The Colorado Springs community is collaborative, blessed with natural advantages to attract new businesses and is a leader in workforce development.
Those were among the positive impressions that eight site selection consultants from across the country are taking home with them after a weeklong familiarization tour hosted by the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC.
There are also some challenges that Colorado Springs could address in order to be more competitive in attracting businesses, the consultants said.
They shared their key takeaways from the tour with 150 business and community leaders Aug. 9 at the Garden of the Gods Club and responded to questions from moderator Tammy Fields, senior vice president economic development with the Chamber & EDC.
Scott Pollock, senior vice president of Juniper Solutions, Cleveland, Ohio, said he was “super impressed” by the region’s Midwest values and gorgeous weather.
“It’s welcoming; it’s just an awesome community,” said Charlie Walker, site selection consultant at Ady Advantage, Madison, Wis.
Lew Mollenkamp, president & CEO of American Corporate Location Services, Fort Worth, Texas, was impressed with “how engaged the entire community is in supporting business.”
And Chris Lloyd, senior vice president and director of infrastructure and economic development at McGuireWoods Consulting, Richmond, Va., found that Colorado Springs has managed to carve out its own identity separate from the Denver metro area.
“You guys get it. You guys are well-respected; that’s what you want when trying to attract people,” said Alexis Sowder, multistate project manager at KSM Location Advisors, Indianapolis, Ind. Sowder added that she got a “very familiar, comfortable feeling” here that makes her want to come back.
Colorado Springs’ strengths include having a singular vision and well-developed procedures to attract and retain businesses, said Alison Benton, president, Aliquantus Consulting, Fort Worth.
But the city could make it easier for businesses to come here, she said.
Lloyd cited lack of a strong university research presence and school of medicine as weaknesses but noted steps were being taken in those directions.
And Walker suggested that, “if we’re looking at space, if we’re looking at cybersecurity, you’re going to have to step a little faster to get your share of that.”
Eleanor Skinner, senior associate at Site Selection Group in Dallas said, “Everyone is looking for that turnkey right now, and that’s not really something we’re finding a lot of in Colorado Springs.”
Pollock agreed, and drew murmurs and headshakes from the crowd when he said he found a lack of vibrancy and multifamily development in downtown Colorado Springs, although he praised the efforts of Susan Edmondson and the Downtown Partnership.
“Quality of life is probably the No. 1 thing on our clients’ radar right now,” Pollock said. “Having a vital downtown corridor is so important to what our clients are looking for.”
The consultants cited Augusta, Ga., as a major competitor with Colorado Springs in cybersecurity development, along with San Antonio, Texas; Boise, Idaho; and big metro areas like San Diego, San Francisco and New York.
In the aerospace realm, the competition becomes international, including Canada, the United Kingdom, Israel and Japan.
“You have relationships that can build into that space arena very easily,” Walker said, prompting cheers when he added, “You guys are going to land Space Command. You guys can do it.”
Benton suggested benchmarking Tulsa, Okla., which has a robust, young workforce. Tulsa is attracting young people and larger industries because of a strong downtown core, plenty of entertainment and semi-pro sports teams, she said.
From a workforce development standpoint, Colorado Springs is ahead of many communities in “investing in the downstream” such as STEM classes starting in the elementary grades, Pollock said, adding that Colorado Springs’ military transition programs are a competitive advantage in using a workforce other cities don’t have.
Lloyd urged business leaders to continue engaging with the education community.
“It is your job to show leadership to shape the curriculum to shape the workforce you’re going to be relying on,” Lloyd said.
How companies decide
Businesses use data points to narrow a list of communities when they’re looking to relocate, the consultants said, but after that, personal relationships become more important.
“The thing to remember is that companies are not charities; they’re not investing money in your community because they want to,” Lloyd said. “Companies are making corporate location decisions because they’re being forced to do so.”
Talent is paramount, said Conner Wisdorf, advisor at T3 Advisors in Seattle. “Companies are beginning to care more and more not just about the raw numbers and the depth, but what individuals in those communities are making up that talent pool. So they’re caring about the demographics in the background, and the socioeconomic status of those groups and looking for locations that really span a wide gap and cover a lot of different backgrounds to compile that software engineering, technical sales or customer support [workforce].”
Businesses within the community should be ambassadors, “from the person that greets them when they get off the airplane at the airport, from whoever their cab driver is, to the front desk clerk to the waiter and waitresses at the restaurant,” Lloyd said. “I’ve had clients make decisions on corporate locations based on the waitress that they had at a restaurant, or the way that they were treated at a store when they had a 15-minute break.”
Role of incentives
Incentives don’t drive most projects, the consultants said. Instead, clients are looking for communities that will ease their path toward opening, such as streamlining permitting processes.
“The faster you can get a project to market and the person making money, the better,” Lloyd said.
Benton said she thinks communities sometimes offer incentives too quickly and arbitrarily.
“Most of us won’t take clients where that’s their No. 1, because they’re already an unstable business,” she said. “Many communities say, ‘we’re not doing that.’”
However, “cash is king,” Mollenkamp said. “If you can defer the upfront costs and make that first year of operation great, it makes a lot of people happy.”
Clients are increasingly looking at relocating into well-drawn opportunity zones, which Colorado Springs has.
And while it’s great if a community can attract large firms, “a lot of our clients are what we call middle market companies — 200 to 300 employees, maybe $15 [million] to $20 million payroll,” Pollock said. “And this might be an opportunity to think about for Colorado Springs … I think the economic development community might be better off taking the one big check and spreading it out to the small guys.”