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A Vision of Post-Industrial Pueblo

Pueblo remains the quiet spring of energy rising from Colorado’s high desert.  Geographically, Pueblo’s location, at the crossroads of Highway 50 and I-25, situates it as the last large metropolitan stop that separates privileged, front-range Northern Colorado from rural Southern Colorado and thus possesses attributes of both.  This split spirit contributes to a perfect storm of environmental variables and demographics that have forced the community of Pueblo to continually redefine itself as an essential part of Colorado’s fabric, socially and economically.

Pueblo has to deal both with pressures to conform to certain economic and status ideals of the larger economies in the state, but also with stigmas of the smaller economies.  This is to say, perhaps, it is neither advantageous to follow the path of growth that begins with big business quick fixes, nor to rest on the laurels of an agricultural model centered around a few large farms.  But, Pueblo is neither an aspiring Colorado Springs nor a failed Boulder.  Pueblo is resilient; and the citizens of the community illustrate a will for adaptability unprecedented in the state.

Admittedly, with this optimistic context the question is begged: If Pueblo is so adaptable and efficient at retrofitting itself to meet the shifting demands of its environment and changing economy, why does unemployment, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), still rest at 10.7% as of February 2012?

There is no single, overarching answer to this question; however, one piece of information that seems revealing of Pueblo’s situation is that the community has weathered the brunt of the current recession without sustaining detrimental, lasting job loss.  According to a study conducted by ISH Global Insight and revealed at this year’s US Mayors conference, which looks into unemployment rates and future employment forecasts for the United States’ metropolitan areas, Pueblo lost approximately two thousand jobs and 3.6 percent of its total job force in the recession. Furthermore, the study forecasts Pueblo is on its way to a full recovery of all recession-caused job loss by the first quarter of 2013.  In contrast to Boulder that lost eleven thousand jobs and suffered a 6.6 percent total decline in jobs and Colorado Springs that lost eighteen thousand jobs and suffered a 7.0 percent total decline, Pueblo’s numbers are optimistic.

One explanation for this phenomena proceeds from the historical fact that Pueblo, once a booming steel manufacturing city, was devastated in the ’80’s by recession and the fall of CF&I as the industrial pillar and economic insurance policy of the community.  In the years since, Pueblo has invariably found itself in a state of awkward existential reinvention and recovery primarily by means of slow, sustainable economic growth.  Facts alone, there is nothing especially interesting about this trend.  That is until the specific type of new growth is investigated in greater detail.

The contingent turn in businesses of Pueblo, from an industry-centered economy to a smaller niche-based market, is characteristic of what systems scientists deem the transitional period of a community from industrial to post-industrial society.  It is in this sense that the growth of small business that reflects sustainable production, environmental sensibility, and also the transmission of larger quantities of diverse information, puts Pueblo in many ways on the cutting edge of the changing economy.

But if it is the case that Pueblo finds itself occupying a position of leadership in Colorado’s emerging new economy, there are some basic principles underlying the concept of post-industrialism that will be invaluable for young professionals and entrepreneurs looking to innovate.

The post-industrial city will be defined by a continual and exponential increase in the available body of information, a necessary increase in organizational and social collaboration, and an increase in market complexity and interdependence.  These, in combination, will create an economic eco-system more dynamic than those that have become the status quo.

In social terms, the transition toward a post-industrial Pueblo has also embodied a revision in the community’s system of values, which focuses on a concern for the quality of life rather than sensational expansion.

What follows is that when the environmental needs of the community shift to demands that are no longer compatible with the city’s commercial sector, those businesses have at their disposal two chief contingency strategies: adaptation to the changed demands, or, a move to a more suitable environment.

But as an abstract biology metaphor ultimately fails the test of practicality, what is left is the shocking fact that at the same time Pueblo is supposed to be recovering faster from the current recession than other cities in Colorado, the unemployment rate does not feel like it is going down, even at the same rate as other cities facing a slower recovery.

Boulder peaked at approximately 6 percent unemployment in 2009, having entered the recession with unemployment around 4 percent, according to the BLS.  Currently, Boulder’s unemployment has dropped back into the high 5’s.  As for Colorado Springs, the respective peak occurred in 2011 when unemployment reached 10 percent, having entered recession with unemployment also at around 4 percent.  A year after peak unemployment Colorado Springs has shed a percent and is on the verge of dipping back into the 8’s. But, while Pueblo has also lowered unemployment almost two percentage points from its peak in 2011 at 11.8 percent, when one in ten individuals in the community still have trouble finding a job, there is still a major economic problem that needs to be faced head on.

Pueblo is not unfamiliar with economic hardship, but it has continually shown it will rise to the occasion.  Half of what it takes to re-imagine Pueblo is to remember where we come from; the other half grows from clarity of vision, to know how to move forward.

By Matthew Ramirez

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