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While metro areas across the nation struggled with stagnant economies caused by the pandemic, Pueblo was vaulting its way up the list of 2021 Best Performing Cities.

Released by the Milken Institute Center for Regional Economics, the list saw Pueblo ranking higher through a combination of increased connectivity, innovation, planning and business support. 

The Milken Institute’s annual index ranks economic vitality in 200 large metropolitan areas and 201 small metro areas, measuring job creation, wage growth, and innovation industry metrics. Housing affordability and broadband access were added as criteria this year, to better reflect the inclusiveness of local economies. For the first time, metro areas were grouped into five tiers, allowing policymakers, business leaders and residents to more easily compare economic performance among equivalent cities.

Among smaller metro areas, Pueblo ranked No. 52 but enjoyed a large one-year gain, rising 47 places from its No. 99 ranking in 2020. That placed Pueblo at No. 11 among Tier 2 cities with significant rises in rankings. (The other Colorado city on the small city list was Grand Junction, 57th on this year’s list.)  

Six of the nine biggest gainers had housing that was more affordable than the median on both one-year and five-year indicators. Those that fell in the rankings shared characteristics that made them vulnerable to pandemic-driven economic volatility. These included relatively high housing costs, low levels of broadband connectivity, few high-tech industries, and short-term employment loss. 

Pueblo Mayor Nick Gradishar said many cities might have seen 2020 as a lost year, but he was proud that Pueblo took it as an opportunity to plan for its future while supporting area businesses.  Early in the pandemic, the city established the Pueblo Business Economic Recovery Team (BERT) to help businesses survive through the pandemic. BERT is a collaboration between 22 agencies, including local government, chambers of commerce and economic development agencies. Its subcommittees connected businesses to financial, marketing and management consulting assistance.  

The “One Pueblo” plan was another outcome of the BERT initiative, born out of interviews, surveys and meetings conducted with Ady Advantage, the firm hired to help build the city’s economic development vision. The report identified elements critical to the economic recovery in Pueblo, while highlighting areas where Pueblo could make its mark, including food and beverage processing and the hemp-related industry.

The report cited infrastructure barriers — from utilities to broadband internet — as roadblocks to economic development. 

Pueblo had taken note of access concerns before the report was released, and had started tackling connectivity issues, focusing on high impact areas like education. Remote learning fixes were fast-tracked as the pandemic unfolded. 

“As far as broadband access and internet connectivity, I think Pueblo is pretty well connected overall for the student population,” said Zach Mather, director of technology at Pueblo City Schools. “The pockets of town that have less than adequate access are due either to lack of infrastructure or exist on the outskirts of the cellular range.”

Mather said since last March, his department distributed more than 500 wireless hotspots to students and families with connectivity issues. While the team didn’t ask for details about why a family’s access was inadequate, Mather noted a variety of reasons including homelessness, credit issues and frequent moving.   

“Our goal was to provide access to any student that needed internet so they could participate in school,” Mather said. “We are in a better place than many other cities and locations. From a percentage standpoint, that puts us below 5 percent of students needing access, which is really good compared to national numbers which, depending on the metric, shows 20-35 percent of students do not have adequate access to high-speed internet.”

To protect those students and families who could be most at risk of having serious health issues caused by COVID-19, Pueblo’s School District 70 opened a stand-alone remote learning school. While the students are still officially tied to their home schools, they are taught in an educational setting similar to in-person kids, with the same curriculum. 

The One Pueblo report noted positives which will boost economic recovery, including nonprofits and the presence of Pueblo Community College and CSU Pueblo, making Pueblo one of the few communities of its size to have access to both a two- and four-year college. 

­— Lori Arellano and Cora Zalatel lead researchers for Pueblo Shares, a city/county initiative to promote Pueblo