How to get there: Local economists have ideas for stimulating job growth

While Mayor Steve Bach won’t talk about his plans for job creation, local economists have ideas of their own.

“I’m intrigued by some of the options,” Tom Binnings, partner at Summit Economics, said. “I think the EDC historically has targeted the right industries — the high-tech, high-paying jobs. But maybe there are some ‘sleepers’ we should look at.”

Tourism is one of those unsung job creators, he said. While tourists add to the city’s tax revenue, the industry provides jobs.

“Many of those are low-wage, entry-level jobs,” he said. “But we need those, too.”

Binnings also points to the aging population as potential for economic growth.

“With people getting older, we’re not going to be able to follow the old health care models,” he said. “We’re going to have to do things differently — and the Springs has a history of being part of the health care solution. We could become a medical tourist destination.”

But that’s years down the road, said Fred Crowley, professor of economics at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. For immediate results, a different approach is needed.

“What do we have here that you can’t replicate somewhere else?” he asked. “That’s where we need to focus.” Crowley suggests the EDC could take a prospective company’s balance sheet and point out how relocating to the Springs could improve the bottom line.

“They keep saying we have cheaper utilities, lower property tax, lower wages,” he said. “They keep saying we’re business-friendly. We need to prove that to them. Tell companies if they move here, they can save money and show them on their balance sheets.”

Crowley says that the Chamber/EDC and city should focus their efforts on California, where taxes are high and businesses must jump through more regulatory hoops.

“We have to become more business-friendly,” he said. “It needs to be easy to do business here — but it goes beyond just easing the permitting process. We have to have it all — the right mix of arts, culture, green space. We have to invest in infrastructure.”

Traditionally, Colorado Springs Utilities doesn’t install water taps and electric lines until a developer asks — and pays — for them. Crowley said the city should change the way it views infrastructure.

“Have it ready for them,” he said. “Provide more transportation options, more utility options. We have to do more to compete.”

And the city should embrace the oil and gas industry, Crowley said. If Ultra Petroleum has success drilling on the Banning Lewis Ranch property, he says it will bring hundreds of new, high-paying jobs. If the oil or natural gas is plentiful, millionaires will be made on the eastern plains.

But that’s not the sole benefit.

“It’s the secondary jobs,” he said, “the welders, the truck drivers, the road maintenance crews. Oil and gas jobs are big multipliers.”

The same is true of data centers, which the city has courted in recent years. While the data centers don’t have high employment levels, the jobs they do offer bring money and secondary jobs to the city.

Binnings believes the strategy should focus on homegrown jobs.

“We need an emphasis on growing our own business, instead of merely attracting successes from other places,” he said. “We need to identify the startups, the small businesses that are successes and help them expand. There are all kinds of opportunities — research and development ideas at UCCS.”

The entire city should be focused on the mayor’s goal, he said.

“ We need a focused leadership, like never before,” he said. “We need to combine the efforts of the Chamber/EDC and the city — and whoever else wants to get involved. I’m confident we’re moving in the right direction.”