by Zee Nwuke- edited by Ellsworth Grant
With 2012 looking to be one of the most active construction periods in Colorado in some time; the City of Denver’s Office of Economic Development (OED) is preparing to leverage these opportunities through robust programs aimed at getting small and Minority businesses to the next level.
Headed into major construction in 2012 and/or continuing aggressive build-outs: The East Corridor light rail line from downtown’s Union Station to Denver International Airport (DIA) alone is over a billion dollars (not including TOD activities); the robust US 36 Project, The Veteran Administration’s New Hospital, the new data-center at Buckley Air Base, Union Station’s build-out as the transportation hub of the Rocky Mountains (the planned density is expected to transform Lower Downtown), DIA’s South Terminal Redevelopment Project, the Stapleton Redevelopment Project, to name just a few signature projects.
Into this perfect storm walks Mr. Paul Washington, Executive Director of Denver’s Office of Economic Development. Mr. Washington is responsible for the City and County of Denver’s economic strategy and development.
The Paul Washington Back Story
This is really the classic “local-boy made good” story – Paul grew up in Park Hill, graduated from George Washington High School before heading off to earn a degree in business (finance) from UC Berkeley, followed by a law degree from that institution’s Boalt Hall School of Law. Upon graduation from Law School at UC Berkeley he started his career as a corporate lawyer doing mergers and acquisitions at Davis, Graham & Stubbs and then Hogan & Hartson (now Hogan Lovells) in Denver.
After a number of years with Hogan & Hartson, Paul decided that finance is where he wanted to be – with this in mind; in 2001 he decided to move to the Bay Area and start a company called LJS Holdings. LJS Holdings is an international investment banking firm that focuses primarily on representing companies from the Middle East and India in their acquisition of US corporations. LJS Holdings focused primarily on segments in Mining, Tabaco, Oil & Gas, and Textiles – Paul’s core competencies were evaluating targeted companies, asset valuation, deal structuring, and execution. After about a decade of building LJS Holdings he was approached by the then new Mayor, Michael Hancock about running the City’s Office of Economic Development. Paul viewed this as an ideal opportunity to leverage his experience while helping his hometown thrive.
For the past five years, Paul has also been an adjunct law professor at the University of Colorado Law School – Boulder, where he taught graduate courses in corporate finance.
A Laser-Like Focus on Job Growth and Small Business Development
Paul Washington, Executive Director of Denver’s Office of Economic Development – an organization dedicated to advancing economic prosperity for Minority and Small businesses in the City of Denver, has big plans in store for 2012. OED has a laser-focus on creating an environment that encourages a balanced progression through job creation, business assistance, housing options, neighborhood redevelopment, and the development of a skilled workforce. Given the economic challenges over the last few years, increasing the level of employment opportunities in Denver is paramount.
“We’re going to attack that from a number of different ways; First – we will have a laser-like focus on business retention. The idea here is to retain existing businesses while working with them to expand employment opportunities. Second – the continued growth and development of the small business community. 60 percent of the employment and employment growth in Denver are done through small businesses. We have a variety of programs and policies designed to support small businesses because they are critical to job growth in the city. If we wanted to put a priority rank on things Jobs would be the number area of focus. The key is to make sure that Denver is and remains a center of innovation. OED wants to create an environment that entrepreneurs find comfortable and supportive as they build companies. Also; we want to make sure Denver is and remains a city that participates on the international stage. Thirdly – we want to make sure that Denver is, and continues its reputation as a leader in sustainability, and eco-friendly development design and opportunities” said Mr. Washington.
There is an abundance of key initiatives currently in progress; Paul Washington and his team at OED are doing their utmost to ensure that execution is timely and effective. One really important initiative is OED’s drive to increase the amount of available capital for small businesses to the tune of 20 million dollars. This is being done through the Master CDFI initiative. “That initiative is collaboration between the city of Denver, CHFA, our largest commercial banks, the CDFI [Community Development Financial Institution] community, and our largest charitable foundations,” said Mr. Washington. This endeavor is a collaboration among these groups to raise 20 million dollars through a master CDFI. The master CDFI would distribute resources to existing CDFI partners handing out loans to businesses in the city of Denver” explained Mr. Washington.
The challenge being faced is the difficulty commercial banks have when lending to small businesses because of regulatory hurdles and restrictions. OED plan to address this by having banks contribute CRA dollars. “They can do that in a number of ways. One of which is to just give individual loans for those purposes but; the logistics behind that is daunting and it’s a lot easier for them to use those CRA obligations and put those dollars into CDFI’s. The plan is to increase small business capacity by pulling those resources together, creating a master CDFI of 20 million dollars, and allocating it down to the existing CDFI community to increase the total amount of capital available to Denver businesses” said Mr. Washington.
