Updated: September 3, 2013 at 12:11 pm
They're sought out for their intellect and entrepreneurial drive, for their creativity and verve, for the promise they bring to the future of the economy as baby boomers age out of the workforce.
Almost any city hoping to grow its economy is looking to the young professional population as the lifeblood of the future, and Colorado Springs in no exception. Many young professionals are here, running triumphant enterprises and contributing their vision to create a more vital community.
But their numbers may not be enough to help to increase the city's prosperity.
From data and anecdotal evidence, Colorado Springs is having trouble attracting and retaining young professionals - a group generally defined as people ages 20 to 44 with some college education.
In fact, the proportion of people in that age group in the Colorado Springs population declined by about 5 percent from 2000 to 2010, falling more than in any other large metropolitan area of the state. It's a trend that, if not reversed, could cripple the local economy, create major class discrepancies and negatively affect other quality-of-life elements in the community, experts say.
Young people instead have been flocking to Boulder, Fort Collins and Denver from across the state and country. In 2010, 35.3 percent of the population in Colorado Springs was of young professional age, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. In Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins, the average was 45 percent.
While not everyone ages 20 to 44 falls into the young professional category, the declining proportion of that overall age group in Colorado Springs indicates the city is losing at least some of that coveted population - a decline that's caught the attention of local business and city leaders, including Mayor Steve Bach.
Certainly, Colorado Springs still has thousands of young professionals, and they list outdoor opportunities and affordability among the city's assets.
On the downside, they talk about a lack of entertainment options and a sense of exclusion from key decision-making roles as factors that drive them and their peers away.
But the main reason Boulder, Denver and Fort Collins are young-professional magnets, they say, is that they have more high-paying professional jobs than Colorado Springs.
"When I compare what's available in Denver as opposed to Colorado Springs, it's about a 10-to-1 ratio of professional jobs," said Bev Kratzer, who runs the career center at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs.
Jon Severson, 38, runs five organizations for young professionals in the state, including one he started in Colorado Springs shortly after moving to the city 12 years ago. Thousands of young people now meet under the banner of his organizations, often sharing their complaints and struggles as they strive to succeed.
The Colorado Springs Young Professionals group was Severson's first, and the first of its kind in the city. After years of working with young professionals, Severson said he hears one recurring complaint from peers in Colorado Springs that he rarely hears from the larger, growing group in Denver:
"People can't find job opportunities here."
A struggling economy
Since 2003, the unemployment rate in Colorado Springs has been higher than in any other metropolitan area in Colorado.
Unemployment statewide was at 7 percent in June, according to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics. Colorado Springs' rate was 8.4 percent, compared with 5.4 percent in Boulder, 6.9 percent in Denver and 5.7 percent in Fort Collins.
Since 2003, the manufacturing industry in Colorado Springs has cut more than 8,000 jobs, or 40 percent of its workforce, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. While not necessarily a lure for young professionals, manufacturing jobs don't exist in a vacuum; the companies that create them also need managers, marketers and other executive positions, and they contribute to economic growth that can lead to more jobs.
Jobs in finance and communications, which once attracted young professionals to the region, also have been steadily declining for the past decade. Kratzer said Colorado Springs has a lot of service jobs and high-tech and engineering positions, but little in between.
"We have a difficult time attracting young, urban-oriented folks - people who grew up in larger cities or midsized cities," said Tom Binnings, a senior partner at Summit Economics. "If their main focus is job opportunities, we have a tough time competing for that demographic."
The top four primary employers in Colorado Springs are all military, followed by Memorial Hospital, Penrose-St. Francis Health Services, Lockheed Martin and Progressive Insurance.
"In terms of the professional workers, we get more of what I would call young families," Binnings said. "The younger generation is more attracted to younger cities because of job opportunities."
As if to prove the point, a half-billion-dollar investment fund manager, Resource Land Holdings LLC, moved its headquarters from Colorado Springs to downtown Denver in July in hopes of recruiting more young employees.
"Young investment bankers think of working in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and maybe San Francisco, Denver or Houston, but Colorado Springs was not on that list," said Joe Leininger, founder and partner.
Where is the workforce?
Creating job opportunities that might attract and retain young professionals is not as easy as it was before. Cities that once found they could attract companies with cheap tax credits and other incentives now find that other places are doing the same, said Wade Roberts, an associate professor of sociology at Colorado College.
When industries are weighing whether to move to a city, they are focused on whether it has an established workforce - and Colorado Springs falls short, Roberts said
"It's going to be increasingly difficult to attract those employers," he said. "They will simply go elsewhere, to Denver or Fort Collins, where those people are just being pumped out."
About half the graduates from UCCS stay in El Paso County after completing their studies; only 15 percent of CC alumni reside in Colorado Springs, representatives from the colleges said.
The city finds itself in a problematic cycle: Without enough of the right jobs to keep graduates from local colleges and universities here, how do you build a workforce to show companies that they can find educated, hard-working employees?
Boulder and Fort Collins have been able to capitalize on their college-educated populations, undoubtedly benefiting from having the state's biggest universities as the heart of their economies.
