Business Alliance blazes new trail, but not everyone follows

Colorado Springs’ main economic development organization has a new name, new logo and new direction.

Many involved with the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance are excited about the possibilities. But some business owners and business advocacy groups feel left out of the process.

New CEO Joe Raso says he wants to fix that, and business leaders should feel free to call him.

“Put my cell number in the paper,” he said. “I want people to reach out, to let us know what we can do for them.” Raso’s number is 319-936-5610.

The Business Alliance has been busy behind the scenes in the first six months since the merger between the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce and the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. However, there’s been little public activity, and more than a little criticism.

During the past six months, the alliance’s board has worked to streamline the organization, Raso said.

“We found ways to be more effective and efficient with our members’ money,” he said. “We’ve been working with government affairs and finding ways to collaborate on that with other organizations, and we plan to do more collaborative partnerships. We’re working to make sure we’re meeting individual, existing companies’ needs, and we’re doing that on a consistent basis.”

Board member Toby Gannett said he hopes that people give the Business Alliance the chance to be successful.

“I think there’s a real spirit of cooperation now,” he said. “We’re committed to a very visible, open process, and we’re interested in hearing any and all comments. I know I’ll answer any phone calls, and so will the rest of the board.”

The group is creating industry councils to assist staff members in developing business plans. For instance, the Business Alliance recently convened a group of graphic artists, public-relations specialists and advertising agencies to assist in creating a single message. It developed a Defense Industry Advisory Council and an Aerospace and Defense Industry Cluster Team. Its Legislative Affairs Council is still active.

The emphasis, Raso says, is to get more people involved in the Business Alliance’s efforts. No one should be left on the sidelines.

“Before, we had one staff member dedicated to something like existing businesses,” he said. “Now we have a team of people — not just people working here, but volunteers who can help get to businesses, to report concerns, to help where we can. The process will be ongoing; we’re just beginning.”

Raso acknowledges the merger has forced the organization to be leaner. In place of a full-time government affairs position, he’s contracted with Kevin Walker of Walker Strategies to handle some lobbying efforts and oversee committees dealing with governments.

“That just happens when two organizations merge,” Raso said. “So far, we’ve had a positive response from people.”

There’s been other visible progress, he said. The group worked with Comcast for 18 months to bring jobs to the region, and recently hosted an event to discuss defense cuts that featured three senators, John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

In Raso’s five months on the job, the alliance also has focused internally on its mission.

That mission includes taking care of all kinds of existing businesses, continuing its leadership role in government affairs, and improving communications with the community. The group also hopes to create a workforce development system that will meet future high-tech needs and establish a culture of innovation.

However, there are people saying that they’re left out of the process — particularly small-business owners and entrepreneurs.

Local criticism

Colorado Springs native John Whitten felt like an outsider even before the merger. But he said he wanted to become more involved, so he recently reached out to the alliance.

His requests fell on deaf ears, he says.

As senior vice president at Colorado Springs State Bank, Whitten is a member of the Business Alliance but says he hasn’t yet decided whether to continue.

“I’m not a large donor, not a big shot,” he said. “But I am someone who knows about bringing business to this community. I’ve been doing it for decades. I have businesses in my office, mom-and-pop stores, neighborhood shops. It’s not sexy, but they show up and they stay here.”

Whitten said he had high hopes for the new organization — that it would start with a new sense of purpose, giving everyone a seat at the table.

As a lender, Whitten says he sees small-business owners every day, struggling to make ends meet.

“They’re trying to make it work,” he said. “How is this group helping them do that? And they have some input, some perspective that could be valuable to the group as well. We need an active conversation. Instead, I have small businesses talking to me; they’re not talking to Joe (Raso). Banks like mine, we have a different perspective, and we have some experience that’s valuable.”

Debbie Miller, CEO of the Woodland Park Chamber of Commerce, says she questions if the group is interested in regional partners. The Business Alliance, she says, seems solely focused on Colorado Springs, and isn’t the partner it once was.

“I’ve been invited to the Washington, D.C., trip every year for the past two years,” she said. “In fact, when we met with Sec. Salazar (Ken, secretary of the interior) he noted the regional focus of the group, and said it was a good thing. Pueblo’s chamber was represented as well. Neither of us were invited back this time.”

Gannett said the group was looking north, south and west for regional partners.

“One thing we learned from the Austin trip is that you have to be regional in your efforts,” he said. “It’s the only way to be successful. We’re working closely with the Southern Colorado Business Partnership, and we’re developing a good, strategic plan.”

Looking north

Mike Schmidt, owner of Ensemble Ventures in Monument and chairman for the Colorado Springs Entrepreneurial Group, believes the organization isn’t interested in homegrown businesses, the ones that start from the ground-up. Despite conversations with Business Alliance board members, he said his ideas to bring venture capital to fledgling businesses had largely been ignored.

So he’s going to Denver. He’s having conversations with the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce to get his organization’s ideas off the ground.

“I’ve been an outspoken critic of the former Chamber for years,” he said. “So I started this group, the Colorado Springs Entrepreneurs. We now have 420 members, and we don’t charge a dime for membership fees. We’re one of the largest entrepreneurial groups in the state, and we’re guiding it toward smaller companies, those people who are fighting in the trenches.”

The Business Alliance doesn’t give the right resources to those small businesses, focusing too much on networking, he says.

“We need a different approach,” he said. “We need capital sources, funding sources, web strategies — the real blocking and tackling support for what they’re doing.”

Gannett says that the group is developing a strategic plan that will provide the needed business support and job growth the community needs. But he doesn’t expect everyone will get on board.

“But whenever you try to tackle the big issues, there are going to be naysayers all along the way,” he said. “It’s just going to take time. Combining two organizations is a major endeavor, cultures don’t merge quickly. And there were people who were very, very loyal to the Chamber and people very, very loyal to the EDC, who didn’t agree with the merger. Our job as a board – as Joe’s job as CEO – is to prove that it was the right decision. And that’s going to take time.”