COLUMBUS, Ohio — More than 40 people from the Colorado Springs and Pueblo business communities came to Ohio’s capital city this week, primed for a strenuous agenda of meetings and presentations on the eighth annual regional leaders trip.
Everybody had their antennae up and fully sensitized, hoping to glean plenty of lessons and best practices from the nation’s 15th largest city, with a population over 810,000 and a metro area beyond 2 million.
In all honesty, though, no one in the Pikes Peak Region contingent expected to hear some of the week’s most useful messages at the first group breakfast on Tuesday morning.
But that’s exactly what happened, with the bleary-eyed visitors still adjusting to the two-hour difference as they ate scrambled eggs and bacon at 5:30 a.m. Colorado time.
First came Chip Holcombe, managing director of investor relations for Columbus 2020, the host city’s economic development organization. He talked about how Columbus decided about eight years ago to shed its ho-hum image as an overlooked Midwestern city with a huge university (Ohio State) and not much else.
It meant setting some audacious long-range goals for the 2010-2020 time frame, from 150,000 new jobs to $8 billion in corporate investment and a 30 percent gain in per capita income. Today, just past halfway through that decade, Columbus is on track to reach or surpass all those goals.
The audience of Colorado Springs leaders, from the worlds of business, nonprofits and government, clearly took note. We wouldn’t set standards that high, but we could produce our own set of specific goals and then hold ourselves accountable over an extended period.
Columbus came up with other themes worth trying to emulate, describing itself as a city “where standing out never means standing alone,” and “where cost of living is more about living than cost.”
All of that made an impression, because this wasn’t about huge investments. This was more about philosophical direction, getting everyone on the same page.
Holcombe touched on another subject: attracting Millennials. Or, in the case of Columbus, convincing them to stay in the region, which has more than 50 colleges and universities producing 24,000 graduates a year.
That brought a lot of nods from the Springs group, because many involved with the Regional Business Alliance are working on ways to retain young professionals.
Obviously, that’s easier said than done. But the speaker following Holcombe, Amy Tillinghast, vice president of marketing for Experience Columbus, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, offered an idea so simple and so reasonable, it slipped by many of the listeners.
The new approach in central Ohio, she said, is not about waiting to recruit those graduating college seniors. Instead, as part of a calculated effort, the Columbus business community begins reaching out and actively courting college students as freshmen.
Later in the day, as our regional leaders split into four groups and fanned out across the area, one cluster learned that the recruiting for workforce development starts sooner for Columbus State Community College, instead of waiting for them to get to a four-year school.
But going after the four-year colleges’ freshmen is something different. With such a dire need for more young people in the Colorado Springs workforce, why don’t we begin to appeal proactively to college students from the start?
As Holcombe also told the group, the Columbus economic development folks are seeing a new trend developing among young adults today. Instead of looking for the best job they can find, wherever that might be, a growing number of them “look for the city where they want to live, then find a job there.”
That was another nugget, something that makes so much sense but hasn’t been verbalized in quite that way.
It also should be a major building block for Colorado Springs. We have the outdoor recreation, world-class trails for hiking and biking. We have the climate, the scenery, and proximity to skiing and the mountains.
But we should start selling all that to the Millennials as early as possible, even swooping in on the freshmen at UCCS, CC and Colorado State University-Pueblo, giving them the same message of what opportunities are available, even engaging them with “ambassadors” from our young professionals (another Columbus tactic).
The latest trip is already paying for itself — literally from the first sit-down meal.
(Editor’s note: Ralph Routon has attended and written about the regional leaders trips for the past five years. He’ll have more to share in next week’s CSBJ.)