Cecilia Harry migrated from the Upper Midwest to the Pikes Peak region to join the Colorado Springs Chamber & EDC just over a month ago, but she’s already feeling at home.
As chief economic development officer, Harry leads the organization’s efforts to attract, expand, retain and support successful businesses and improve the local economy.
Harry was born in Maryland, where her father was stationed at Andrews Air Force Base. Her dad retired when she was 6 years old, and the family moved back to her mother’s hometown of St. Paul, Minnesota, when she was 9.
That was home until she left for the University of Notre Dame, where she earned a B.A. in psychology. She then earned a master of social work in social and economic development at Washington University in St. Louis.
Harry attended the University of Oklahoma’s Economic Development Institute from 2012-2014. After completing course work and passing a day-and-a-half-long exam, she was designated a Certified Economic Developer by the International Economic Development Council. She’s one of about 1,500 people worldwide who can claim the initials CEcD after their names.
Harry said the certification recognizes “one’s ability to practice economic development across attraction, business retention and expansion, entrepreneurial development and support, and then additional skills of strategic planning [and] managing nonprofits,” among other things.
Before joining the Chamber & EDC, she headed economic development organizations in Leavenworth County, Kansas; Omaha, Nebraska; and Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. She also had her own career development support and coaching business.
Harry spoke with the Business Journal about what she sees as the region’s biggest economic opportunities and challenges, why growth is a regional game and whether she thinks the pace of the Springs’ growth is appropriate.
What led you from social work to economic development?
I was interested in psychology and social work because I really enjoy working with other people and understanding how to build relationships. At the time of going back for my master’s of social work, I had been a case manager for the state of Indiana’s Department of Child Services for a few years. And I found that work very important but also very challenging because of the risk factors often in place that lead to child abuse and neglect happening in the home, and often the challenge of creating positive outcomes for children and families once the state was involved in the household. I went back to school thinking that then I would go back into the child welfare field to affect policy at a larger level, and I was introduced to the concept of economic development as a way to create better opportunities within the community, so that those risk factors for abuse and neglect that are tied to socioeconomic status were mitigated, to some extent, with jobs and opportunities.
So I really like the idea of working with the business community to create and keep good-paying jobs in the community. And then that trickles down to a household getting a good paycheck, which helps keep the lights on, the rent paid, food in the fridge and, hopefully, less stressors in the environment that then hopefully lead to more stable families in the community.
So that’s how I found my way to it, and … it’s just a heck of a lot of fun, too. You get to know the business community, understand where products and services that we use every day come from, and how all of that ties together to a healthy community, a better regional economy and all of that.
What attracted you to the Pikes Peak region?
There are a lot of positive things happening, momentum building on momentum in the region related to growth, and embracing diversification within industry sectors, which is very appealing to an economic developer — but then also a new professional challenge in terms of how to leverage all this positive growth and be a part of the solution for the community to plan for what the next chapter of growth looks like in a responsible, sustainable way for the region. The 35 microbreweries also helped a little bit.
What do you see as the greatest economic development opportunities in the area?
The region has a really dynamic, unique blend of industries that makes up the economy. So one of the best opportunities for this region is to really anticipate not only how the economy as a whole is going to grow, but how the different industry sectors within our regional economy are going to grow. And there’s a lot of different tactics and strategies that we could flesh out and embrace that also have synergies across industries. So I think our greatest opportunity is figuring out how all of that fits together, and how we anticipate opportunities within and across industries to really maximize what the next 20 to 30 years could look like for the region. …
Clearly we have a very strong defense presence. And with the recent announcement of Space Force being created as a new branch of the military, there’s lots of opportunity to leverage the very strong resource base and set of assets that we already have. … But then [there are] also the strengths that we have as a region because of our military presence here. And I think that speaks to the Chamber & EDC’s cybersecurity initiative. … We’ve actually created a new concentration in our industry mix that actually can support not just military, but beyond that.
What do you see as our greatest challenges?
It’s really important to keep a level head when there’s so much good going on in terms of momentum and international recognition for our excellence in certain quality-of-life categories. It’s wonderful to have that recognition. But it’s also really important to make sure that you’re anticipating what might be coming down the road as you grow, and also paying attention to where there’s opportunity to do better, and making sure that the ways that we are growing as a region really allow economic opportunity to develop for everyone. I think that our ability to make sure that our strategies moving forward have an inclusive approach will be really important, because all of that plays into what success looks like for the greater community.
What are your goals for your first year here in Colorado Springs?
I think I have a double challenge in that not only am I new to the organization, but I’m new to the region and the state. So it will be a combination of building good relationships and strengthening alliances within the region, getting to know our business community, getting to know key partners at the city and the county and the state. So really building my network so that I can be a good partner, because it does take multiple heads together to really advance significant growth initiatives. And then internally, I’m really looking forward to leveraging the great wisdom and the wonderful existing relationships that this team has to best understand how we’re making a difference and advancing the mission today, and then how I can contribute to the next chapter of how we advance the mission of the Chamber & EDC in the years to come.
What’s your take on the next inevitable recession, and how do you think you can help businesses prepare?
We’ve been very fortunate to experience this expanded time of growth, not just in the region and state but in the country. And we’re always talking with the existing business community and internally about how to anticipate, how to best weather a downturn in the market and in the economy. A lot of that is not only encouraging existing businesses to anticipate within their industries what could be ahead and how to best weather that, but also making sure that we’re talking about it across industries … and as a region. That’s where I think a diverse economy also is very helpful, because every industry weathers changes in the economy in different ways. And we do have diversification within our region that has helped in past recessions. Looking to that, as an important thing to analyze and leverage moving forward, will be very important as well.
What resources can the Chamber & EDC bring to businesses that perhaps aren’t around now or are not being utilized as well as they could?
One of the core responsibilities of an organization like the Chamber & EDC is to bring smart, influential people together to talk about these very issues, to look back and see what has or hasn’t worked with past initiatives, and then talk about what’s changing, what we can anticipate, and what tools or resources we as a region can provide. That’s on the next frontier, to make sure that we’re maintaining our competitiveness against other regions, and also showing businesses that have already invested here, and businesses that we’re hoping will invest here, that we’re anticipating what they’re going to need within their industry. … As a region, I think we’d love to help our existing business community have an easier time finding qualified workforce, and certainly … we want potential new businesses to the region to feel very good about what growing their team would look like here. That definitely requires forward thinking, collaboration and being creative.
Some people are saying we’re growing too fast and we can’t cope with all this growth. How do we know if we’re growing too much?
Well, unfortunately, there’s no crystal ball to really tell us where the line is, in terms of responsible growth versus unsustainable growth, but that’s where it’s just really important to understand the history of the community, the existing indicators within the economy. And again, do your best to anticipate the outcome that you want and make sure that you’re doing the best you can across disciplines to think through the information that you have, and to make strategic plans to advance the way that you want. So while I very much understand, I don’t think it’s unique to Colorado Springs, that question of what do we want to look like? How do we achieve it? Are we growing in ways that deviate from where we want to be? I think that sort of question and debate is always healthy for a community to have. I think that just speaks to why it’s so important that we have a lot of people at the table and we really look at what the information is telling us, and do our best to take a calculated risk forward to realize the Colorado Springs that we think is in our best interest.