New director part of Economic Forum plan

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The Southern Colorado Economic Forum, which for 14 years has provided El Paso County with the definitive local economic report and forecast, now is ready to grow in geographic footprint and community clout.

A new, expanded mission for the forum comes just as University of Colorado Colorado Springs professors Fred Crowley and Tom Zwirlein announced they both are stepping down as co-directors of the forum, which is a university and community research partnership.

“What we have here is a transition,” said Ron Chernak, president of First Business Brokers and founding partner of the forum.

“This was not a spur-of-the-moment decision. Now as Fred and Tom are approaching the next stage of their careers, we asked, ‘How can we make this better?’ ”

The vision is to expand the forum’s footprint, make more frequent community presentations, generate more data relevant to business decisions, help define UCCS and community partnerships and bring on a full-time director whose only mission is the forum, Chernak said.

Both professors, Zwirlein a professor of finance and Crowley a professor of economics, were devoted to the forum, Chernak said. But both worked for the forum part-time and still had teaching duties at UCCS.

Now they want to spend more time teaching and work on other projects before they retire.

“I decided after 16 years as director of the forum that if I also step aside we could hire a full-time person who could devote more time and effort to the forum and its activities,” Zwirlein said.

“What is really foremost is, we want to find a person who can take this to the next level and make sure the forum is really successful.”

Behind the scenes, the professors and the forum’s business partners have been preparing for the transition for more than a year. The team already has received, and sifted through, applications for the position of director. A leading candidate from Michigan is expected to visit next week.

A new director could be on board by July 1, Chernak said.

“I think UCCS is really a great community resource and we are just tapping a small fraction of that potential,” Chernak said.

“This public/private partnership can really go a long way — there is a vast potential that we are not fully utilizing with the community.”

The forum has come a long way since it was conceived.

Years ago, Chernak attended an economic forum in Boulder where university professors had made an economic forecast based on local data. He wanted a similar comprehensive report for El Paso County and approached then-UCCS Chancellor Linda Bunnell with the idea.

Zwirlein and two other professors launched the forum in 1996 and began work on a report that included such economic indicators as housing sales, retail sales, and reports on industry sectors, such as manufacturing and health care.

Based on all the data, the professors then gave an economic forecast — something that has proven to be invaluable to El Paso County businesses, Chernak said.

The forum attracted about 225 people for the release of the first report. This year, there were more than 600 awaiting the 2012-13 forecast, which included up-to-date information about the Waldo Canyon fire and projections about how the rebuilding effort will affect the economy.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do is position the university as the definitive and unbiased source for critical economic information for the Pikes Peak region,” Chernak said.

“People look at that report from a standpoint of planning their business — from staffing to capital expenditures to trying to determine whether there is an upward trend.”