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Seeking balance to revive economy around Colorado Springs

By: Wayne Heilman
March 28, 2014 Updated: March 29, 2014 at 2:15 pm
photo - Machinist Harold Morris works in his office Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the new Bal Seal Engineering Inc. manufacturing plant in Colorado Springs, Colo. The manufacturer of parts for medical devices to areospace equipment will expand its local payroll to at least 200 over the next two years.  (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Machinist Harold Morris works in his office Wednesday, March 12, 2014, at the new Bal Seal Engineering Inc. manufacturing plant in Colorado Springs, Colo. The manufacturer of parts for medical devices to areospace equipment will expand its local payroll to at least 200 over the next two years. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock) 

How does a city go about resuscitating an economy that seems perpetually stuck in neutral?

To some Colorado Springs residents, one promising avenue is the City for Champions proposal to build four tourism projects.

To others, the answer lies more in making a comprehensive, collaborative push to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship or undertaking programs to boost manufacturing.

There may not be one magic bullet, but what's clear is that business and community leaders are doubling down on their efforts to roust the city from its economic malaise by being more aggressive and creative in their thinking.

A push for manufacturing

Bob Wolski sees digital manufacturing as one way to revitalize the local economy, and he and several other local businessmen have formed a group to open an institute in Colorado that would demonstrate how it works.

"There is a huge opportunity here; I've never seen a greater opportunity in my 38 years of manufacturing," said Wolski, CEO of Spire Engineering & Manufacturing Solutions Inc., a local defense and aerospace manufacturer, and a volunteer with a group trying to bring the institute to southern Colorado.

Digital manufacturing is a way to connect small manufacturers through the Internet to operate like a single company. It connects the entire supply chain network wirelessly with software that manages people, machinery and parts throughout the process, allowing smaller manufacturers to become more efficient and competitive with larger enterprises worldwide, Spire President Tony Feltman said.

"Digital manufacturing is trying to bring the economies of scale, efficiency and productivity of a large company to small businesses," Feltman said.

The institute will incorporate computer-controlled manufacturing tools, from robots to routers, and connect them to the Internet so that all elements of a supply chain work together seamlessly, Wolski said. It would help boost the city's economy by attracting companies and jobs that want access to the technology, he said.

"I see digital manufacturing being as big an opportunity for economic development as City for Champions. We need both and maybe more (projects) beyond that," Wolski said. "We need to backfill the jobs we have lost over the last 10 years, including more than 15,000 in manufacturing alone. We need to pull together and realize this opportunity to grow."

The Southern Colorado Technology Innovation Consortium, which includes representatives from Colorado Springs, Fountain and Pueblo, is looking at three potential sites for the plant and would need up to $25 million in state and federal government grants and private funding to build it within five years, he said. The consortium has been approved for state and federal grants, but the amount hasn't been set.

The institute is part of two new Pentagon-led projects unveiled by President Barack Obama last month that will bring companies and universities together for research and development in digital manufacturing and lightweight metals and materials. The projects are centered in two manufacturing hubs that will receive $70 million each. Colorado will play a key role in both projects, with the University of Colorado at Boulder working with the digital manufacturing hub in Chicago and Colorado School of Mines working with the lightweight metals hub in Detroit.

Wolski was a key player in the digital manufacturing initiative, and the proposed Colorado Springs institute would be part of that.

"This would be a proof-of-concept demonstration site that all companies would have access to," Wolski said.

Another group is focusing on boosting manufacturing in the area. Tom Neppl, CEO of local custom metal manufacturer Springs Fabrication and chairman of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, is working with a coalition of 15 business groups across southern Colorado to attract manufacturers who are bringing overseas production back to the U.S.

That effort will include an expo in June to highlight local and regional manufacturers and encourage them to use each other as suppliers and vendors, he said.

The manufacturing coalition includes about 50 companies with about 5,000 employees, but Randy Scott, who is leading the effort through the Southern Colorado Business Partnership, hopes to have 250 manufacturers involved by fall to give the industry a larger collective voice.

A push for innovation

To boost the number of technology startups - seen as a key economic driver in the 21st century - a group of leaders from 19 business and community groups is launching a series of initiatives to train entrepreneurs, connect them with resources and mentors and promote "a culture of innovation" in the Colorado Springs area.

"One of the most important attributes of a strong local economy that attracts and retains talent is a creative, innovative culture," according to a news release from the business alliance, Colorado Springs Small Business Development Center, Pikes Peak Work Force Center and Pikes Peak Community College.

One of the group's first initiatives is a four-day series of events next month to cultivate innovation in businesses, nonprofits and government agencies and lay the groundwork of an ongoing effort "to strengthen the connections, resources and education centered on innovation and entrepreneurship in the Pikes Peak region."

The event includes presentations on entrepreneurial education and provides opportunities for businesses to pitch their ideas to each other, mentors and potential investors.

Many of the events feature executives and staff members from the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, a Kansas City, Mo.-based charity that helped launch the Ice House Entrepreneurship Program in 2011 to bridge a gap they saw in entrepreneurial education.

Already, Kauffman is helping local groups launch the Ice House program for local entrepreneurs and Pikes Peak Community College students.

The group also has launched a website to offer a one-stop-shopping place where entrepreneurs and others interested in startups can find resources, ideas, potential employees, partners and connections to other entrepreneurs, mentors and investors.

"It is a new brand for an ongoing movement and catalyst to bring together innovators and the potential for innovation," said Julie Boswell, chief operating officer of the business alliance. "We already have innovation; we just need more of it."

Bree Langemo, dean of the business, public service and social sciences division at Pikes Peak Community College, said the coalition also wants to reverse a decline in the number of young professionals in the Colorado Springs area.

"We need to retain and attract new talent, especially young professionals, because employers don't want to come here unless they have or can attract the talent and the workforce to meet their business needs," Langemo said.

The coalition is offering a wide variety of events to appeal to different audiences because "you don't know what will trigger or lead to the creation of innovative companies that compete nationally or globally," said Joe Raso, CEO of the business alliance. "We are trying to create an ecosystem for innovation, and it doesn't have a front door. Areas like Boulder and Silicon Valley have been doing this a long time."

A push from the city

Mayor Steve Bach has been working to revive the Colorado Springs Airport and remove some of the barriers that new and existing businesses might face - moves he believes will accelerate sluggish local economic growth.

But he believes the centerpiece of the city's efforts to create jobs is the City for Champions proposal, which includes a new visitors center for the Air Force Academy, a sports medicine and wellness center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, an Olympic museum and a downtown multipurpose stadium and arena.

"It doesn't appear our current economic development efforts have been successful," he said. "The world changed in 2008, maybe permanently, so it is much more challenging to attract business and jobs. Clearly, we need to go in a new direction."

Advocates say the four projects will create 5,100 jobs split between temporary construction and permanent positions and generate additional taxes for the city.

But City for Champions has generated strong opposition from many residents, including several members of the Colorado Springs City Council, who say they can't support the project without more answers about the proposals' finances. And, a group of council members say the events center proposal should go to a public vote.

Whether or not they support City for Champions, several business leaders say the Colorado Springs area needs the budding initiatives to foster technology-focused startup businesses and revive its decimated base of manufacturers.

Startups and manufacturers generate jobs with well above-average pay that create additional jobs through suppliers, vendors and others who provide raw materials, parts and services.

"While we believe in City for Champions, we need a balanced scorecard for economic development. City for Champions does no good unless we have people (living here) that can afford to go to the new venues," Wolski said. "We need to do all we can to capitalize on every opportunity for southern Colorado."


Contact Wayne Heilman: 636-0234

Twitter @wayneheilman

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