Local chamber CEO delivers bleak forecast

By Janet Simons
THE COLORADO STATESMAN

Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Kelly Brough delivered a sobering message to members of the City Club of Denver on Tuesday, Dec. 1.

Kelly Brough

To put it as gently as possible, Colorado’s economy — although it’s currently weathering the recession on the strength of Ph.D.s and entrepreneurs who moved to the state for the sunshine and skiing — is headed for a cliff.

“The challenges to our elected officials, our entire community, continue — and maybe even become dire,” Brough told the approximately 50 Denver movers and shakers as the wait staff of the Brown Palace cleared their lunch plates.

“While, in the short term, we are well-positioned to come out of the recession sooner, our long-term outlook is rather bleak,” she said.

The former chief of staff for Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper exerts much of her effort on getting out-of-state businesses to relocate here. She explained that such amenities as Denver International Airport, FasTracks, the city’s many sports venues and the strength of cultural institutions bolstered by the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District play a major role in attracting economic growth.

But she despaired of the future for these and other amenities as Colorado strives to fund a $1 billion deficit.

“Yes. A billion,” she solemnly intoned. “That’s not something we can ‘efficiency’ our way out of, or cut our way out of, or even tax our way out of….

“It truly is about priorities. But I ask you: What would you cut?”

Noting that 72 percent of the state budget is dedicated to corrections, Medicaid and K-12 education, Brough suggested that very little is left for higher education, human services and transportation — the sorts of things that make the Colorado lifestyle saleable.

And even without another $1 billion in cuts, higher education, human services and transportation already are feeling a lot of pain, she said, observing that Colorado’s rate of child poverty is one of the fastest growing in the nation, and that — although Colorado ranks second in the nation in terms of the number of adults with four-year degrees — a steadily diminishing percentage of recent college graduates comes out of Colorado high schools or universities.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” she said. “I like importing them, and suspect we’ll continue to be attractive to recent graduates for many reasons. But we know we can’t sustain our status through importing alone.”

Although Brough, as a former member of Hickenlooper’s administration, is clearly identifiable as a Democrat, her agenda for the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce during the coming legislative session might have come out of a GOP handbook.

It includes:

• Asking the Legislature and governor to do everything they can to support small businesses, which employ more than 90 percent of the state’s workforce.

“The success of business means that jobs are created, unemployment goes down and more dollars move into Colorado’s economy…. Hampering or restraining business growth and development ultimately means slower revenue growth.”

• Asking the Legislature and governor to maintain tax credits and other incentives that bolster business growth. Ritter’s original budget, Brough said, would have eliminated three business incentives that “help economic activity.”

“We will work closely with the General Assembly and the governor to ensure that those incentives and credits that provide a strong return on our investment are left alone so we don’t end up harming our recovery efforts.”

• Asking the Legislature and the governor to focus solely on the state’s fiscal crisis.

“While our request that this be a policy decision has been declined, we will continue to ask that issues which detract or distract from the economic challenges we face not be dealt with.”

“Finally,” she said, “we must work together to create a financial structure in this state that is sustainable. Colorado’s current fiscal knot simply doesn’t allow the flexibility to make tough choices during times like these.

“Times feel difficult right now, but my fear is that they could be even tougher if we don’t address some of the longer term issues before us,” Brough concluded.

“It’s sort of like my father’s threat when we were young: ‘I’ll give you something to cry about.”

Janet@coloradostatesman.com