Andy Merritt started work at the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance this week — inheriting the uncertainity surrounding federal defense cuts and the opportunity to help expand the region’s defense-related businesses.
Merritt replaces Brian Binn as the Business Alliance’s new chief defense industry officer, a job with a new title and new direction. Binn, now at the Air Force Academy, was president of the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce’s military affairs division, but left after the group merged with the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp.
Merritt will manage business development, legislative affairs and community outreach for the defense industry. He’s no stranger to defense, as former district director for U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Denver and, before that, a cavalry officer and graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y.
Merritt talked to the CSBJ about his new position and goals.
What interested you in the Business Alliance?
Over the last year or so, I had a growing realization that I wanted to find a position that would allow me to do something to more directly support my community. I have also spent much of my adult life either in the military or supporting it from outside, and I hoped to continue to be able to do that. When the position of chief defense industry officer was announced, I saw it as a perfect blending of my two priorities and jumped at it.
What are some of the greatest challenges you’ll have?
Clearly the biggest challenge is the looming cuts in the defense budget as a result of the sequester, though I think the mere uncertainty that has been left in place by Congress not resolving the issue has had negative economic impacts. I say that because uncertainty in a sector causes companies not to hire additional people or make research and capital investments that could bring growth.
There are many potential outgrowths of the budget cuts that also present challenges, such as other communities and congressional delegations pushing to move key commands or operations out of Colorado Springs and to their communities, or considerations of insourcing jobs within DoD that are now performed by private companies. All of these would be argued as cost savings, though the supporting evidence is often quite dubious at best.
Of course, challenges often are accompanied by opportunities and we will be actively seeking those out as well.
With the sequester still in place, how can defense companies prepare for an uncertain future?
I think companies have already made some preparation by holding off on new projects and not incurring new debt given the uncertainties of revenue. I am also hearing from some companies that they are trying to find new markets outside of defense or in foreign markets for their products and services, something I believe we at the Regional Business Alliance can help them with.
What are some of the skills you bring?
I have quite a diverse background that I intend to use to help companies across our community. The most obvious one, given our biggest challenge, is my experience in the legislative arena, where I can try to help navigate the waters to minimize the impacts of sequestration as well as seek out new opportunities that will arise. Congress very well may seek to set some new priorities for DoD as they grapple with resolving budget cuts and we need to arm our delegation to make the case for our programs and bases, as well as prepare to jump at any new priority.
In addition, the budget situation may bring up old solutions like the possibility of additional Base Realignment and Closure (BRAC) rounds. I have been through three prior BRACs, working with the potentially impacted communities and bases, preparing testimony and appearing before the BRAC commission, and strategizing with leaders about what opportunities might exist for us within that process. We need to be prepared and proactive.
I also have developed an extensive network of contacts around the state and in the halls of Congress and the Pentagon that I will be tapping into. Those contacts include industry leaders, elected officials and agency officials and offer us the chance to get in front of key people and tell our story. We have a great one to tell: low taxes, low cost of living, an educated workforce, access to key military leaders, a supportive community, a cluster of companies big and small to partner with, top notch educational institutions. There is plenty here for companies looking to expand or move out of bad business environments elsewhere.
What are the goals for your first year?
To fully integrate all of our defense and military assets into our organization, work with our state and federal delegations on understanding the needs of this critical sector in our state, gain a more complete understanding of the companies in our community working in this sector through personal visits, and increase participation in the events we hold relating to the sector.