recently spent a few days strolling downtown Colorado Springs visiting coffee shops, small businesses and city and business leaders. He spoke with members of the arts community, young entrepreneurs and University of Colorado, Colorado Springs leaders.
“I saw a connection among all the players,” he said. “All of these pieces are really important to competing globally.”