Business Alliance lays out positive plans

So, you might be wondering, what has the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance done for us lately?

From one statistic, which President and CEO Joe Raso smartly chose to lead off his RBA member investor briefing Tuesday, that answer might not be so positive.

Raso informed the audience of business leaders that on Dec. 13, 2000, more than 13 years ago, the total number of people working in the Colorado Springs market was calculated at 255,300.

Then he asked the crowd to look at a PowerPoint slide showing the number employed as of December 2013.

No kidding: 255,300. (Remarkably, a quick search found that same number once again — 255,300 — for July 2006.)

Actually, given the thousands of manufacturing jobs that vanished from the local landscape during that time, one might conclude that being the same today as in 2000 could have been far worse. Of course, in the world of economic development, yesterday’s downturns and recessions quickly lose their relevance.

So with that as the prelude, Raso spent more than an hour describing what the Business Alliance has done over the past year, how its priorities have evolved, and what specific goals the organization has set for the next five years.

First, the 2013 bullet points: Nine new companies totaling 934 primary jobs, serious contacts with 35 companies or site selectors about possibly locating here, success in helping secure $30 million in federal flood mitigation funding, and another victory in removing the Piñon Canyon Maneuver Site from being an annual political football in Congress.

That’s where Raso began making a point that he would reiterate.

“As you can see, elephant hunting is not our focus as much anymore,” Raso said, referring to many cities obsessing over big-time companies with many hundreds if not thousands of jobs. Instead, he emphasized, the rising priority now is developing a strong entrepreneurial community and cultivating young professionals — ingredients that many site selectors want to see.

Adding nearly 1,000 primary jobs does make a noticeable difference, as Raso shared with a projected three-year impact totaling $75.1 million in added local expenditures. That breaks down to an additional $29 million for housing, $7.6 million for car purchases, $7.4 million for groceries and $6.8 million in utilities, with the list continuing beyond that.

And with the improving economy, the Business Alliance still is working on more companies — even perhaps a few elephants — that might put operations here, adding eight new prospects with 800 potential jobs to that “maybe” list in January. Raso said that now means a total of 25 “active projects” that could provide 1,867 jobs and, perhaps even more importantly, more than $600 million in possible capital investment.

That all sounds encouraging — but the RBA spends even more energy on supporting and helping existing local industry work through ongoing issues, from airline service and workforce development to Affordable Care Act issues and improving infrastructure.

In fact, Raso insists that “70 percent of our growth locally comes from existing companies of all sizes,” and improving the local workforce tops his vital issues.

“If we can solve that, we’ll be in good shape for decades to come. That’s the biggie,” he said. “Time after time, when we’re not chosen by companies looking at us, that’s the main reason.”

Some might wonder why, since this market has between 4,000 and 5,000 open jobs and an estimated 21,000 unemployed. The problem, Raso says, is a “skills mismatch” with a shortage in areas such as engineers and software developers (thus the need for more YPs). So the Business Alliance plans to work more and more helping UCCS, Pikes Peak Community College and others such as Colorado Tech in developing programs that educate people to fill those open positions.

Another area that now has a more prominent place on the RBA’s radar screen is the sports economy, with research now generating impressive local data: 5,700 direct jobs, 1,900 more indirect jobs for a total of $310 million, or about $41,000 per capita. As if that weren’t enough, a whopping 38 percent of all local companies say they have some impact from the sports industry. Also, Raso said, 67 percent of the local sports entities have nine or fewer employees, “so we’re talking about a lot of small businesses.”

What about the goals? They’re ambitious — confirmed new primary jobs averaging more than 2,000 a year, total job growth of 6,000 a year across the market, nine new recruited companies a year locating here, and 13 existing local companies a year assisted with expansion.

In other words, as Raso made sure to say, he doesn’t want to be using that 255,300 number in the present tense again. He’s hoping to see “260, 265, even 275,000” in years to come.

That might sound like a lot. But the Business Alliance appears to have the road map now to make it happen.