El Paso County has a $1.35 billion backlog in road maintenance; there is an 8 percent gap between the number of job openings over the number of job seekers in the region; and the Pikes Peak region now has domestic water secured for the next 50 years, at least.

Business and government leaders from Southern Colorado gathered Monday at The Pinery at the Hill to list successes and challenges to their businesses and the economy during a regional forum sponsored by the Economic Development Council of Colorado. The EDCC is a nonprofit agency with a mission to strengthen Colorado’s economy.

Agency staff will host similar forums around the state gathering information on small business development, workforce challenges, infrastructure and more. Colorado Springs was first in the series. The goal for the nonprofit is to develop resources and methods to help economies around the state, said Kim Woodworth, EDCC operations director.

Business growth

Al Wenstrand, chief economic development officer of the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance, delivered a “good news story” to the group, covering unemployment, job growth, tourism and workforce issues.

“If you look at economic development, it’s not a chamber of commerce or an economic development council that makes things happen,” Wenstrand said. “It’s a team of workers, a team of professionals that look at how can we expand the economy of the region over a long period of time.”

A leading indicator of economic activity is the percentage of people working. Colorado Springs currently has an unemployment rate of 3.5 percent and El Paso County is at 4.1 percent, compared with the nation’s 5.1 percent. Job growth also is continuing to excel here.

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“El Paso County is leading the state in the rate of job growth,” Wenstrand said.

In 2015, El Paso County had the greatest rate of job growth annualized at 3.3 percent, the county’s best job growth in the past 15 years., he said, adding that only a skills gap prevents El Paso County from seeing a 0 percent unemployment rate.

Millennials in El Paso County are the fastest-growing cohort. Between 2006 and 2016, El Paso County experienced a 24 percent hike in the number of resident Millennials, approximately 28,000 more than 10 years ago.

“I think that debunks that, ‘If you’re a Millennial, you’ve got to go to Denver to get a job,’” Wenstrand said.

Attracting people with information technology skills “is fast becoming the biggest inhibitor to growth,” he said. Every month nearly 2,000 high-paid IT job openings, such as software and systems engineers, project managers and system administrators, have been listed in the Colorado Springs market.

“We need to recruit veterans as they separate from active military services and recruit talent from outside the region” to sustain a strong economy, Wenstrand said.

Tourism numbers keep rising as well, he said, citing a 65 percent annual increase in hotel occupancy in 2015 over 2014. The previous year experienced a 21 percent hike in occupancy.

Low hotel rates also help the tourism industry here, at $64 a night on average, compared to Denver’s average of $102 and the state average of $86, he said.

Transportation spending

The average Colorado driver spends $235 a year on road construction and maintenance. By comparison, the average U.S. worker spends $1,092 annually on coffee, said Craig Casper, regional transportation director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments.

Those numbers translate locally to a big need for local road maintenance.

The Pikes Peak region has a $1.35 billion backlog of pavement maintenance. That equates to $6,650 per household as of 2015.

“We are unfortunately behind the eight ball,” Casper said. “We’ve had decades and decades of underinvesting in our road maintenance. We are in a deep hole, and it’s going to take decades and decades to dig ourselves out of it.”

Compared with other municipalities, Colorado Springs spends considerably less per capita on road maintenance, with a $31.75 annual investment per resident.

“Wichita is the only one in the country we could find that is investing less per capita in transit than us. We are the second-lowest in the country per capita in metro area transit” maintenance spending, Casper said.

Denver spends $141.62 per capita annually on road maintenance, Albuquerque spends $65.29 per resident and Fort Collins spends $60.75 per resident annually on road maintenance.

“Why can’t we have what Denver has? Well, because they’re putting five times more per person into it than we are,” Casper said.

One of the funding problems relates to the stagnation of state gas taxes in Colorado, which have remained at 40 cents a gallon since 1992, he added. If the price had been indexed to construction costs, the gas tax would be 98 cents per gallon.

To maintain the existing road system across the state now, the gas tax would need to be increased to $1.26 a gallon, he said.

Water’s importance

Water is “liquid gold, because it is about our future growth and development,” said Jeff Greene, Colorado Springs Mayor John Suthers’ chief of staff and former longtime El Paso County administrator.

Greene introduced Colorado Springs Utilities CEO Jerry Forte to talk about Utilities, which delivers domestic water to businesses and individuals in the region.

Since the 1890s, businesses in the Pikes Peak region have benefited from moving water here from Pikes Peak, western Colorado and Pueblo, Forte said.

The latest development, the first phase of the Southern Delivery System, began delivering Arkansas River water from Pueblo County to Colorado Springs on April 28.

In the works for 20 years, the project cost $825 million to build.

The availability of water is critical to economic sustainability and growth, Greene and Forte said.

“One of the first things a [business] prospect would ask is, ‘Do you have sufficient water? Do you have sufficient power?’” Forte said.

“We don’t even have to talk about economic development if we don’t have water. Game over.”

Because of the city founders’ foresight and continuing efforts to develop water, those answers are positive. The SDS water will serve needs into the next several generations, Forte said.

A study completed in 2011 by Summit Economics predicted the SDS construction would have a short-term economic benefit of $273 million in El Paso, Pueblo and Fremont counties. The actual benefit reached $373 million, Forte said.

The construction helped area businesses, he added, with the addition of 400 jobs. The cost to build SDS came in at $160 million less than the original budget, he said.

Of the total cost, $297 million went to businesses in El Paso County, $373 million went to businesses in Southern Colorado and $598 million was spent within Colorado.

Despite the costs, Forte said, “It will continue to pay dividends well into the future.”

SDS: By the numbers

Government permits required: 470

Miles of pipeline: nearly 50

Diameter pipe: 66 inches

Elevation gain: 1,500 feet

Pump stations: 3

Pumps: 11 now; capacity of 18

Delivering: 5 million gallons a day

Capacity of Phase I: 50 million gallons a day

10-million-gallon tank: 1

Increase in water rates expected in 2016: 5 percent