In many ways Pueblo, a city of about 110,000, is a microcosm of its bigger cousin to the north.
Familiar challenges affecting Colorado Springs have also influenced the Steel City’s economy and, while the scope and specifics differ, Pueblo too has been forced to confront infrastructure issues, find ways to develop a qualified workforce and navigate a slow recovery.
“I think it’s safe to say that everyone is aware Pueblo is one of the last communities to come out of the Great Recession — that’s both along the Front Range and statewide,” said Rod Slyhoff, president and CEO of the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce.
The city, however, is implementing strategies to aid in its economic recovery, and Slyhoff, along with Pueblo Economic Development Corporation President and CEO Jeff Shaw, said this rebound could lead to a renaissance.
One of Pueblo’s primary economic generators is a half-cent sales tax for capital improvements that, every five years since its inception in the 1980s, has been reapproved by voters to attract business. The tax currently generates about $7 million annually, and Shaw credits it with creating 6,100 jobs during the past 23 years.
“That [tax] goes into a special fund which creates capital expenditure grants to incentivize companies,” Shaw said. “No other municipality in the state has that type of fund.”
According to Slyhoff, funding has evolved with the economic landscape.
“When [the sales tax] started, it was used primarily to attract manufacturing jobs,” Slyhoff said. “Through time, the manufacturing jobs have gone overseas, so city leaders here found ways to use the funds to expand new jobs.”
Slyhoff said money is frequently awarded to small businesses and sole proprietors.
“We have a thriving printing shop that has clientele in the music industry,” he said. “The half-cent sales tax equated to $25,000 for them and, with the county’s revolving loan fund adding $25,000, the business added three employees and expanded. It’s not just IBM and big corporations.”
Shaw said the EDC is using the money, in part, to attract four major clusters — outdoor recreation and the hemp, aerospace and rail industries.
A recent EDC victory was the successful courtship of CBD BioSciences, a hemp-oil processing operation that will move into what was an underutilized, city-owned, 195,000-square-foot property that once housed Boeing’s Delta rocket operations.
The company, which is expected to be operational this year, will create 163 jobs, Shaw said. Development carries a price tag of $9.8 million — $4.89 million of which will be subsidized via the city’s half-cent sales tax. The building had originally been built by the city for Boeing using the economic development tax.
CBD BioScience guarantees an average salary of $41,500 plus benefits, higher than most manufacturing jobs in the county, Shaw said.
“We are the first to incentivize hemp manufacturing in the country and put local dollars into it,” Shaw said.
According to Shaw, CBD BioScience’s presence should create roughly 350 indirect jobs.
Frijoles and fairs
While Colorado Springs has dabbled with its identity, Pueblo’s core is unabashedly blue-collar, relying heavily on agriculture and industry.
“We’re a proud manufacturing community,” Slyhoff said, pointing to the still-operational EVRAZ Rocky Mountain Steel mill. But the Steel City is attracting tourists, especially in outdoor recreation segments.
“We’re continuing to see tourism grow and we’ve consciously worked in that area,” Shaw said. “For 2015, our lodging tax will come in at 14 percent ahead of 2014, which had been our biggest year.”
Pueblo incorporates a lodging tax, like Colorado Springs, at 4.3 percent. Unlike Colorado Springs, however, Pueblo does not impose an auto rental tax. Lodging brings in about $1 million a year, and that money is used to promote regional tourism to include kayaking, mountain biking, the Colorado State Fair, the Chile and Frijoles Festival and Lake Pueblo State Park.
Last year’s three-day Chile and Frijoles Festival brought in 140,000 visitors, many from outside Pueblo County, Shaw said. The park and reservoir attract nearly 2 million visitors a year and the State Fair saw a half-million guests.
Despite the distance and differences, both Slyhoff and Shaw said Pueblo and Colorado Springs benefit from each other’s successes.
“[Collaboration between the cities] is very important to me and the chamber,” Slyhoff said. “We’re way past our community competing against your community. It’s a regional world anymore. If we’re going to be successful and compete in a worldwide economy, we need to collaborate with regional partners’ workforce and develop the environment and the resources we have.”
Slyhoff said, for example, that Pueblo Airport doesn’t have adequate commercial airline service and collaboration could expand service to the south.
Shaw said the two cities have grown more interconnected and should play off each other’s strengths in the future.
“We work well with Colorado Springs,” Shaw said. “There are certain areas we couldn’t compete with Colorado Springs, and vice versa. Denver has its northern market — Fort Collins and Boulder, and I consider the Springs to be a partner.
“If the two of us work together,” he continued, “down the road, Denver can’t compete with the Arkansas Valley.”