Here in Colorado Springs, we love disruptive scoundrels who would never have made it in New York. In the Big Apple, Douglas Bruce would have been a small-time real estate grifter, James Dobson's anti-gay screeds would have interested no one, and Doug Lamborn would have been another attorney hoping to make partner.
But if you can't make it in New York, you certainly can make it here. It's easy, comfortable and cheap — and, as Fannie Mae Duncan was wont to proclaim, everybody's welcome! Unless they're not. We don't much care for these talented, uppity folks who don't go along with the conventional wisdom, don't kowtow to our power structure, and don't understand that everything is for the best in this best of cities.
Mike Kazmierski, the retired Army colonel who headed the Colorado Springs Regional Economic Development Corp. from 2005 until mid-2011, was one of those talented guys. He was (and is) smart, plainspoken and fond of voicing unpleasant truths. Such character traits aren't always welcome in corporate America, and may have led to his departure from the EDC during its painful merger with the former Greater Colorado Springs Chamber of Commerce.
The EDC and Chamber are no more, replaced by the Colorado Springs Regional Business Alliance. Despite a hardworking new leadership team, the alliance hasn't had much success bringing new primary employers. A recent article in the Colorado Springs Business Journal questioned their relatively modest recruitment claims, noting that many of the jobs didn't exist.
Kazmierski moved to Reno in November 2011 and took over the Economic Development Authority of Western Nevada (EDAWN), a challenge many would have avoided. Reno was the "Detroit of the West." Unemployment stood at 14.5 percent, primary employers were fleeing or broke, the gaming economy was stagnant, and few businesses were interested in moving there.
"I was lucky," Kazmierski says, talking with the Independent by phone. "I came here when the community was at the bottom, and everyone had figured out that they had to work together. We've built a team that is committed to growing our economy by attracting, retaining and growing quality jobs."
That sounds like typical eco-devo speak, but Kazmierski has delivered. Unemployment has fallen to 9 percent, and in the fiscal year ending July 1, EDAWN just announced it and its partners "assisted 33 companies to relocate or expand in the region, creating a projected 2,112 jobs."
Given the Reno/Sparks population of about 420,000, that's impressive. The details are significant: six corporate headquarters, 11 manufacturers, six logistics companies and 10 back-office/business-support companies.
For the Business Alliance to counter those numbers, it would have to bring more than 3,000 primary jobs to Colorado Springs. That hasn't happened. At best, the alliance has brought in a thousand or so, while deliberately de-emphasizing job creation.
How did Kaz pull it off in Nevada?
"Reno is a lot like Colorado Springs," he says. "It's a much better community than people realize. We have the mountains, we have Tahoe, and we're only seven miles from California as the crow flies — but we're not California. We're on the road a lot, talking to manufacturers. We love manufacturers, and California, so we're told, hates them."
Site visits by companies are important, Kazmierski continues, "because of the companies that visit this region and make a decision to relocate, more than 80 percent choose Reno-Sparks."
Kazmierski's winning formula seems simple: Understand your city, work hard, deploy a few modest incentives, support existing businesses, and help create a vibrant entrepreneurial climate.
So what can we do to replicate Reno's success? "As an economic developer I believe that quality jobs are the key to economic vitality," Kazmierski writes in a follow-up email, "but it takes a village to be successful in job creation (attraction, retention/expansion and entrepreneurial startups). In my humble opinion, job creation must be a community priority and more important than ideological battles on taxes/incentives or personal/political agendas. Reno gets that — not sure C-Springs is there yet."
"It takes a village" — there you go, Kaz, quoting Hillary Clinton! No wonder they had to get rid of you here...