On a recent week, a soup kitchen in downtown Colorado Springs handed out a staggering 4,000 meals. The bustling facility opened at an inauspicious time.
“We opened the doors and all of a sudden the economic recession hit,” says Rochelle Schlortt with Catholic Charities. “The demand increased 40 percent. Is that the new normal? I don’t know. But it certainly hasn’t changed.”
That’s partly because the job market for guys like Keith Douglas is still brutal. The unemployed janitor sits in front of a heaping plate of food in the busy dining hall. He sees the down economy first hand.
“I’ve been out of work for, it’s going on nine months now,” says Douglas. “It’s the longest I’ve ever been out of work here in the Springs.”
Though unemployment has fallen in recent months to 6.4 percent, it’s still higher than the state (5.3 percent) and national rate (6.2 percent). The number of people living in poverty here has grown by 87.5 percent since 2000, according to a report from The Brookings Institution. Half a decade later, the region has yet to recover all the jobs lost during the last recession.
“When you drill down to the detail, everything south of Monument Hill, in terms of the Front Range, is struggling,” says Tom Binnings, an economist and longtime Colorado Springs resident.
Binnings says the region’s greatest asset, the military, has become a drag on the economy as the Pentagon winds down foreign wars and looks to trim the budget.
And the region doesn’t have a big lobbying effort ready to combat the cuts.
“And that’s an issue,” says Binnings.
The state Legislature passed a law last session setting $300,000 aside to study Colorado’s military infrastructure. The resulting report could help state leaders make an informed case to Congress to minimize cuts.
The region’s various bases account for an estimated $12 billion a year in economic impact, and 68,000 direct jobs, according to the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance.
The slowdown in Colorado Springs actually began a decade and a half earlier with the decline in manufacturing, especially in the high-tech sector.
“The semiconductor exodus was really the start of the whole manufacturing exodus out of the United States,” says Tom Neppl, owner of Springs Fabrication and chair of the Regional Business Alliance.
Computer chip building was so big that Neppl says the area was referred to as Silicon Mountain.
All manufacturing jobs here fell by more than 50 percent since the dot com days, the biggest decline, by far, of any metro area in Colorado.
Business and community leaders are now focused on bringing in new industries, especially centered around the sports economy. The city is home to the United States Olympic Committee headquarters and training center.
And the region has a lot to offer young professionals, with the mountains so close.
“But there are more factors that young people are interested in than just the outdoor environment,” says Neppl, who has been losing talented engineers who want the kind of city culture Denver has to offer.
Bob Cope is a project manager for City for Champions which is, partly, a US Olympic Museum and a downtown stadium -- potentially hundreds of millions of dollars in public and private investment. It's a big shift for a city that doesn’t invest in these kinds of projects.
For inspiration, Cope and his crew traveled to Denver and walked around downtown.
“There were young people everywhere,” says Cope. “We can make that happen here. We’re not Denver. We don’t want to be Denver, but we can still learn from some of the things they’ve done. Just look at Union Station. It’s just incredible.”
Business leaders like Tom Neppl, who support City for Champions, know it’ll be an uphill battle.
“We no doubt are going to have opposition from what we call the CAVE people, Citizens Against Virtually Everything,” says Neppl. “We do have plenty of those here. It’s a challenge.”
For supporters this isn’t about a few big buildings, it’s not just about creating jobs. Neppl says City for Champions has become a fight for the identity of Colorado Springs.
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