Time for city to realize aerospace’s value

We think we know everything that’s going on around us. We think we fully understand the details, the priorities and the needs of our military and its related high-tech presence.

Whether we are business leaders, elected officials or media observers, we try to keep up, try to pay close attention, and most of us feel like that’s sufficient.

I’m here to tell you, it’s not even close to enough.

As comfortably informed and appreciative as we might feel, we go to one special lunch and find out how shallow our understanding really is.

So it was last week as the Business Journal sponsored another in our “power lunch” series, this one focusing on aerospace and its value to the regional economy. Not just the Colorado Springs area, but the entire state, as well as how the big players are dealing with federal budget cuts.

“We have to continue to tell the story, and Colorado Springs is a huge part of it.”

— Maj. Gen. Martin Whelan,

USAF Space Command

 

Trouble was, after lunch and introductions, we only had a little more than 30 minutes. That’s like having a salad at The Famous and then not touching the filet mignon. We could have sat there for hours, absorbing all that the expert panel had to say about what’s going on in the aerospace world and why we should care.

Nearly 100 people were hanging on every word. Too bad it wasn’t 500, or more, because at least that many needed to hear it, no matter how deep the aerospace language and details might be. We just have to be led by the hand.

The panel of willing hand-holders included Maj. Gen. Martin Whelan, director of requirements at Air Force Space Command headquarters; Vicky Lea, head of the Colorado Space Coalition; Brig. Gen. (retired) Russ Anarde, Northrop Grumman corporate lead executive for Colorado Springs; and Frank Backes, CEO of Springs-based Braxton Technologies.

“We’re having lots of budget fun,” Whelan said sarcastically to start the conversation, “but we still have to sell people on the fact that space is vital. We have to continue to tell the story, and Colorado Springs is a huge part of it.”

For years, that kind of story likely would begin with talking about NORAD and its role, which continues today. But now these discussions invariably begin with another well-known acronym, GPS, because the Global Positioning System actually should be our most prized possession.

Most people know about GPS and how it has changed our lives, but few know it came from the military and fewer still realize that every aspect of the GPS satellite system is overseen from Colorado Springs at Schriever Air Force Base. So when a two-star like Whelan says the Space Command spends $3.5 billion a year along the Front Range, that’s long-term economic impact.

“These are tough fiscal times,” Whelan said, “but if we dried up and went away, it would be bad for Colorado Springs.”

So far, the general reported, the Space Command has been able to tighten its belt as much as possible “by not cutting the grass as much” and even using bathroom air dryers instead of paper towels. But more cuts would have a deeper impact.

Lea shared the fact that Colorado’s aerospace industry has grown 20 percent in the past 10 years (through the recession), with more than 400 companies now, including 54 percent with fewer than 10 employees but still with a niche that matters. Her task is to continue that growth, not just in the Denver area but here.

Backes talked about how Braxton feels it must help with the cost savings by finding better ways to automate GPS satellite control, adding that “it’s a 10-year project that we’re trying to do in two years.” Then there’s the basic Braxton strategy, serving as its own economic development entity, working to acquire vital companies and move their headquarters (and people) to Colorado Springs.

Anarde underscored the importance of Schriever, how Northrop Grumman has 1,000 staff working in the Springs, and how 70 percent of them have been in the industry no more than 10 years. He also emphasized the need for our area to do even more to cultivate and educate a larger workforce just for aerospace, because many jobs go unfilled without qualified applicants.

But nobody on the panel acted as though federal funding should be a given, but rather dependent on the industry being accountable. As Anarde put it, there’s nothing wrong with “challenging the way government does business.”

All too soon, this lunch ran out of time. And practically everyone left with the same feeling: We need to have more conversations such as this, nurturing awareness and helping shape local priorities, such as doing more than ever to educate and produce a more capable aerospace workforce.

Not someday, but as soon as humanly possible.