As the year 2020 began, the country was sailing along with a strong economy and no turbulence to speak of. A pilot might have described economic conditions the way they describe perfect flying weather; CAVU, ceiling and visibility unrestricted. And then along came COVID-19. It turned lives everywhere upside down. The economy, too.
“No doubt,” said Jeff Shaw, President and CEO of Pueblo’s Economic Development Corporation. “Like anywhere in the nation, it has slowed our efforts in economic development.” But, after the virus’s initial blow, PEDCO has gotten up off the canvas, perhaps not at full strength but headed in that direction. Shaw said Pueblo, the economic hub of southern Colorado, is going to “come out stronger.”
Things were looking up for Pueblo at the halfway mark of 2020. The city was announcing news of a major industrial expansion at Evraz Steel, the city’s landmark steel plant once known as the CF&I, the Colorado Fuel & Iron. The Russian-based steel manufacturer had chosen Pueblo for a $500-million dollar expansion project. The expansion would stamp Pueblo as the most modern rail making operation in the country. When complete, Evraz would employ approximately a thousand workers at an average annual salary of around $65,000.
Like every population center in the country, COVID put a crimp, but not a roadblock, into Pueblo’s economic surge, Shaw said. “If anything, it’s paused companies expansion plans” but only momentarily. There was also a time-out because of the Presidential Election. But with COVID vaccines now available and the election behind, said the Pueblo native, “We’re starting to get busy again.”
Shaw said PEDCO is once again getting inquiries from a number of companies who see the city as a good place to drop anchor for at least some of their operations. Included among them are industrial manufacturers who make products for “materials and things that go into housing, food and beverage manufacturing…and traditional defense contractors.”
COVID also caused a bit of scrambling at the Greater Pueblo Chamber of Commerce, said Donielle Kitzman. “It’s certainly impacted our mission,” she said. Kitzman, the Chamber’s second in command, said the sudden onset of the virus put the Chamber into an unplanned retooling.
“We had to reach out to every member,” she said. “We had to make sure they had the resources that would help them.” It was neither easy nor something that came together overnight. What it was, was ‘Job One.’
“Once we knew that the pandemic was not going away,” said Kitzman, the Chamber pulled together organizations and resources and created a tool kit---a business self-help packet---that featured links to webinars that might provide answers and explanations for weathering the pandemic along with easy-to-understand maps for applying for loans and grants.
Like everywhere else, there have been a few business closures, said Kitzman. But most have found a way to keep the doors open, albeit some with altered hours. Bars and restaurants are certainly among those that have had to revamp or reimagine business plans. “We’re fortunate that not a lot of restaurants have closed,” she said. But an unexpectedly high COVID outbreak in the region that began in the fall and lasted through year’s end forced the city to enact a curfew that affected the hospitality industry. But Pueblo is nothing if not resilient.
It has gone through some of the toughest economic challenges of any city in the state over the last fifty years. In the 1970’s two of the city’s biggest job generators, the steel mill and the Pueblo Army Depot, went through monstrous downsizings. The city’s unemployment rate hovered above 25 percent. But Pueblo reimagined itself. Today, Pueblo, the buckle of southern Colorado’s ‘banana belt,’ an east-west stretch of the state with exceptionally mild winter weather, often sells itself on recreation. But even in times when people want to just get away and forget about COVID, there’s been some adjustment. No surprise, said Kitzman, there has been “a reduction in visitation and lodging…but it wasn’t as drastic as I thought.”
Despite this COVID-dip, the city has shown an increase in sales tax revenues. Part of that, guessed Kitzman, has come from businesses that suffered far less than others over the course of the virus.
With more people staying at home, home improvement operations like Lowes and Home Depot did better than they may have expected. Stimulus checks and extended unemployment benefits eased the economic pain caused by the virus, said Kitzman. Not surprisingly, and not only in Pueblo, liquor and cannabis sales held steady.
No one in Pueblo is looking at Covid in the rear-view mirror, said Shaw. But it will not stop Pueblo from looking ahead. “The next two quarters look good,” he said. “We are starting a very aggressive marketing push and have a number of projects that we hope to announce in the next two quarters.” Said another way; Pueblo is open for business.