If the country has a city that exemplifies the nation, it might be Chicago. Despite it being a world-class city, it was stockyards, steel mills and ethnic diversity--- Italians, Latinos, Poles and a tapestry of others---that made its heart pump. Blue collar men and women defined the city’s image. It was, ‘the city with big shoulders.”
If Colorado has its own version of Chicago, it just might be Pueblo, the hub of southern Colorado. But if Pueblo is the hub, it is towns like Ordway, La Junta and Rocky Ford to the east and Walsenburg and Trinidad to the south that are its spokes. Pueblo has always been southern Colorado’s big wheel that keeps on turning.
For years, people came from these towns to shop for cars and big-ticket items, to take in movies or enjoy a good meal at the city’s restaurants. A lot of them also came to work, at the Army Depot and the steel mill, jobs that paid well and put food on the table for generations. Indeed, Pueblo was as round-the-clock ready as the Depot and tough as steel at the mill, the two things that once defined it.
But the town hit a rough patch in the seventies when the Army Depot all but shuttered and the market tanked for steel. In a town where unemployment rarely drew attention, red flags waved and blood pressures launched. Unemployment hit 25 percent. And while the storm lingered longer than anyone might have wanted it to, Pueblo weathered it and slowly, the clouds began to break and the sun, once again, began to shine.
Today, unemployment in Pueblo sits at 3.7 percent, still a bit higher than the state average of 2.9 percent. But all signs, said Jeff Shaw, President and CEO of the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation, are trending in the right direction. “Pueblo has everything that we think a company would ever want,” said Shaw, citing its long labor history and steady workforce. It also has a good university, community college and other amenities that make it attractive.
Shaw said PEDCO’s approach is to focus on companies it knows might be interested in relocating. Large companies, he conceded, need to be in larger markets that have all the amenities. Places like Pueblo sell quality of life and do what they can to incentivize the deal. “Our citizens have been willing to tax themselves,” in order to attract new employers. That means favorable long-term leases, along with promises of infrastructure, including roads and sidewalks. It’s the cost of doing business.
In a never-ending competition for jobs, this approach is not unusual. And when making a pitch for companies in California, a place Shaw said is always on the radar for new jobs and where state taxes exceed 11 percent, cities and regions do what they have to. If it doesn’t work, nothing is lost, said the Pueblo pitchman. But if sweetening the deal works, the payoff is jobs.
Pueblo has a good mix of both public and private employers, said Shaw. According to the city’s website, the city’s school district and Parkview Medical Center make up Pueblo’s largest public and private job providers. Other employers include St. Mary Corwin Medical Center, the county’s School District 70, Colorado Institute of Mental Health, Evraz Steel and Vestas, manufacturer of wind towers. The state of Colorado and federal government also provide employment opportunities in Pueblo.
Pueblo faces the same challenges that many smaller communities across the U.S. deal with. But, said Shaw, selling Pueblo is not hard. Infrastructure, as an example, is almost a dream for companies considering Pueblo and southern Colorado. “Logistics and transportation are a strong selling point,” said Shaw, citing Interstate 25, north and south, and Colorado Highway 50, east and west. Rail is also good, along with building inventory and, added Shaw, “our airport has lots of capacity.” Other amenities include water, climate, Pueblo’s cost of living and quality of life. No one coming to Pueblo should ever have to worry about rush hour grid lock, said Shaw. “A rush hour is two cycles of a stop light.”