That was the main thrust of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance’s annual trip to Washington, D.C., bolstered this year by its affiliation with lobbying firm Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc.
“In a broad context, we know we have to create partnerships with other cities — like Pueblo and Trinidad — and public-private partnerships as well,” said CEO Joe Raso. “We need better state partnerships with Denver and federal partnerships in Washington, D.C. We need to act now to build a strong region.”
The group of 40 — fewer than in previous years — spent four days at the nation’s capital, visiting congressional staff members, colleges, governmental agencies and the Pentagon.
By all accounts, the annual trip was the most productive one ever undertaken, said Stephannie Finley, executive director for advocacy and partnerships at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
“When I first started these trips, it was all about standing around and waiting,” said Finley. “We waited for hours for someone to speak to us. This time, the meetings were set up in advance; we’re building momentum.”
Finley initially organized the trips as former president of government affairs and public policy for the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce. The chamber merged with the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. earlier this year to create the Business Alliance.
This year’s trip reinforced the idea that the city has needed a lobbyist for years, said Scott Bryan, owner of Bryan Construction. Bryan led the effort to create the Regional Coalition for Strategic Federal Action, a public-private partnership that raised money to hire the lobbying firm for three years at a cost of $100,000 a year.
So far, Bryan says he’s pleased with the efforts from Elise Pickering, a principal with Mehlman, Vogel Castagnetti.
“The first year, we were building a relationship,” Bryan said. “And now we’re working on action plans. Of course, it’s all about results. We want a return on that investment. So we’ll see how the third year goes. But we found this time that we haven’t hired just one lobbyist, we hired an entire firm. When we talked about health care, we got their health care guy. When we talked about defense, we got their expert on defense.”
Another difference for this trip — the organization developed action plans to go along with the lessons learned in Washington. Raso said the group planned to continue to develop ideas that came to light during the trip.
Colorado Springs relies on the military and accompanying defense contractors for more than 30 percent of its economy. Bryan and Business Alliance board member Mike Jorgensen of Red Noland Cadillac headed a group that spent a day at the Pentagon.
“Ninety percent of what they do — it’s all about the budget,” Jorgensen said. “That’s important to us, to know what they’re thinking.”
And the news isn’t good. Even setting aside sequestration (which most people think will be resolved by Congress in a lame-duck session after the election), the Pentagon is facing cuts of around $450 billion.
“If there is no sequestration, we’re pretty confident that Fort Carson is safe,” Bryan said. “But it’s important that the community stay involved, stay active and let people know that the military is valued.”
And while the Army has “no appetite” for a round of base realignment and closures, known as BRAC, the same can’t be said for the Air Force.
“We’ve been told the Air Force wants to close and realign bases,” Jorgensen said. “That could be a problem.”
That’s why the Springs is working with Peterson AFB to give it room to expand at the Colorado Springs airport, he said. But the Pentagon also is watching public opinion about the military statewide and is concerned about local resources for military families.
“They made it clear that Piñon Canon is an important part of Army readiness,” Bryan said. “As it stands now, not expanding it. But we have to do a better job in Pueblo, in Trinidad, of letting people know that these aren’t just Colorado Springs assets. The military is an asset to the entire state. These are statewide assets, and having them here benefits everyone.”
Pickering and the lobbying firm were credited for helping find federal dollars to expand Interstate 25 to six lanes for 12 miles, to ease traffic congestion from just past Academy Boulevard to Monument’s city limits.
Transportation officials in D.C. also told the group that the Pikes Peak Rural Transportation Authority should help produce more state and federal dollars.
“It shows that we’re making an effort to take care of some of our infrastructure issues locally, with local money,” Raso said. “That’s a big deal in terms of funding these days.”
But the Business Alliance also is preparing to take on a larger role with the Colorado Department of Transportation, according to its action plan.
“The business community needs to play a stronger role in working with our regional partners and CDOT,” the plan said. “The Business Alliance is willing to work with the city of Colorado Springs, El Paso County and the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments to take on that responsibility. We’ll be meeting with the CDOT staff and the State Transportation Commissioners to build these relationships.”
Val Snider was one of three City Councilors on the D.C. trip, where he learned about the serious nature of flooding and erosion in the aftermath of the Waldo Canyon fire.
Again, the answer seems to lie in creating partnerships and working together.
“We need to all work together — city, county, utilities, neighborhoods,” he said. “We need to work on it as a region. There are drainage concerns in the burn area — rain and snow are going to create problems. We have to control those drainage problems.”
Undersecretary of Agriculture Harris Sherman is a Colorado College graduate and was in the Springs this summer as the fire was raging, Snider said.
“He knows the challenges; he knows the concerns,” he said. “And he says he’s willing to help however his office can. We need a disaster-preparedness plan, and we need one immediately. That way, we can tap into state and federal resources.”
The process to create an implementation plan is underway, Raso said. In fact, the Department of the Interior wants to fund three or four fire-recovery projects, he said.
One area is sure to continue to receive federal funding: cyber security. And the race is on to create higher-education programs to build a workforce ready to work in the growing sector.
“We’re ideally positioned for this,” said Raso. “We have the space assets here already. We just need to keep working on developing the workforce. If we can get federal assets here, the private companies will follow.”
The group started an informal partnership with George Mason University, a school similar to the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. The universities are the same age and are developing partnerships with the business community, said Venkat Reddy, dean for the UCCS College of Business.
“George Mason has a leadership academy, just like UCCS does,” Reddy said. “But they take it a step farther. They add coaches to follow the graduates afterward, so they can put what they learned into action.”
The Business Alliance hopes to build on relationships started in D.C. to successfully win the i6 Challenge grant from the federal government that provides technology transfer, new ventures and job creation.
Raso said the trip could be heralded as a success — at least so far. But he also said the group wasn’t content to merely go to Washington once a year and leave it.
“This is about creating relationships, and being engaged year-round,” he said. “We’re not just going to make the trip. We’re going to build on those connections.”