Another area of focus is to make sure OED has an encouraging culture of innovation. Continued Mr. Washington, “We will do this through an innovation center. An innovation center is something that the Mayor and I have seen positive and exciting examples of at MIT and in Silicon Valley in California. It enables entrepaneurs to be in a concentrated physical space, so they can work together and make use of their own internal resources to create businesses. It’s a system that, if done correctly just feeds on itself. So we want to make sure we focus on that to increase resources available to Denver’s small business community”
“The third area that we’re real excited about is identifying and developing a net-zero energy neighborhood of substantial size. The concept is to have about 75 acres of raw land that we can develop on a net-zero energy basis. “Net-zero energy is a concept that will allow this community to develop and produce as much energy as it consumes. In practical terms; this means that some of the parking car ports will have solar insulation on the rooftops, this community will utilize geothermal energy production, and highly sustainable buildings and infrastructure will be built in this new neighborhood. OED wants to reinforce Denver’s strong reputation as a leader in innovation and sustainability. We will introduce a new way of life around sustainability, and bring innovation in terms of how the neighborhood is designed and developed. Those are just three very simple examples of how we are approaching economic development from what we think is a holistic approach,” said Mr. Washington.
These initiatives and many others are identified in JumpStart 2012, the OED’s economic development plan for 2012. “JumpStart 2012 just conceptually starts with the Mayor’s vision of delivering a world class city where everyone matters. From that very foundation we thought about economic development and we identified the seven pillars that are identified in JumpStart 2012. OED made an effort to talk to as many stakeholders as possible to develop the issues that are present from an economic development standpoint and how these issues can be addressed,” explained Mr. Washington.
OED has currently appointed a person to each step responsible for the execution of each point in the plan for JumpStart 2012. “We’ve assigned a date certain for each step in the process to ensure that execution is timely and effective. So – now we have the over 400 individual steps that are required to deliver that plan” said Mr. Washington.
Continued Mr. Washington, “Denver has a reputation of developing projects in recessionary times. It’s a brilliant strategy that’s been done time and time again. Denver’s Airport and FastTracks Programs are examples of Denver being opportunistic on how it develops when development is most needed. The City always tries to create jobs during recessionary times because the costs to finance these projects are lower than they would be during better economic times. Jobs are being created when they are needed most. The hardest hit section in the economy has been construction because it’s a housing related recession. So we’re providing jobs in an industry that’s been hardest hit by the recession. It creates a certain tolerance level from policy makers and the viewing public that make infrastructure investments.”
The Innovation Center Program is also involved with all this activity. It’s beneficial in 3 different ways. “Denver is the number 1 choice or place to live for the 18 to 34 year old population in the United States. This gives Denver a more solid entrepreneurial and youthful workforce. The Innovation Center gives innovators opportunities to get out into the city to build and grow their businesses. These Innovation Centers also attracts capitol. They also attract sophisticated service providers. As you have these Innovation Centers there is a natural play between your institutions of higher education. The Innovation center really fits into our JumpStart 2012 Program; it is another instrument to support small business advocacy and development” Mr. Washington continued.
Two very important economic development areas for small and Minority businesses alike are the Santa Fe and Five-Points corridors. The Santa Fe Arts District has seen great success over the years with Veronica Barela as the driving force while Five-Points have lagged a bit. The Five-Points and Santa Fe corridors are of extreme importance to OED and the city of Denver. “The Santa Fe Arts District is on its way to success but, the Five-Points Business District is having some challenges that will be worked through. “Five-Points were identified in our JumpStart strategy because it is an area with unlimited potential. I think what Five-Points needs from OED and what we will provide is some leadership in terms of our ability to convene various parts of city government and bring our resources to the table” said Mr. Washington.
OED has big plans to continue the Santa Fe Arts Districts’ momentum and to get the Five-Points Business District on track. OED meets with the Five-Points Business District on a bi-weekly basis. In addition – OED is in the process of identifying investment that has already occurred in the area. “I think that’s important for a couple reasons. One – it will demonstrate to us and the broader community that there has already been a significant amount of investment in that area. I think that’s important because when you go to the federal, state, or the private sectors you want to demonstrate that things have been happening and will continue to happen. OED also wants to focus on bringing some of the land owners in that community to the table to explore ways they can use their resource to create a development plan where they can participate to reduce capital for incoming developer. OED hopes to make the land owners catalysts to the area’s development. The goal is to work with the Five-Points Business District and address some of the infrastructure issues that exist” concluded Mr. Washington. The area is a key concern to Paul Washington and OED - they intend to have a positive impact on these two priority development areas for the City and County of Denver.
With the most robust construction period seen in Colorado in some time and an economic plan with total buy-in from the business community, The City of Denver is poised to continue its undisputed position as the driving economic engine of the Rocky Mountain Region.