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City Sage

Not too many years ago, it was simple to market Colorado Springs to relocating companies — just give 'em the story line that has, with minor variations, worked since Gen. William Palmer's day.

Pikes Peak! Garden of the Gods! Sunny skies! Good schools! Honest city government! Low taxes! Low utility rates! Safe streets! Lotsa culture! Air Force Academy! Booming economy! Cheap housing! The Broadmoor! Paradise nestled beneath the Front Range — and did we mention low taxes?

It was, in the parlance of hucksters everywhere, a great pitch and an easy close.

"So in conclusion, Mr. Businessman, it's up to you. Do you want to stay where you are and put up with high taxes / a unionized labor force / expensive real estate / Midwestern winters / a city run by crooks and incompetents / a stagnant local economy / deteriorating markets / California crazies (choose one or more!), or come to Colorado Springs and live the good life? It's up to you, and we're here to help."

The pitch still sounds good, but Mr. Businessman (and Ms. Businesswoman) aren't buying it. It's Cuba Gooding Jr. time in the world of economic development: "Show me the money!"

Colorado Springs remains attractive to relocating and expanding companies, but financial incentives rank way ahead of "quality of life" indicators. Dreary cities like Detroit, attractive cities like Albuquerque, and Midwestern iceboxes like Omaha have been writing fat checks to footloose corporations — and we haven't.

That's one reason our economy has stagnated during the past decade, and one of the reasons that the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. is merging with the Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.

The EDC, once part of the Chamber, split from its parent 20 years ago. Under Rocky Scott's sure-footed guidance, the EDC lured new companies here even as the money culture took hold.

Did a national religious nonprofit need land to build its gleaming new headquarters? El Pomar was there to help, and James Dobson came to town.

Did Rockwell abandon its chip manufacturing plant? Intel stepped in, attracted by cheap, reliable water and electricity.

But in recent years, the city's meager incentives haven't been enough.

We still have some successes, but, as City Councilor Tim Leigh says, "This community will never write a check. We're not going to play in that game."

How the mighty have fallen! The sadly diminished EDC, whose leaders once regarded the Chamber with ill-concealed disdain, is now the Chamber's ward. Once boasting a multimillion-dollar budget supported generously by both private and public donors, the EDC is a shadow of its former self. It's like your 20-something son or brother who, out of a job and money, is living in his parents' basement.

The merger agreement is supposed to be announced Nov. 30, but the EDC is already on the move. On Monday the 21st, the remaining employees will relocate from their digs in the Wells Fargo building to temporary quarters a block away in the Alamo Corporate Center.

Rumor hath it that the merged organization will eventually move into the vacant second floor of the USOC building at 27 S. Tejon St. The space belongs to the city, and the USOC hasn't exercised an option to occupy it. So it's available to city nonprofits (with USOC approval) at nominal rent.

The merger is being touted as a way "to create one action-oriented group focused on nurturing the conditions, relationships, and resources necessary to create and sustain a vibrant economy." Fine, but what conditions? What relationships? What resources?

We can expect, I suppose, a new push to attract young professionals, nurture startup companies and lure venture capitalists — following the strategy of every other medium-sized city in America. But maybe we don't need a bold new strategy, but a bold old approach.

"Retail centers need an anchor," says longtime EDC employee Julie Boswell. "Fort Carson, the Air Force Academy, the USOC: those are our city's anchors. We should work to find the next anchor, and if we do I'm sure that the business community and the people of the city will support our effort."

They might even write a check. And if this seems unlikely, guess who was spotted at The Broadmoor last week?

You guessed it: Cuba Gooding Jr.

hazlehurst@csindy.com

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