After six years and more than $600,000 spent in a public-private partnership, the coalition that hired El Paso County’s first lobbyist is pleased with its investment.
The group of 13 (10 members started the program in 2010 and paid $10,000 each to hire the lobbyist; the number is now 13 members) private businesses, nonprofits and government entities say hiring Elise Pickering of the firm Mehlman, Castagnetti, Rosen and Thomas, has improved awareness of the role the Pikes Peak region plays in aerospace, defense and cybersecurity, while at the same time increasing understanding of the city’s transportation and education needs.
“I’m extremely pleased,” said Scott Bryan, CEO of Bryan Construction and one of the catalysts behind the partnership. “Most cities we compete with — Huntsville, San Antonio — for jobs and businesses, they pay for their own lobbyists. We took a different route, but it’s been successful.”
Known as the Pikes Peak Federal Action Coalition, or mPACT, the group has a two-pronged strategy: Keep the firm working with both the legislative and executive branches of government, while also seeking grants for regional priorities that “create economic development,” said Stephannie Finley Fortune, executive director of university advocacy and partnerships at UCCS, who describes her role as a group facilitator.
“When we started this, the city couldn’t be on board — there just wasn’t the money,” Finley Fortune said. “But we knew it was something that we needed — and it’s been successful.”
The biggest success: securing $19 million for flood mitigation after the Waldo Canyon fire. In the years after the fire, U.S. Highway 24 was frequently closed due to flooding and mudslides — and the city of Manitou Springs experienced serious damage from storms because the soil on the mountain was too scorched to allow water to seep into the terrain.
“We asked for the money through our delegation, and it was attached to the Hurricane Sandy bill,” Finley Fortune said. “But the deal fell apart because House rules didn’t allow it. That’s where our federal lobbyist came in. She knew when, at the last moment, some money shifted. Elise earned her money with that effort.”
The firm also helped with the transition from TriWest to United Healthcare for the Tricare contract in 2012. Military families were going without care and some specialty clinics were strapped for revenue because of late payments or canceled approvals. The firm worked with Congress on the issue, Finley Fortune said. “And the situation turned around,” she said.
Information is key
Having a lobbyist means getting information about what’s going on at the nation’s capital, said Clarissa Arellano-Thomas, government affairs director for the Pikes Peak Association of Realtors.
“We have access to Elise with any issue that arises,” she said. “And that allows us to receive a lot of information about what’s actually going on, behind the scenes.”
Andy Merritt, chief defense officer at the Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC, gave an example of a benefit to Colorado Springs (the chamber also pays annually).
“[When I was] planning a trip to D.C., the lobbyist calls me and tells me that the Senate Armed Forces committee is planning an additional cybersecurity subcommittee,” he said. “We know they are aware of the Navy efforts in cyber; Sen. John McCain is an alumnus and is on their board of governors. We don’t know if they are aware of the CyberWorx project at the Air Force Academy. It always helps to be part of the conversation early on.”
How it works
Currently, there are 13 members of the coalition. Each pays $10,000 annually to cover the cost of the lobbyist. From the original 10, other groups were added to make sure regional priorities were met. The group meets to determine regional goals based on input from all members, Finley Fortune said. The overall goal: to make sure the lobbyist is addressing the needs of the entire region.
PPAR already has lobbyists in D.C. and Denver through the National Association of Realtors, Arellano-Thomas said. Ent Credit Union, another coalition member, also pays for its own lobbyist — and helps pay for the coalition’s lobbyist, she said.
“We’re involved because it makes sense to be part of the effort to improve the community,” Arellano-Thomas said. “Every member of this group checks its own personal self-interest at the door. It’s not what benefits us, it’s what benefits the entire region.”
Finley Fortune said other groups have joined since the coalition started in early 2010. But not every interested organization can be part of the coalition, she said.
“After we started, there were other groups interested in joining,” she said. “But the goal is not personal or organizational self-interest, so it’s not for everyone.”
The organization has a mission statement and governing rules, she said. And the coalition votes to determine whether other representatives are added.
