Expectations high for new Chamber/EDC CEO

Filed under: Daily News,Economic Development,Print | Tags:, ,

Joe Raso started his job Monday as the first CEO of the newly merged Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Corp. — and he has his work cut out for him.

He’s faced with melding two sets of workers, consolidating the organizations’ missions and defining a new entity — all while learning the lay of the land in a city much different than liberal Iowa City, where he spent 17 years in economic and business development.

Raso says he’s well aware of the challenges and believes that creating a unified economic vision will be the key to success.

“That’s how I see my job,” he said, “to work with the leadership to develop a single vision for not just business development, but community development. This is a broad statement, but too often, we get excited about change for the sake of change. And this isn’t about mere change; this is about strategies for the type of business community we want here. We’ll figure out what the drivers are; what type of industries work well here; what businesses we already have resources for.”

Raso said he intends to focus on certain efforts that can be measured and controlled — like events, recruitment trips, how many times the organization visited companies. Then he’ll focus on things that he can impact — creating an environment where a business owner or board of directors wants to expand and grow. And then he’ll focus on gathering data for a better overall business picture.

“I know that if we have the data to give companies, things we can measure, then that will give us a better picture of the work that needs to be done,” he said. “We need to know things like how many primary companies here own the buildings as opposed to how many lease — businesses who own tend to stay while those who lease can pick up and move.”

That type of analysis is what Chamber/EDC board member Chris Blees says won him the job.

“I think he knows what he’s getting into,” Blees said. “He interviewed us just as much as we interviewed him. He asked for lists of names of people to talk to, he asked for so much information — it was one of the things that impressed us about him.”

Blees said the board had taken the new organization as far as it could — and now was placing its faith in Raso.

“We have many initiatives that are about 60 percent finished,” he said. “But we always ran into: is this a board issue or should this be something the CEO leads? We’re pretty relieved to have him here, and have him take on some of these plans and ideas.”

Blees said the group’s goal is to have economic growth equal to or greater than population growth. For Raso, that goal dovetails perfectly with what he wants to accomplish.

“First and foremost we want to be a business development organization that advocates for policies that drive growth for good, quality business in the region,” Raso said.

That doesn’t mean that the chamber will stop focusing on member services, or that the EDC will stop recruiting primary employers, he said. But there will be an increased focus on small business, startups, entrepreneurs and existing businesses that create the bulk of economic development within the city.

“These things seem simple, but they aren’t easy to implement,” he said. “It makes sense, though. We’ll have to be diligent, and we’ll have to work with elected officials to make sure the environment is a positive one for business.”

Raso recognizes the potential of the strong military and defense-contractor presence. The challenge, he said, is to maintain that growth while also growing the private sector. It is estimated that the military and private defense contractors represent nearly 48 percent of jobs in the Springs.

“In Iowa City at one time, one out of every two people held public sector jobs,” he said. “Now that’s one out of three people. It’s not because the public sector shrank; it’s because we grew the private sector.”

UCCS economics professor Fred Crowley hopes Raso’s prior success will transfer here.

“He comes to us with experience from another city,” Crowley said. “And some of that experience will transfer here. But it’s what’s different about us that he’ll have to master.

“He’ll have to figure out what we have here that can’t be duplicated elsewhere and build on those strengths. That way, no company can be swayed by huge tax incentives in another state. It’ll be too costly for them to leave.”

Crowley said he knows the city’s political climate and attitudes about government and taxation can be a daunting to outsiders.

“It’s not always easy being the new kid on the block in the Springs,” said Crowley, “and people will be watching what he does. He has a lot to learn — and he’ll have to learn it under scrutiny. I hope people give him the chance to succeed.”