At a recent City Committee presentation to City Council candidates, one of the presenters stressed the importance of being a lightly regulated, aggressively business-friendly city. Candidates were reminded that we compete with scores of cities better able to offer generous incentives to relocating companies, so we’d better make sure that city policies (including low electric rates!) mirror our political philosophy.
From the back of the room, City Committee member Laura Maguire waved her hand. Maguire, who has founded a half-dozen successful companies, most recently Saligent, isn’t shy.
“We also have to support our middle-market companies,” she said.
I wondered how many of the candidates understood what she was saying, or realized how important such support may be to the future of Colorado Springs.
After the meeting, I eavesdropped as Maguire amplified her theme to a couple of listeners.
“We really do not have an entrepreneurial history,” she said. “We were a tourist town.”
Remember Quentin Tarantino’s baroque comedy, “From Dusk Till Dawn?” Most of the action takes place in a bizarre Mexican strip club, set alongside a highway in the middle of nowhere. Neon lights pulse and glow as barker Cheech Marin lures unwary tourists and truck drivers into the club. Alas for unwary visitors! The club sits atop an ancient Mayan pyramid, and the strippers are zombie vampires.
Gen. William Palmer bought thousands of acres of worthless land, ran a railroad through it, and hired Cheech Marin (I mean Dr. William Bell) to lure unwary investors to his nonexistent city. The suckers came, built fancy houses with money made elsewhere, and new barkers came to town.
Quack physicians touted the benefits of our climate to rich consumptives, while silver and gold discoveries drew thousands of fortune-seekers to the Pikes Peak region. Hundreds of companies offered shares on the local exchange, most with no assets other than ornately printed certificates. The gold ran out after a few years, but the tourists kept coming — and did we ever figure out how to extract a few bucks from their pockets!
We turned caves and waterfalls into tourist attractions, built fake cliff dwellings that outshone the real ones, and promoted Pikes Peak as if it were the real home of the Gods — Mount Olympus be damned!
That’s what we do — we monetize the weather, the mountains, the lifestyle, the views and anything else that nature provides. We gave land for Fort Carson, sold the Air Force on the magnificence of a Front Range location for its new academy, and sweet-talked the Pentagon into tucking NORAD into Cheyenne Mountain — conveniently close to The Broadmoor and its golf courses.
But where are the homegrown companies that offer products and services to regional, national and even world markets? What about creating a stable, diverse business community, one rooted in neither the military nor tourism? We’re not so good at that — so what do we have to learn?
The first thing is this: Whatever we’re doing isn’t working. Our real unemployment rate is probably close to 13 percent, our efforts to recruit relocating businesses are sluggish at best, per capita income in the city is flat to down, and we’re about to lose a big chunk of our military employment base. Whether because of municipal mismanagement or Douglas Bruce-inspired taxophobia, the city has a billion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance and capital improvements.
Worst of all, smart, entrepreneurial young people are leaving town.
Why? Because there aren’t any interesting jobs, and our entrepreneurial community doesn’t yet have the critical mass needed to create them.
We’re old, and getting older. Old people die, and aging cities fade away. Between us, my spouse and I have six adult children and 18 grandchildren and a great-grandchild on the way. None of them live here. Instead, they’re in Columbus, Denver, Louisville, New York, Unity (Maine) and Papeete. Many would move here if they could, but they have families and careers.
Absent a vibrant local economy, they’re staying put.
So what do we do? We let go of our past and forget our glorious heritage of selling the landscape. Importing companies doesn’t work — just ask yourself what cities have been most successful in attracting outside money, workers and new companies during the past 10 years. Forget millions; these cities have sucked up billions in the expectation that outside money and energy would solve their problems.
It didn’t work for them, and it won’t work for us.
Detroit? New Orleans? Cleveland? Not even close. Meet our new peer cities.
Baghdad and Kabul.