Published: January 19, 2014
The Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance's Key Industries program aims to create industry clusters that can help foster the attraction and growth of similar companies in the city.
"What it says is that if you come here, you have an automatic network you can relate to," said David White, former chief business development officer for the alliance, who left Colorado Springs for another job in California last month.
"It's not just about the mission of attracting businesses anymore; it's also about the mission of creating community."
The business alliance has identified 11 key industries, or areas, in which it hopes to cluster similar companies. The key industries were chosen because alliance officials think the region has qualified workers for those industries and because those industries are ones officials want here.
White said the idea of having target industries isn't a new one. Colorado Springs' business and community leaders have identified target industries for the past 20 years.
What is new, though, White said, is the idea that communities surrounding the industries need to built and fostered.
"It used to be that we made a list of industries and said this is what we want, now let's go get them," White said.
Although that approach might have worked well for a while, it opened up the risk for short-lived successes because companies might move here only to discover there are no similar companies with which to create common ground, officials said.
White said the business alliance learned something interesting recently through conducting exit interviews with companies that had decided to move out of Colorado Springs.
Several companies said they didn't feel support from the business community.
"One of the biggest reasons companies have left here is because they don't feel the love," White said. "We're here now saying we want to make sure they feel the love."
Ian Askill started his company, Aspire Biotech, in Colorado Springs in 2001 and has watched the city work to attract other biotech companies to the region.
His employees perform research and development work on medical devices, with annual salaries that can exceed $100,000.
"From a business perspective, it's hard to build a successful company if you don't have strong clusters," Askill said. "If the city doesn't have a critical mass, you don't have the trained personnel that can move between fields, and right now we're below critical mass, which is sad."
Askill had worked in Chicago and New Jersey before deciding to start his company in Colorado Springs.
"I chose Colorado Springs because it was a place where I wanted to live," he said.
"Despite the fact that it's very hard to build here because it's so small. It's easy to find people in Chicago and New Jersey, but it's hard here. If there are talented people you want to hire, you probably know the people they work for. Then you feel like you're poaching from your friends."
Biotech has long been on the list of Colorado Springs' key industries.
The newest list reflects some additions.
White said the list was born of discussions initiated by Operation 6035, a 2009 economic development survey paid for by a mix of public and private sources.
The study identified three new key industries for Colorado Springs: clean technology, data storage and the sports economy.
Clean technology includes recycling, renewable energy, solar power and biomass.
The prevalence of clean tech is important to other industries, and companies might move only to a market that has built its reliance on "green" practices, such as renewable energy or recycling.
Colorado Springs was identified as a potential hub for data storage centers because of its inexpensive power rates and the rarity of natural disasters such as hurricanes and earthquakes, which makes data more secure.
The city celebrated two major data center announcements in recent years.
Last year, Wal-Mart opened its $100 million, 210,000-square-foot corporate data center.
Meanwhile, T5 announced plans this year for an $800 million data center campus.
The sports economy seemed like a natural fit because the United States Olympic Center is in Colorado Springs, and because of that, the national governing bodies of many Olympic sports call the city home, business alliance officials said.
Chris Vadala, chief operating officer of USA Volleyball, said the organization has benefited from the business alliance's key industries program in several ways.
He said that when USA Volleyball was looking for building space, the business alliance assisted the group.
"They also gave us some help with legislation in Washington, D.C.," Vadala said. "We have lots of sports partners in town, but it's nice to know we have a business partner, too."
Last year, USA Volleyball bought the building the business alliance helped it find, and the national governing bodies for table tennis, fencing and archery moved in as temporary tenants.
"We, for one, made the purchase," Vadala said. "So, I'd say so we've definitely made a long-term commitment."
Tom Duening, director of the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs Center for Entrepreneurship and El Pomar chairman of business and entrepreneurship, said building clusters through key industries is important, but sometimes clusters happen aside from a communities' best strategic efforts.
"Clusters just develop, and then you have to be ready to leverage them," he said.
But Duening said it's important for the business alliance to help identify clusters and help the companies in the clusters connect.
"I think the seeds are being laid in this community for something big to happen. It's (the business community) come a long way in the four years that I've been here," he said.
"We've just got to keep plugging away and lo and behold something will happen."