Washington, D.C.

In government, as in business, it’s all about relationships — and often just knowing the right person to talk to can make all the difference.

A contingent of 45 Colorado Springs business and government leaders who have spent the past few days in Washington, D.C., are coming home with their pockets full of new business cards.

They’re returning today from a three-day trip to the nation’s capital where they talked with federal representatives, agencies and other organizations — and each other — about the issues that are crucial to the business community.

Organized by the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC, the annual D.C. Fly-in is designed to educate participants, help smooth the way for important projects and even result in policy changes that benefit the Pikes Peak region.

Rachel Beck, Chamber vice president for government affairs, described the trip as “a long-standing tradition” that provides valuable tips and takeaways.

“We think it’s really important that our business community is speaking directly with their federal representatives on the issues that are most important to the business community,” Beck said.

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“This is something that the chamber does as representatives of the business community, but it’s so much more powerful when it’s the business owners themselves,” she said.

As part of the program, Beck invited one of her former professors from George Washington University to speak to the group about the federal budget.

“She talked about things that we should be doing to influence outcomes in D.C. and how chambers and business members can advocate for our needs,” Beck said. “There’s some action steps there, I think.”

El Paso County Commissioner Stan VanderWerf is bringing back valuable information and contacts that could help the region obtain grants for transportation projects.

“We just finished a meeting [on Wednesday] with the Department of Transportation, where we have a couple of BUILD grants in place that are under evaluation right now,” VanderWerf said.

The grants are for a road intersection in Colorado Springs, much-needed work on U.S. Highway 94 near Schriever Air Force Base and planning money for a proposed railyard in the Fountain area.

Several members of the Springs contingent met with the deputy and assistant secretaries of transportation and other top-level officials to pitch the grants.

“The assistant secretary recommended that our [Congressional] delegation should call the secretary of the department and advocate for those grants,” VanderWerf said. “We wouldn’t have thought about that, but it was the [Department of Transportation] senior leadership team that made the recommendation. 

“So that’s a piece of discovery — that they are open and willing to receive those phone calls from our delegation. It’s one of the findings that I’ll take back to the other commissioners and share with the whole team — to set up an engagement with our delegation and ask them to call the secretary and support those grants. … We’ll find out in a few weeks whether we’re successful.”

The Pikes Peak Fly-in participants were divided into four tracks that focused on economic development (VanderWerf’s team), infrastructure, cybersecurity and defense.

VanderWerf was joined on the economic development team by Chamber CEO Dirk Draper; Kimberly Bailey, economic development/urban renewal director for Fountain; County Commissioner Cami Bremer; John Frederick, director of state and local government relations at The Boeing Co.; City Councilor Jill Gaebler; Chelsea Gaylord, economic development project manager for the city of Colorado Springs; Andy Gunning, executive director of the Pikes Peak Area Council of Governments; Traci Marques, executive director/CEO of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center; Joe OBrien, vice president prospects/marketing at the Pueblo Economic Development Corp.; School District 11 Supt. Michael Thomas; and Matt Vineyard, senior project manager at JE Dunn Construction.

VanderWerf, who’s joined the Fly-in two previous years, said he arrived a day early and spent Monday, Sept. 16, meeting with members of the Colorado delegation, and also paid a visit to Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.).

He brought a proposal to modify the legislation that created opportunity zones to ease hiring of people from economically disadvantaged areas.

“We submitted some public comments to the IRS, and we believe those changes can be made administratively,” he said. “But if the IRS does not add our recommended changes, we will go to our delegation and ask for legislative activity to make the changes.”

In part, “it was about networking with our own team,” he said, but he also went to Scott’s office because Scott introduced the opportunity zone legislation.

Workforce issues were a main focus of the economic development team, and VanderWerf, who is chair of the Pikes Peak Workforce Center board, spent a fair amount of time talking about the center’s funding.

In June, the center laid off five of its 47 employees in the wake of budget cuts. As a matter of policy, federal funding for the workforce centers drops when times are good, while it increases when the economy isn’t doing so well.

VanderWerf and other members of the team visited the National Governors Association and the National Association of Workforce Boards to advocate for a more stable funding approach.

“The point I was trying to make is that, when the economy is down, the workforce centers help people find jobs,” he said. “But when the economy is hot like it is in Colorado Springs right now, the real challenge is companies finding employees. … More stability in the workforce funding might be very helpful.

“That’s an example of some of the nuances that we come out here to work on,” he said. “You can sense the value of it, because we get to meet with these agencies, and that sends a message that our community is united and working together and interested in interaction with federal governments to help where they can to make our community a better place.”

For participants, one of the best parts of the trip is networking with other people from the community.

“It’s somewhat ironic, I suppose, that people are leaving town to get to know each other,” Beck said, “but that time in small groups focused on common goals really does lead to collaboration between community agencies here and at home.”

A post-trip meeting will be held in a couple of weeks for participants to share and follow through on what they learned.