Back on the agenda: d’town center in FC

The City of Fort Collins is developing a new Economic Health Strategic Plan that includes a familiar proposal: pushing for a conference center in downtown Fort Collins.

Such a center could bring increased tax revenues and employment to the city, the plan says. It also could help foster development in the area that surrounds it.

Though the economy is improving, whether the idea gains any momentum now is hardly a sure thing. Business interests have been pushing for a downtown conference center – either as a standalone project or as part of a hotel – for years.

The last economic development plan was produced in 2005, according to city Economic Health Director Josh Birks. Everything in that plan has been “crossed off the list,” Birks said, so the city decided it was time to set new goals. The new plan will be presented to City Council on Tuesday, March 27.

While there are no budget changes listed in the plan, it will have an impact on the way the Economic Health Office spends the dollars appropriated to it in the city budget. Budget discussions for 2013 and 2014, the first years in which the plan would likely be implemented, are now under way.

If the council adopts the plan, something Birks is hoping will happen in April, work will begin to move forward with specific projects and partnerships, Birks said.

“2012 will be a transition year for pilots, testing ideas and putting in groundwork,” he said. “2013 and 2014 will really be the growth years.”

Birks’ office has outlined four “pillars” for promoting the “vibrancy and resiliency” of the economy.

“Stronger support network for existing employers, new businesses and small business”

Between 2004 and 2008, new businesses in Fort Collins were responsible for creating almost 15,000 jobs, approximately 13 percent of the 2008 private-sector job base. The support of these businesses has been a priority for the economic health office for years, and the new plan will continue to emphasize their importance.

The plan proposes formalizing aspects of the city’s retention and expansion program by establishing and maintaining relationships with Fort Collins’ top 20 employers, which include businesses from a variety of sectors, from health care to manufacturers.

The city also will work with the Northern Colorado Economic Development Corp. on a business expansion and retention survey for all of Larimer County.

Stronger connections between components of Fort Collins’ small-business support system are also needed, according to the plan. Local organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce, the Small Business Development Center and Beet Street would be included in a small-business support network.

“A robust innovation ecosystem that supports companies at all stages of growth”

This pillar relates to the amount of intellectual capital produced in Fort Collins and how best to capitalize on the ideas fueled by Colorado State University, CSU’s Energy and Engines Conversion Lab and the Rocky Mountain Innosphere.

Fort Collins ranked in the top 20 cities for innovation in 2010, based upon statistics compiled by the U.S. Patent Office. According to the data, Fort Collins produces 10 patents for every 10,000 residents.

Access to capital is an impediment for startups, according to the city’s strategic plan, with fewer than 10 of the 89 venture capital deals made statewide in 2010 going to Fort Collins companies.

A related problem, according to the plan, is that Fort Collins’ entrepreneurial spirit does not always reach CSU faculty and students, some of the most likely generators of innovation.

To remedy these issues, the economic health plan suggests improving the way the Innosphere interacts with the community, making it “the centerpiece of Fort Collins’ innovation economy.”

To make that happen, the Innosphere will need to increase communications and outreach, administrative support for industry clusters and business assistance.

“A talent management system that anticipates employers’ needs”

Fort Collins tends to have an underemployment problem, which many may attribute to the presence of the university, though CSU is not the only reason for underemployment in the area, according to Birks.

Often underemployment in college towns is a result of graduates placing more importance upon staying in the city they have come to know and love than finding a job that matches skills gained in college. This only accounts for a portion of the underemployment in Fort Collins, Birks said.

Forty-one percent of the population in the Fort Collins metropolitan statistical area has a bachelor’s degree or higher, but only 25 percent of the jobs in the area require that level of education.

One of the proposed solutions to this problem is enhancing the community’s understanding of the labor force, market and assorted industry issues. The plan suggests working with the Larimer County Workforce Center to better integrate Fort Collins’ target industries with the skills and training available in the workforce.

Many of the goals set forth by the Economic Health Office line up with the goals of the Workforce Center, according to Kathy Dotson, business development manager for the center. In addition, the Workforce Center already monitors labor market data and employer input, two things for which the city’s plan calls.

Working together would streamline the process and ensure that employers are not receiving multiple phone calls requesting the same information, Dotson said.

“Community assets and infrastructure necessary to support the region’s employers and talent”

This is where the idea for a downtown conference center comes in.

The Economic Health Office wants to capitalize on the many amenities in Fort Collins and the accolades it has received on a variety of levels. In order to best accomplish this goal, the plan emphasizes the importance of encouraging the development of business districts and commercial corridors.

A downtown conference center would serve as a meeting space for businesses, entrepreneurs, visitors and students, the plan says.

The plan mentions public-private partnerships, coordination with the Urban Land Institute Advisory Panel, and alternative revenue streams, such as weddings and family reunions, to ensure the financial sustainability of such a center.

The question of financial viability has been one of the main stumbling blocks over the years.

Plans for a $60 million, 150-room hotel and 40,000-square-foot convention center at Remington and Oak streets were shelved in August 2008, just as the economy was headed into recession. Corporex Colorado, a subsidiary of a Kentucky-based developer, said it would instead incorporate 10,000 square feet of meeting space into its hotel. That hotel, however, was never built.


Molly Armbrister covers real estate, banking and health care for the Northern Colorado Business Report. She can be reached at 970-232-3139, marmbrister@ncbr.com or twitter.com/MArmbristerNCBR
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