Two weeks from now, the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance will take a group of business leaders on what has become an annual trip to another city that can provide ideas of what has worked and what hasn’t — not for us to duplicate, but perhaps adapt for our purposes.
This time it’s Omaha, Neb., which does have characteristics in common with Colorado Springs, including a strong Air Force presence and an ambitious branch of the state university. There’s no doubt Omaha, having undertaken other major projects — including a baseball stadium and an arena — will provide ideas and inspiration for those who see a revitalized downtown as crucial to Colorado Springs’ future.
But another source might give us guidance on the economic development front. It’s the area of northwest Florida that surrounds the huge Eglin Air Force Base, which houses the new F-35 fighters as well as weapons testing, Air Force Special Operations at adjacent Hurlburt Field, and the Army’s 7th Special Forces on its 720-plus square miles.
Eglin’s varied operations have a total of 5,100 civilian employees, a major chunk out of that market area’s population, recently pegged at 249,000. Add in the defense contractors there, and a whopping 68 percent of the job market is tied to the military in some way.
So now, with sequestration’s federal budget cuts and furloughs becoming reality, the impact could damage that area’s entire economy. And that’s despite having a strong tourism industry, as does Colorado Springs. They have the Gulf of Mexico; we have the mountains.
What can we learn? A respected economist in the Eglin/Fort Walton Beach area, David Goetsch, recently said this to the Northwest Florida Daily News: “We’re trying not to have all of our eggs in one basket. As good as the military is at giving us a good stable economy, it’s just not as dependable anymore as it used to be.”
Goetsch also said this of the military: “It’s a turning down industry, not a growth industry. If you have your manufacturing and engineering base 100 percent dependent on government contracts and government contracts go down by 25 percent, then we go down by 25 percent. Can you find enough new business in other new sectors to replace that 25 percent or even grow a little?”
How does that happen? In Northwest Florida, some defense contractors are working harder to diversify their business and find clientele outside the military.
Also, economic development folks there are working with the University of Florida on a different partnership — making that area a major center for testing and developing of “unmanned aerial vehicles” or, as they’re also called, drones.
Sure, a big part of the drone business relates to the military, but we’re hearing more and more about “unmanned vehicles” being used in public safety and in remote areas (pipelines, etc.).
Why couldn’t Colorado Springs pursue that same direction? As another Florida economist put it, “The thought is, if you could get the third leg to the stool, you could kind of protect yourself no matter what’s happening.”
Like northwest Florida, Colorado Springs is looking for that third leg to the stool — and perhaps a fourth. The more legs, the more stable we can be.