Hannah Parsons is the newly selected chief economic development officer for the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, formerly the Regional Business Alliance. Parsons is filling the position vacated by Al Wenstrand, who retired at the end of 2016.
Parsons has been active in Colorado Springs throughout her varied professional career. Real estate, entrepreneurship and downtown development are all pieces of a whole that have led Parsons to her new position with the Chamber & EDC. This week, Parsons spoke with the Business Journal about helping Colorado Springs reach its fullest potential.
Where are you from?
I was born in Texas, but grew up in southeast Kansas and southwest Missouri.
How did you end up in Colorado?
I first came to Colorado when I worked at a dude ranch in the middle of the Pike National Forest during a summer break from college. I was going to Missouri Southern State University and studying international business. I met my husband on the ranch. He was born in Denver and raised in Palmer Lake, where he lived through high school. I’m pretty convinced when people grow up in Colorado, they don’t acclimate well to other regions.
We got married in Manitou and moved to Atlanta the day after our honeymoon.
How did you make your way back to this region?
It was 2004, and we knew we wouldn’t be staying in Atlanta long-term. We knew we’d come back to Colorado; both sets of our parents were here.
We’d had our first daughter and she was 6 months old. We put our house on the market and pulled up stakes and rented a house [in Colorado Springs] while we figured out what to do next.
I think we figured we’d get here and find jobs immediately. But this wasn’t a job market like Atlanta’s. … My husband is a general contractor, and he started as a superintendent building custom homes.
For me, it took longer. I was working in financial services at a headquarters in Atlanta. I got my MBA while I was there with a concentration in entrepreneurship.
When I came here, I didn’t find a job to apply for, so I didn’t apply for any jobs. But my husband and I wanted to establish a source of income through investment and rental properties, and around 2005, I got my real estate license. We live downtown so we started doing some renovations –— buying houses with the intention to flip them, but the market turned, so we kept them as rental properties.
That unintentionally led to a career. I grew a pretty successful real estate business over about seven years.
And because I live downtown, I was very interested in getting involved in activities downtown. I volunteered with groups involved with the Downtown Partnership — boards trying to engage younger people at the time.
I was also looking for office space, and co-working was an emerging trend globally. I explored opening a co-working facility in Colorado Springs, but it wasn’t something I was prepared to do on my own. A friend introduced me to [Epicentral co-founder] Lisa Tessarowicz. We’d never met, but she wanted to create a co-working space as well. … Over coffee, we decided to go for it. I ran my real estate business out of [Epicentral], and as a tenant of downtown space, it made me eligible to participate on the Business Improvement District board for downtown. That was my first board service. I call it my gateway drug to public service.
Downtown has four different boards to get all the things done. [Downtown Partnership President and CEO] Susan Edmondson manages all of those boards. It’s a special taxing district and is charged with beautification and marketing of the downtown core.
While on that board, I became chairwoman. The Downtown Partnership director moved and, because I was familiar with operations, I stepped in as interim CEO of the Downtown Partnership.
I chaired the partnership board for two and a half years. My term as chairwoman [ended last] month. … In Colorado Springs, people think it’s difficult to get involved and it’s so not. If you raise your hand, it’s easy to get involved.
How did you move to the Chamber & EDC?
I joined that board. While co-owner of Epicentral, I was asked to join the [then-RBA’s] board of directors. That was in 2014. I started working here in October 2015.
What were your initial responsibilities with the RBA?
I got out of my real estate business and sold my interests at Epicentral to Lisa. That was about 18 months before I started working here. … I was ready to do something else.
So when I first joined the chamber, they’d created a new department — community development. There were three areas of work under the community development role: government affairs, business climate initiatives and workforce initiatives.
The government affairs piece was rebuilding our presence in the government affairs world. We’ve had lobbyists, but we didn’t have the resources to have staff committed to that work for a few years. We’ve been building that back. We worked with the state legislature through our Government Affairs Council. About 60 to 70 percent of my time over the last year was working in the government affairs capacity.
Another piece of that is business climate — working with the city and Utilities on policy. Workforce initiatives is about working with our community partners to determine resources available to businesses and finding out from the business community what they need in the future.
Should we expect anything new from your position?
Thankfully we have a fantastic team in place. … I think we’ll add a strong emphasis on building a local industry program. That means working with existing businesses on their expansion and retention of jobs. That will be a strong emphasis in 2017 along with a robust plan on how we’ll help businesses on workforce initiatives. We just launched our new website and in the first quarter we’ll launch a micro-site that’s specifically targeted around talent attraction and retention.
What things about the city make your job easier?
We have great systems on which to draw — the universities, the community college, the transitioning military. We have quite a lot of supply. We also have a higher-than-average educated community. More than 36 percent of our population has a bachelor’s degree or higher.
We also have the ability to work with local institutions to retrain large groups of people. … One of the best things about Colorado Springs is the accessibility of people. When we have a challenge we can rally the troops.
Colorado Springs also has a great quality of life and is an affordable place to live with access to the things people want.
What are its challenges?
Overcoming perceptions that misrepresent us. We will be working with the same economic development and marketing company [Development Counsellors International] we worked with on our website and we’ll have a bigger proactive focus on regional and national public relations.
We’ve rested on the fact that we’re a great place to be, but we will be much more proactive in 2017 on how we present ourselves regionally and nationally.
Any target industries in 2017?
We’ll maintain our target industries of aerospace and defense, IT, sports — cyber is obviously an up-and-coming industry and health care is strong. One thing we’re likely to do in 2017 is we’re going to have an economic development strategy process. … It’s important for us, as an organization, to look at our industries and ask if we’re still on track. One reason is, when you choose your target industries, you have to have the labor force to support them. We’re likely to stay strong in those industries but we will study to see if we’re aligned properly.
We’ve allocated significant resources to local industries to help them grow, but we’re also attending very specific trade shows and we hosted a familiarization tour last September for the first time in about 10 years. That’s where we bring site selectors and some companies who are interested in the community to the region to see who we are, what we offer and why they may want to bring their clients here or move here themselves. We’ll do that again in September.
Do you have 2017 milestones in your new position?
I think sometimes when people take new positions, they can be tempted to try and do it all. For me, in 2017, I want to listen really well.
We have a strong team and we will likely add to it in 2017, but I want, with local industries and prospects, to listen really well and make sure we understand what success means for the community.
We want to know, however we’re measuring ourselves, if it’s meaningful for the community.