Assessing the local economy 

City Sage

Since 1991, economist Dave Bamberger has released his monthly list of Colorado Springs Economic Indicators. The list, now in its 25th year, usually spawns predictably trite newspaper headlines and/or social media posts.

In good times, "Auto sales at record high," "Foreclosures down 21 percent" or "Hotel occupancy reaches 90 percent." In bad times, substitute low for high, up for down, plummets for surges. The reports, in aggregate, are far more interesting than the monthly snapshot. Compare some numbers from June 1991 to June 2016, and you get a picture that doesn't conform to the usual narrative, which goes something like this:

In 1991, we were just emerging from a severe local recession. A commercial real estate boom had collapsed along with the savings and loan industry. Tycoons such as Steve Schuck and David Jenkins struggled to survive as lesser investors quietly went broke.

The dynamic changed under Bill Clinton, as Colorado Springs and America prospered. Pikes Peak? How about Silicon Mountain? High-tech manufacturing created 20,000 jobs, Intel moved to town, and everything was great ... until 9/11. The city stagnated, high-tech manufacturers moved offshore, and California businesses no longer sought to move here. We had the military, religious nonprofits and The Broadmoor — and that was about it.

We had a brief flurry of prosperity in the mid-aughts, but the Great Recession came to town before we could benefit from the real estate boom. Then we had years of municipal malaise, starting with the $20 million the city opted to pay the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Things are pretty good now, though. Unemployment is below 4 percent, downtown is thriving, the suburbs are exploding, the Cimarron interchange is being rebuilt, real estate prices are up, and everything's rosy — but just wait! Things will go bad again, because they always do.

It's a gloomy narrative, isn't it? Ours is the little city that couldn't, the Front Range's redheaded stepchild. Boulder, Denver, Fort Collins: mighty engines of innovation, powered by youthful entrepreneurs and progressive local government, moving irresistibly into the 21st century. Colorado Springs: governed by sour-faced old white guys who burn giant heaps of coal in the middle of downtown, give away precious parkland and negotiate bad deals with a cheerful, smiling old white guy who's a lot smarter than all of them put together.

An examination of Bamberger's 25 years of local economic history partially dispels that myth. In June 1991, the "12-month moving average of total taxable retail sales" predicted an annual figure of $2.21 billion. In June 2016, the same moving average predicts total taxable 2016 retail sales in the city at $7.12 billion. Unadjusted for inflation, that's a 322 percent increase.

City sales tax collections (based on a 2 percent base sales tax rate) similarly increased, rising from $4.1 million in June 1991 to $12.1 million in June 2016.

In June 1991, 114 single-family homes were constructed, projecting an annual total of 866. But the numbers rose as the economy strengthened, more than tripling in June 1993. Until the recession struck in 2008, the annual rate never sunk below 3,000 and often exceeded 5,000. As the recession bottomed out in 2009, single-family construction cratered, dropping to an annual rate of 976.

Today? We're OK with an annual rate of 3,161 in June.

But what about jobs? By those numbers, the reason for our malaise is clear. We had 163,600 jobs in 1991; today we have 280,900. That sounds good, but consider that we had 254,800 in November 2000, dropped down into the 220s, and only surpassed the November 2000 total in April 2013 when we recorded 255,800. For most of this century, the numbers have looked good, but they haven't felt good.

Jobs here are tough to get, and they don't seem to pay much. That sales tax growth? It may have something to do with our retired and active-duty military community, whose paychecks come from the feds.

And what about those 7,000 new jobs touted by city leaders, paying an average salary of $62,500?

Here's a cynical theory: Maybe there are actually 6,999 new part-time service positions paying an average of around $16,000 ... and Broadmoor/Gazette owner Phil Anschutz' estimated annual compensation of $315 million.

OK, I made that up. But we all know that quality of life starts with your job. I'm profoundly grateful to have one, and I hope that those of us who don't will soon find one — just not mine.

  • The numbers have looked good, but they haven’t felt good.

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