Partners for Colorado, the transition team assembled by Governor-elect Hickenlooper, held one of its town hall meetings today in Aurora to solicit ideas for economic development. On many levels, the conduct of the meeting demonstrated how hard it will be to conduct economic development in Colorado.
John Huggins, a well-known civic leader with economic development experience in Colorado, moderated the meeting. The audience was asked to voice ideas and challenges. This information was captured on flipcharts and then voted on by the attendees.
The top three recommendations for economic development were:
- Emphasize higher education related to research
- Coordinate and integrate STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) education
- Greater support for startup businesses
The top three challenges facing economic development were:
- Shrinking water supplies in Colorado
- Lack of funding for higher education
- Lack of focus on small business
It should be pointed out that there were only about 15 people in attendance at the meeting. Since the meeting was held at the Nighthorse Campbell Native Health Building on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus, and about one third of the attendees appeared to be students, faculty or administration, it is not surprising that emphasizing higher education related to research was the top recommendation. The executive director of the Aurora Chamber of Commerce complained that the event was poorly publicized and that he only heard about it late the day before.
Getting to the event, finding parking and complaints about higher education funding may represent the State’s economic development situation in a microcosm. A major road improvement on I-225, that had traffic ground to a halt and delayed people getting to the meeting, is being completed at a cost of $20.5 million; an investment in infrastructure instead of small business. The choice of the meeting site was a college campus, not a coffee shop or other place where businesses commonly frequent. No parking was available close to the Nighthorse Campbell building, reflecting a ‘not open for business’ attitude. Plus, I received a $20 parking ticket for parking in a nearly empty visitor’s parking lot that did not indicate that payment of a parking fee was required. Apparently, the serious shortage of funding for higher education complained about at the meeting did not extend to the hiring of meter maids to protect the university from illegal parkers like me. Speaking of which, the State of Colorado provided a record $670 million to higher education in 2009 that was matched again this year. This was only accomplished with $374 million of federal stimulus money. However, the State’s 2010 economic development programs did not include investing an equal amount of $400 million dollars into small businesses. Instead, it took the form of higher vehicle registration and other fees leading to reduced profits and as a placebo a tax credit for anyone with profits left over who could use it.
The incoming governor and his yet to be appointed director of economic development will find themselves stuck between a recession and the federal government with the State’s citizens demanding attention to a variety of pet projects. Small businesses will continue to face the difficulty of making themselves heard and attaining any priority on the new administration’s agenda.