Think of it as an insurance policy for the area, Finley Fortune said.
“We’re developing relationships in the Beltway,” she said. “It’s easier to get meetings with staff than with the members, but you have to make sure you’re meeting with the right staffer. If you are, things get done — and there’s no way to put a price tag on that.”
Each stakeholder provides members to the coalition, and members are responsible for briefing their organization’s leadership on progress.
“We’re pretty transparent,” Bryan said. “We’ve talked about this at public meetings through the years. If a stakeholder has a concern, we address it.”
Genesis of the idea
The idea was born when Bryan was looking at the FedBizOps webpage for construction contracts for his company.
He discovered a $2 billion construction contract for a National Security Agency center in Utah.
“The description fit our Intel building to a T,” he said. “They needed secure facilities; clean rooms, office space. It fit — and it wouldn’t have cost the federal government $2 billion. We didn’t even know about it.”
He mentioned it to Lon Matejczyk, then-publisher of the Business Journal. Matejczyk penned a column: “All I want for Christmas is a federal lobbyist.”
“Consider what we might already have lost out on by not having a lobbyist — or what we might lose in the future,” Matejczyk wrote in December 2009. “The Springs is home to a lot of military bases that other cities would love to have. If we were to lose one, there could be some serious hardship on our economy.”
By New Year’s Eve, Matejczyk wrote that a D.C. lobbying firm had reached out to him, and a group of leaders met in his office to discuss the options.
That’s when Bryan asked Finley Fortune to get involved.
“When it comes to understanding Washington, Stephannie’s the queen,” he said. “I knew she needed to be a part of this in order for it to even get off the ground.”
Finley Fortune worked in D.C. for years on U.S. Rep. Scott McInnis’ staff. She also brings the UCCS perspective, but the university isn’t officially part of the coalition.
Plus, Bryan said, it’s a bargain for Colorado Springs and El Paso County. Each group pays $10,000 to the coalition for the lobbyist.
“They’re getting a $100,000 lobbyist for $10,000,” he said. “That’s saving a lot of money and it’s given them a lot of benefit.”
The group interviewed several firms but chose Mehlman, Castagnetti for its bipartisan approach (they have both Democrats and Republicans on board) — and thanks to Pickering’s Colorado connections. At the time, her husband was an Air Force officer at Buckley AFB.
This year, the coalition plans to continue its effort to work on regional goals.
The priorities for 2017 include transportation, national security and defense, airports, schools, hospitals and broadband services, as well as cybersecurity, workforce development and advanced manufacturing.
“There’s been talk of a huge infrastructure bill,” Finley Fortune said. “We want to be ready if and when that happens. We have serious infrastructure needs here.”
The coalition raised an additional $12,500 from United Way, coalition members, UCCS, Conspire and a “third-party investor,” according to documents. The group hired Whitley Crow to find grants for the region’s needs. Crow’s mother, Conspire CEO Lynette Crow-Iverson, helped pay for the new position.
“This region is woefully behind other regions in the state in obtaining critical funding from the federal and state government,” documents from the coalition said. “It is important to take the first step, which is entering the game in the first place.”
Finley Fortune says the added emphasis is due to the investors.
“These groups stepped up when others couldn’t or didn’t,” she said. “These investors have come together for the good of everyone in this community — instead of complaining, they took action.”
Members of the coalition
– Scott Bryan, Bryan Construction
– Bob Cope, City of Colorado Springs
– Doug Price, Convention and Visitors
– Andy Merritt and Hannah Parsons, Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce & EDC
– Andy Colosimo, Colorado Springs Utilities
– Mark Waller and Henry Yankowski,
El Paso County
– Barb Winter, Ent Credit Union
– Penrose-St. Francis Health Services
– Tyler Stevens and Jessica McMullen,
Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments
– Terry Storm and Clarissa Arellano-Thomas, Pikes Peak Association of Realtors
– Roger Lovell, Pikes Peak Regional
– Jason Wood and Cindy Aubrey, Pikes Peak United Way
– Nancy Engle, UCHealth Memorial