Broken record for business – when will we ever learn?

Filed under: Hazlehurst,Print | Tags:,

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.”

Maguire’s right.

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.

4 Responses to Broken record for business – when will we ever learn?

  1. Included as being part of a ‘hard-core fiscal conservative’ would be that which encourages you to at lease invest enough in your community to keep from losing what you have already paid to attain and avoid the high cost of rebuilding it at higher cost in the future?

    There would seem to be a small, but important difference in being conservative and well-run – – and conservative but broke, run down and unattractive to suitors?

    “Whether because of municipal mismanagement or Douglas Bruce-inspired taxophobia, the city has a billion-dollar backlog of deferred maintenance and capital improvements.”

    How will those in office on a ‘no new taxes’ platform – and those running for office with the same philosophy, deal with the backlog John describes when they get into office with no revenue sufficient to meet the needs of the future? Perhaps the answer lies in how we select candidates for city council. If you are for no new taxes, at least provide a detailed summary of how all needs will be met with existing revenues.

    Richard D. Wehner
    March 12, 2013 at 10:43 am

  2. This is an excellent article Mr. Hazlehurst. Investing locally is the only answer to a vibrant economy and community.

    Jill Gaebler
    March 12, 2013 at 11:19 am

  3. Another great article, John! I couldn’t make it in the Springs. I was employed full-time for only 5/30 months that I was there. I was volunteering 60 hours a month in order to find the right connections.

    It is beautiful. The people were amazing and I am happy to have met them. But I couldn’t find a job. When my sister asked me to come back to Cleveland to help with her kids, I found jobs that I was interested in, a welcoming community of entrepreneurs, and have been on more interviews in the past month than I had in 6 months of trying in the Springs.
    I failed in CoS. But it doesn’t have to be that way for all ambitious young people.

    Ken Brickman
    March 12, 2013 at 2:19 pm

  4. Excellent article. There are more than anecdotal stories of where we are headed: COPTs did not decide to sell their portfolio here because they saw a rosy future. Frontier did not scale back their operations because they were making too much money. A recent prospect update from the Business Alliance said we lost a beauty contest to south side Denver Metro simply because we didn’t have the necessary numbers of qualified young workers here. And if all of that isn’t bad enough, here is the really bad news: we are going to suffer under DOD cuts. Guarantied. It’s not about the Sequester, rather, the fact that defense spending will go down and the Springs will be negatively affected by that decrease. One of the other writers notes that it is a hard sell to get people to invest here when they see we don’t like to invest here ourselves. All too true.

    Kent Karber
    March 12, 2013 at 3:15 pm