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Business Alliance moving forward after a year of change

May 12, 2013
photo - Joe Raso, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, speaks at an event at the Antlers Hilton Hotel Tuesday, April 16, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette
Joe Raso, president and CEO of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, speaks at an event at the Antlers Hilton Hotel Tuesday, April 16, 2013. Photo by Mark Reis, The Gazette 

It's no small feat to propel an economy forward and infuse a community with new jobs. As the Pikes Peak region's leading business organization, the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance is being counted on to help do both - part of the many challenges its leaders say they've eagerly embraced during a year of change.

The alliance is the successor to the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. - formerly the area's top jobs generator - and the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce, which represented the business community on legislative issues and other matters.

The two groups merged in February 2012 with the goal of improving the local business climate; at the time, unemployment was 9.5 percent and 29,600 people were jobless. Joe Raso, an Iowa City, Iowa, economic development official, was hired as the alliance's president and CEO; he marks his first year on the job this week.

As the national economic recovery has gained traction in that year, the local economic picture has brightened as well: The unemployment rate is down, per capita income is up and other economic indicators have improved.

But, Raso said, 'I don't think that this organization should lay claim to those numbers as much as be a conduit for making sure we're doing the right things as a community, a business community, and community development and our legislative side and others, so that there's a consistent growth in this economy over time. '

An overhaul of the organization followed in the months after Raso's hiring: Four former chamber employees were laid off; military affairs point man Brian Binn left; newcomer Andy Merritt, a former aide to U.S. Rep. Mike Coffman of Aurora, was hired to succeed Binn; and the organization rebranded itself as the Business Alliance. The former Chamber and EDC's operations were melded together to create four key divisions to tackle the addition of jobs; work with the aerospace and defense industry; track local, state and federal issues; and handle internal operations such as marketing and communications.

Another change that's been a major Raso theme: a push toward local and regional partnerships.

That emphasis puts the Business Alliance's divisions and their advisory groups and teams in contact with private businesses, nonprofits, local organizations such as the Convention and Visitors Bureau, Front Range governments and elected officials such as the mayor's office and El Paso County commissioners.

Partnerships open the door for discussions on issues such as workforce development or how one business could adopt money-saving solutions that another business in the same industry already had hit upon, Raso said.

Last month, the Business Alliance and its Pueblo equivalent launched an online advertising campaign targeting California employers, which was possibly the first time the cities had worked together on such a project.

The alliance and other groups also partnered to have a booth at last month's Space Symposium at The Broadmoor hotel, which draws 9,000 attendees from around the world. From that event, Raso said, Merritt made contacts with more than 100 employers, including three prospects from out of state that showed interest in the Springs and two local companies that were looking to expand.

'If we don't do that, and don't do that partnership with the others, we miss those opportunities, ' Raso said.

Job numbers not emphasized

Perhaps the biggest change for the Business Alliance is de-emphasizing job numbers as the sole yardstick by which to measure the community's economic development successes.

The former EDC routinely touted numbers of primary jobs for which it was responsible - positions that help attract wealth and investment into the community.

Alliance officials say they aren't abandoning such numbers. During a community presentation Raso made last month, where he talked about the state of the economy and changes the alliance had made, chief business development officer David White talked of 600 jobs created this year in the community, 30 active employer prospects and 150 in the pipeline.

But since last fall, alliance officials began stressing the need to grow the overall economy as a broader measure of economic vitality.

Just emphasizing jobs doesn't necessarily show the community's economic prosperity, said Mike Jorgensen, the organization's board chairman.

In the bigger economic picture, the community needs to establish an environment that promotes business growth, expansion opportunities, workforce development and venture capital investment, Jorgensen said. The byproduct of such efforts, he said, will be jobs.

'It's not just the number of cars you sold, it's how profitable you were when you sold those cares, ' said Jorgensen, general manager of Red Noland Cadillac, putting it his terms.

Prefers to meet privately with Bach

One job remaining for the Business Alliance is selling its economic development vision to some in the community - including the mayor.

'I'm waiting for the Business Alliance to take a strong leadership role in a number of ways, ' said Springs Mayor Steve Bach, who added he's yet to see a strategic plan from the organization that spells out how it will go about generating more jobs and how many it's targeting.

Raso said that's just what the alliance is doing - meeting with Bach, El Paso County commissioners, City Council members and others to outline the organization's direction and strategy.

Consultants for the alliance who are assembling data for a possible fundraising campaign the organization might pursue this year had one meeting with the mayor, Raso said. Alliance members were scheduled to meet last week with him to discuss the organization's strategy for this year and its focus for the next five years.

Jorgensen, meanwhile, said he preferred to meet privately with Bach instead of reacting to the mayor's comments in the media.

'Obviously, not everybody is going to be happy 100 percent of the time, ' Jorgensen said. 'But this organization is the one organization, as the mayor said, that really needs to lead the charge. It takes all members of the community working with this organization to make sure it happens that way. '


Contact Rich Laden: 636-0228 Twitter @richladen

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