Colorado State University-Pueblo business professor Michael Wakefield, Ph.D, said at an economic forum Tuesday that manufacturing will be a much harder industry to succeed in within the next few years and, consequently, Pueblo’s economy may have to adapt to grow.
The Malik and Hasan School of Business hosted the Pueblo Economic Forum to highlight the current and future outlook of the Pueblo’s economy and how tourism, economic development and education will play a role. Wakefield is the director for the Thomas V. Healy Center for Business and Economic Research at CSU-Pueblo.
Manufacturing, which Pueblo focuses on for economic development, will see fewer jobs created over the next few years and the market will become “very competitive,” according to Wakefield.
“Manufacturing is going to be a tough industry,” Wakefield said. “It’s going to be hard for PEDCO (the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation) to attract jobs.”
Wakefield told the forum the half-cent sales tax may need to be revisited and expanded to include start up investment rather than tailored to primary jobs.
While PEDCO does offer some resources for startups, that money does not come from the half-cent fund.
The city should also focus on recruiting businesses that require some kind of higher education, Wakefield suggested.
Promoting Pueblo as a low-wage county is a “double-edged sword” as it can attract primary jobs but at the risk of a lesser educated workforce, he said.
“The outlook for employment in the region points almost entirely to healthcare,” Wakefield said. Healthcare is the county’s biggest industry.
Wakefield suggested expanding the nursing programs at Pueblo Community College and CSU-Pueblo because there is already a shortage of healthcare professionals in Pueblo.
City Council President Steve Nawrocki wasn’t at the forum but said that the city should continue to diversify like it has with adding tourism jobs to the definition of primary jobs and help businesses grow without giving money to competing businesses.
Addressing the concerns of Pueblo’s educated brain drain, Wakefield said those with degrees don’t stay in Pueblo because there are not enough jobs. He pointed to a decrease in Puebloans without advanced degrees — 19.1 percent of the workforce has a bachelor’s degree.
“At some point we have to break the cycle,” Wakefield said.
But Wakefield did say Pueblo was well-positioned to expand into healthcare, energy, organic pharmaceutical research (medical marijuana) and agriculture.
While the city has a good infrastructure with access to major byways, an airport and water, it lacks a well-connected public transportation system, which Wakefield said was a negative due to the difficulty reaching Pueblo West and the airport.
Wakefield also touched on Pueblo’s branding, which he said has affected tourism.
“We have to develop an anchor attraction,” Wakefield said. “We have a riverwalk, but so does San Antonio.”
The tourism anchor is going to have to be “trendy” and “spectacular,” he said.
Improving tourism could mean repositioning Pueblo as the gateway to the Southwest, which Nawrocki has said he is in favor of recently. Or, the city could capitalize on its fame as “home of the heros,” its partnership with the Professional Bull Riders, or the recent branding of the Pueblo chile, Wakefield said.
Wakefield gave the crowd of about 60 a to-do list at the end of his presentation: work on telling the story of Pueblo, expand education and partnerships to keep students in Pueblo and develop a plan for the next 10, 20 and 50 years.
PEDCO President and CEO Jack Rink was unavailable for comment on the forum.