Colorado Springs is already a major military town, with four installations and the Air Force Academy scattered around it. But if things work out the way local leaders hope, its strategic importance could skyrocket.
The military is on the hunt for a permanent home for the newly stood-up Space Command. Wherever it chooses will reap economic benefits far beyond the direct influx of personnel and construction.
Colorado had seemed to have a leg up in the selection process; Peterson Air Force Base has hosted the command on an interim basis since last summer. And a list of six finalist locations released in 2019 included four possibilities in the state. But the Pentagon announced earlier in March it is reopening the process to select a permanent headquarters for U.S. Space Command.
Defense Secretary Mark Esper told the House Armed Services Committee the decision to reopen the search came after congressional complaints that the first selection process was unfair and not transparent.
However, some, like Democrat Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, another state on the scrapped list of finalists, wondered aloud if the decision to restart was tied up in electoral politics. Voters in whichever community is able to land the command might be more inclined to look favorably on the presidential administration that delivered it.
Esper denied that there’s been any political influence on the selection process and said the decision to go back to the drawing board came from him rather than the President. He said the final decision for this second round would likely not come before the presidential election in November.
Springs Still Hopeful
Nevertheless, the Colorado Springs Chamber and Economic Development Corporation hasn't lost hope. The chamber said it will spend up to $350,000 in 2020 on marketing geared toward convincing President Donald Trump to keep the command in the Springs. Chamber Chief Defense Development Operator Reggie Ash said the expense is worth it; for one thing, the command will initially employ about 1,500 high earning, educated professionals.
“Additionally, it's a military construction project approaching $1 billion, so that means a lot. There's a lot of immediate impact with that,” Ash said.
The chamber tried to take its campaign viral outside Trump’s Colorado Springs campaign rally in February. Members offered attendees free T-shirts, bright red and emblazoned with the logo #usspaceCOm.
But when it came to the dream of greeting the president with a sea of pro-Colorado Springs shirts, the effort ended up being kind of a bust. Ash said Trump campaign staff wouldn’t allow people to wear the shirts into the auditorium.
Companies Move Forward Anyway
On a prominent corner in downtown Colorado Springs, construction crews are finishing up the first-floor headquarters for a new tech startup, Bluestaq. CEO Seth Harvey said the new offices — complete with reclaimed wood walls and comfy lounge areas — will offer all sorts of the Silicon Valley-style amenities that high tech workers have come to expect. Harvey said the goal is to recruit talent away from tech giants like Facebook and Google.
Bluestaq focuses on data management and analytics, often involving satellites, and by far their biggest client is the U.S. military. The company has grown from four employees to 30 in less than two years and Harvey expects to be at 50 by the end of this year, all based in Colorado Springs.
“This is called Space Country,” Harvey said. “A Colorado Springs is really the epicenter of Space Country.”
Harvey built his business in the Springs because of its long history as a hub for the military’s space efforts. He doesn’t think Bluestaq will leave if the president picks another location for Space Command, but he acknowledged it would probably keep other companies like his from starting here.
“When you are trying to build a technical solution, it is important to be right next to your customer,” he said.
Bluestaq isn’t the only company not waiting for a final decision from the Pentagon before investing in the Pikes Peak region.
Springs-based Olive Real Estate Group partner Jim DiBiase said he’s still moving forward with a lot of space-related development, even in the face of the growing uncertainties.
Olive recently purchased a vacant office building in the southeast part of the city, long seen as economically disadvantaged, in anticipation of space industry growth.
DiBiase is bullish that even if Trump chooses another state for Space Command, there’s already a lot of local momentum here.
“I think a majority of the work still gets done here,” DiBiase said. “We're really the only community that has the infrastructure that U.S. Space Command will need to be successful.”
At the moment though, long term interest in the command is taking a backseat to immediate concerns about the novel coronavirus. The Colorado Springs Space Symposium, seen as one of the world’s most important annual industry conferences, has been postponed due to the pandemic.
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.