There are some professionals around who found work in the college town that once hosted the best days of their lives. And there are certainly enough to populate Tony's during the late evening hours. But Colorado Springs has never been home to a large group of young entrepreneurs.
It was a common refrain during the city election cycle earlier this year. In fact, the final mayoral debate of the run-off election was put on by a group of young professionals calling themselves the Springs Vision Forum, and focused largely on issues related to attracting, retaining and energizing others like them.
One such person made headlines last week, when City Council approved a proposal to allow Colorado Springs Utilities customers to buy into solar gardens. The company most responsible for pushing the idea locally is SunShare, a brand-new outfit run by 24-year-old Colorado College grad David Amster-Olszewski.
Amster-Olszewski isn't the only young Springs resident to be sending out press releases lately. Over the past couple months, a couple others under age 40 have started promoting some forward-thinking ideas in our city, too.
With the exception of 18 months spent elsewhere, 37-year-old Jonathan Kuiper has lived in town since he was 7. So it was that when his best idea to do good finally crystallized late one night, and a glassy-eyed Kuiper pulled his car over, he was on the side of Woodmen Road.
The ChangeMob (changemob.com) identifies nonprofits that need help; finds businesses that want to be associated with helping that nonprofit; and then brings in the consumer via a weekly e-mail deal.
Give a $1 donation to the nonprofit, and get a coupon from the business. It's got commonalities with the Groupon concept, but with the charitable benefit and also the ChangeMob's assurances that the business will not lose money on the deal.
Last week, in the outfit's inaugural deal, VEDA Salon & Spa gave away about 500 $30 haircuts to people who donated at least $1 to Restore Innocence, a group that aims to build a local home for human-trafficking victims.
Kuiper says the ChangeMob so far has attracted hundreds of thousands in private funding. There may be an IPO in its future. Right now, eight people work full time "and then some" out of the ChangeMob's South Cascade Avenue office; other full-time workers, friends of Kuiper and his partners, are sprinkled in a few other U.S. cities.
However, Kuiper wants the business headquarters to stay local. He's got six kids and says "Colorado's got great people, great hearts."
"Springs is an interesting city, man," he continues. "We have a lot of extreme left, we have a lot of extreme right, and a big part of this philosophy to me is, 'You know what, let's see what we can do together. Let's come together to do something rather than come together to be against something.' And I think this is a really good town for that."
'A Bohemian feel'
Ryan L. Cross, a 31-year-old web application developer, wanted to create a space locally where freelancers, contractors in creative fields and others could ask for advice and bounce ideas off each other while doing their work. While "co-working" spaces have been around in larger cities for a while, the Springs had nothing like it.
Cross started the Enclave (enclavecoop.com) in the summer 2010, and moved it last month to a larger space off North Academy Boulevard. There are 17 total desks, with nine reserved for permanent members. (Currently, seven people are renting space for full-time work.) You can rent by the day for $15, by the week for $50, or choose a monthly rate: one where you pick up at the end of the day and don't leave a trace for $120, and another that lets you set up permanently for $180.
In addition to collaborators and brainstormers, the space provides a desk, power outlets, Internet usage, coffee and a cereal bar.
"The goal of this space is to have a Bohemian feel," says Cross, who himself works at the Enclave. "The whole point is to provide the creative atmosphere conducive for work."
Cross has been in the Springs since high school, and he understands what it's all about. As his website states, "Let's face it, our city isn't the hippest or most networked city around when it comes to technology."
"There are people scattered around the Springs as freelancers and independents," he says, "but there is no social place to go in the community."
He says he could be in Austin or San Francisco for his career. But with the Enclave, he can stay near family and the outdoor environment he loves.
"We have a really good thing with the Enclave," he says. "It's actually building a community."
Neither Kuiper nor Cross needed buy-in from city leaders to make their ideas happen. Kuiper, in fact, has purposely steered clear of the local power structure: "I'm not interested in agendas, man. I don't think anyone is. I think people just want to have things done. I'm not interested in special-interest things. You know, the special interest for me is the person across the street who needs some help."
Amster-Olszewski, however, could not have found much of a home here if City Council hadn't welcomed his business model, which allows Utilities customers to invest as little as $1,100 into a solar garden and to get a utility credit for doing so. He says a garden location for the project, which Amster-Olszewski now values at $3 million, will likely be announced next week.
Amster-Olszewski says that people think of solar business as being located in Boulder, Denver and Berkeley, Calif., and that there are many parts of America where people aren't thinking about it at all. The Springs has been one such place; he notes that the Brookings Institution recently ranked it No. 99 among 100 major U.S. cities for clean energy jobs.
But as a college student, Amster-Olszewski loved the great outdoor surroundings and the athleticism of the people here. It's a good place for a company whose four full-time employees, four interns and three volunteers are all younger than 30.
He says SunShare's office is his living room, and that when the company (mysunshare.com) holds group meetings, they go to the Worner Center at CC. It's ground zero for helping to redefine the renewables game.
"Solar energy," he says, "is not only for college-educated, wealthy Democrats."
Additional reporting by Kirk Woundy.