"It's an economic driver," said Clif Harald, executive director of the Boulder Economic Council. "It's our largest employer, so just by statistics, it's important, but the university has also done a lot to attract youth to the city."
Boulder also benefits from having economic diversity, Harald said, with six to eight industries that include clean technology, bioscience and research. And it has a vital startup environment.
Startup Genome, a website that tracks startup companies around the country, showed Boulder with about 200 startups this year; Colorado Springs had about 20 percent the number of startups compared with other metro areas in the state.
And although Colorado Springs recently came in ninth on the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation's list of the nation's top 10 metro areas with the highest tech startup density, it lagged Boulder (1), Fort Collins-Loveland (2) and Denver (6).
For the youngest professionals, startups mean employment.
"I lived in a house of eight girls, and four of us stayed and got jobs at startups," said Erica Gustafson, 22, one of many University of Colorado at Boulder graduates who has taken advantage of the city's startup culture.
What keeps them away?
Beyond the issue of jobs is a perception that Colorado Springs is a military town lacking the cultural and social amenities of Denver, Boulder and Fort Collins.
The young professional demographic is part of the "creative class" - a group attracted to areas with a vibrant urban core and an atmosphere that tolerates, if not celebrates, diversity, Roberts said.
"On those fronts, it's kind of hard to compete," Roberts said. "Even college-educated students in the Springs who might be going to the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs or Colorado College are likely to migrate north to Denver."
Only a small percentage of those ages 18 to 44 living in the city moved here from another county in Colorado. Young Coloradans are moving to Fort Collins, Boulder and Denver from other counties in Colorado at rates three, sometimes eight, times higher than they are to Colorado Springs, according to the Census Bureau.
In May, Blakely + Company, a local marketing firm, released a study conducted for the Colorado Springs Downtown Business Improvement District, gauging the amenities in the heart of the city.
They found that young professionals are frustrated by a lack of downtown lures, including shopping options, affordable housing and entertainment.
A focus group of six young professionals explained their hope that downtown would become more of a city center - one that would offer better entertainment and places to meet people.
"If you're a young professional and you want that young, hip downtown lifestyle, you're not going to come here or you're not going to stay here to get that," said Kyle Blakely, CEO at Blakely + Company.
An inability to attract that population in the city could mean the loss of millions of dollars in potential revenue from local businesses.
"There's an economic base and a purchasing power base that can get lost there if that group continues to dwindle," Blakely said.
"They are coming into their high earning years and you'd like to have them here when they're doing that and not up in Denver."
A rippling effect
If the young professional population continues to disappear, the result could tear through the whole city, leading to a shrinking middle class and exaggerated wealth disparities, Roberts said. It would increase the percentage of older, wealthier residents while maintaining the impoverished communities that are here, experts say.
One major concern is that the city could become further segregated by wealth, hindering efforts to reverse socioeconomic gaps. Without a healthy community of young professionals to backfill the vacuum created by retiring baby boomers, tax revenues will suffer because of those gaps, Roberts said, and that can affect a variety of public services, from schools to roads to social safety nets.
Also, experts say, young professionals can help diversify the economy and pump millions of dollars into a region that relies on the military industry. As sequestration and military cutbacks threaten to stem the flow of federal money into the city, the inability to retain young professionals could hurt the economy more, they say.
Mark Lautman, an economic architect who has been a consultant to the Colorado Springs business community, said baby boomers could suffer as they age if there aren't enough young professionals to support the economy and bolster services that many seniors may need.
"They won't be able to work, either," Lautman said. "They need to be cared for. They're going to go from contributors to dependents."
Reporters Alison Noon, Brooke Pryor, Megan Wood, Suzanne Evans, Jesse Byrnes and Jessica Allison contributed to this story.
WHAT'S BEING DONE
City leaders, including Mayor Steve Bach, are well aware of the issues surrounding the declining young professional population in Colorado Springs, and they've been developing and implementing many projects to attract and retain them. Learn more about the efforts, including aggressive marketing campaigns and plans for downtown development, and hear from successful young professionals in Colorado Springs in Monday's Gazette.
ABOUT THE SERIES
For six weeks, The Gazette's summer interns - seven reporters and a photographer - explored why Colorado Springs is having trouble attracting and retaining young professionals, an issue that has caught the attention of civic, business and government leaders in recent years.
The interns fanned out to talk to dozens of young professionals and experts on the subject, attended meet-ups and investigated why other Colorado cities have been able to grow and sustain their populations. The result of their reporting appears in The Gazette on Sunday and Monday.
Sunday: Why aren't more young professionals making Colorado Springs their home, and what does it mean for the region's future?
Monday: What are the city of Colorado Springs, business and civic groups and young professionals themselves doing to beef up the presence of the "creative class?" How did the successful young professionals find their way in the city? What can Colorado Springs learn from other cities that have been able to retain and attract young professionals?
The Gazette interns
Jessica Allison, reporter
Jesse Byrnes, reporter
Suzanne Evans, reporter
Alison Noon, reporter
Jesse Paul, reporter
Brooke Pryor, reporter
Megan Wood, reporter
Junfu Han, photographer