Bach supporters are many, despite stagnation

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When Mayor Steve Bach was campaigning last spring, his business-friendly platform included vows to create jobs, streamline the development review process and end the business personal property tax.

These, he insisted, would improve the city’s business climate.

One year later, unemployment levels are stagnant. The development review process remains unchanged and the business personal property tax is alive and well.

Whether the business climate has improved depends on whom you ask.

“I think things have improved because Mayor Bach has reached out to the business community,” said Luke Travins, co-owner of Concept Restaurants, which operates the Ritz Grill, Jose Muldoon’s, MacKenzie’s Chop House, Flatiron’s and SouthSide Johnny’s. “He’s concerned about business, and he has a list of priorities that he’s going to continue working on.”

Travins also believes some criticism the mayor has received is unwarranted.

“You know, I keep hearing that the mayor isn’t transparent; he isn’t open to talking to people,” Travins said. “Nothing could be farther from the truth. He’s out at events; he’s willing to talk to people; he’s very responsive to the business community.”

Travins is a big fan of Bach’s downtown renaissance plans, which include security cameras and possibly moving the Martin Drake Power Plant.

“He’s going to make downtown a vibrant epicenter of business and entertainment,” said Travins, who also believes the city’s alley projects hold new promise for downtown.

Not everyone sees the same signs, however.

UCCS economist Fred Crowley said a lot of work has been left undone — or ignored.

“The unemployment rate hasn’t changed. It’s stuck,” Crowley said, looking at Bach’s time in office. “He’s defined this as his role, and I’d encourage him to do it seven days a week. He should be doing it a lot. Nothing is more important than job creation.”

Job creation and business growth are the best ways to end the doomsday scenario about the city’s budget put forth by the mayor’s office, Crowley said.

“If he created jobs, brought businesses into town, then that would end the insolvency he says is looming,” Crowley said. “Crowley said he has offered to analyze the local economy for the city and Bach, and create a strategy for creating manufacturing jobs.

“But so far, no one’s taking me up on it,” he said. “But that’s what we need. We need a plan to create manufacturing jobs, and those in turn create high-paying jobs.”

A big hurdle to attracting manufacturing companies is the business personal property tax.

Manufacturers are constantly seeking to repeal the tax, which levies a fee for high-tech equipment purchases.

But City Councilman Tim Leigh believes the city can’t afford to lose the tax revenue, which amounts to about $7 million a year.

“We can’t just cut a tax because it’s unpopular,” he said. “Of course the manufacturers want to end it — it’s more money to their bottom line.”

Leigh proposed cutting the tax as an incentive for attracting business, but leaving it in place for existing businesses.

That doesn’t seem fair to Buddy Gilmore, who owns Shape Technologies and ran against Bach in the 2011 mayoral election.

“What about the businesses that are already here?” Gilmore asked. “If you give a tax break to new companies, you’re penalizing the ones that are already here, the ones that have been here for decades. That doesn’t make sense.”

He says the mayor is ignoring a major problem that’s likely to hit the city hard — personnel cuts in the military.

“I’d like to see a strategic plan for dealing with the military cutbacks that are coming,” Gilmore said. “There is a deep talent pool within the military, and when those people are out of the military, we need a plan to keep that talent here.”

Gilmore and Crowley are critical of the mayor’s progress, but that appears to be a minority opinion. Support for Bach far outweighs the criticism.

Even newcomer, Perry Sanders, who opened the Mining Exchange Hotel, views the mayor’s progress favorably.

“I think the business climate has improved dramatically,” Sanders said. “He seems to be a real no-nonsense kind of guy. He seems to really want to cut the red tape.”

Sanders has firsthand knowledge about the city’s cumbersome development review process.

City laws pushed back the historic renovation of the Mining Exchange Building. But he doesn’t blame Bach or the workers at the Pikes Peak Regional Building Department. He blames the rules.

“Those really need to be changed, especially for historic projects,” he said. “I think people realize that now.”

Sanders acknowledges that he can’t cite specific examples of the mayor’s willingness to work with businesses. Instead, he says it’s simply a “climate change.”

Kevin O”Neil, who moved Braxton Technologies into downtown early this year, is also a supporter. He said he experienced no hassles with the move.

“The mayor came down personally and said he would get us through the process,” O’Neil said. “He offered to step in whenever we got stuck. He couldn’t have been more responsive.”

Bach hasn’t taken the same approach with City Council.

“It’s hard for me to tell you what he’s been doing,” said Councilwoman Lisa Czelatdko. “He doesn’t talk to us, and he doesn’t allow us access to city staff. I know he hasn’t brought any code changes before City Council, but that’s all I can say.”

Czelatdko credits Council for recent business achievements like nabbing Wal-Mart’s planned data center and reducing Colorado Springs Utilities tapping fees for businesses.

Bach declined interview requests for this story.

“He isn’t doing stories of this kind because he doesn’t want to be criticized,” City spokeswoman Cindy Aubrey said. “And he doesn’t want to take away from the State of the City address.”

Community assessment

“It isn’t just about his promises. He created the Downtown Solutions Team that reports to Steve Cox. And there are many items on their list getting done. My perception is that he’s creating a downtown that is safe. I think with the limited resources we have; he’s working on knocking out projects that can get done immediately.

“He’s approachable; he understands the issues and he solicits input from people. He’s engaged the business community.”

— Luke Travins, co-owner Concept Restaurants

“There have been no changes in the business climate. No specifics have come out of the mayor’s office. He has not reported any reduced regulatory processes and he hasn’t gotten rid of the business personal property tax.”

— Buddy Gilmore, owner of Shape Technologies

“Mayor Bach has been noticeably good for the city. I can’t name a specific thing — but there has been a climate change and that starts at the top and works its way down. He absolutely knows the way forward, and it’s no joke — he wants businesses to succeed.”

— Perry Sanders, Mining Exchange Hotel owner

“We need to have the statistics down, an income sheet for companies. We have lower wages, lower taxes, lower utility rates. We need to tell people that this will be your income statement if you move here. But we’re not telling that story.

“The unemployment rate hasn’t changed. It’s stuck,” he said. “If he has defined this as his role, then I’d encourage him to do it seven days a week, he should be doing it a lot. Nothing is more important than job creation.”

— Fred Crowley, UCCS economics professor

“It’s hard for me to tell you what he’s been doing. He doesn’t talk to us, and he doesn’t allow us access to city staff. I know he hasn’t brought any code changes before City Council, but that’s all I can say.”

— Lisa Czelatkdo, City Council

“He’s done a lot to improve the business climate; the rapid response team will get businesses through the permitting process quickly. He’s moving fast, but improvements can’t be judged by the calendar year. Change takes time.”

— Tim Leigh, City Council