by Rick Langenberg:
After several years of dumping coal in the stockings of local business operators and financial leaders, Santa may finally arrive in the region with a bag full of goodies and more prosperous business tidings. In fact, the Teller County and Woodland Park area may get the Christmas present it has hoped for since the Great Recession: a rebounding economy.
That’s the prediction of a few key financial and business experts, who see the area recovering slowly but surely from a lingering recession, with Teller starting to reap the benefits of an improving housing market, a spree of development projects and growing interest in a vibrant downtown. On a gradual basis, the region is experiencing the trickle-up effect of an improving economy in El Paso County and the Pikes Peak region.
Good times are predicted for the coming year and the long-term future, according to most financial accounts. “I am very optimistic,” said Brian Fleer, the economic development director for the city of Woodland Park, who also serves as the director for the Downtown Development Authority. “I think the next three to five years should be very good for Woodland Park and Teller County. We are starting to enter the redevelopment stage and are discovering a better economic development climate. We should be proceeding at a pretty aggressive pace.” He cites a number of active projects in Woodland Station and the entire Woodland Park area, including the new $50 million-plus Andrew Womack Ministries center and Charis Bible College, and a variety of new housing developments. In addition, there has been a modest hike in real estate values and there is a more positive outlook among business owners. Fleer believes that bank-owned properties, a byproduct of the foreclosure boom, will soon become a thing of the past. According to local experts, the time for waiting for cheap commercial real estate deals is coming to an end.
Plus, the town is making a major bid to become a Main Street city through the formation of a creative arts district. The Main Street banner is an elite historic designation that could lead to more grants and tourism-related projects. “This really puts us on the map,” said Fleer.
Similar bullish sentiments are echoed by Brad Spivey and Tony Perry, leading executives of Park State Bank & Trust, Teller’s largest community-based financial institution. “Confidence is very high,” said Spivey, vice-president of Park State Bank, when discussing the views of many local business owners and customers the community bank deals with on a daily basis. “Confidence is the best I have seen in years… The market has stabilized very well. We are not seeing the ‘shock to the system’ of what we experienced before.” “The worst is behind us,” added Perry, the bank’s president and chief executive officer, who stressed that the doors of Park State are wide open for a variety of loans. “We want to do loans. We are always looking for good business opportunities,” said Perry.
Like Fleer, Perry sees a number of forthcoming business projects becoming a reality. And later, over the summer, Park State will become a key player in the USA Pro Challenge cycling event that attracts one million spectators and thousands of international viewers. Woodland Park will serve as one of only a handful of Colorado host communities for the race that occurs throughout the state for nearly a week. “We are seeing an uptick,” said Mike Perini, an advertising, public relations and marketing consultant, in describing the activity of Perini & Associates, which represents a number of local companies and nonprofits.
Current statistics support these views, with Teller County now experiencing a nearly 50 percent reduction in housing foreclosures. And Woodland Park, for the first time in years, is reeling in a healthy hike in sales tax revenue and now sports a nearly $500,000 annual pot of extra funds it hopes to allocate to future community opportunities, such as a remake of Memorial Park. Economic development activity is not just restricted to the Woodland Park corridor. The city of Cripple Creek, with a record-breaking budget, will do a major makeover of its main street. Plus, the local retail corridor, once considered a victim of legal games of chance, is making a slight rebound with sales tax numbers climbing.
Not time for celebration yet
Still, local business leaders are waving a cautionary flag. Fleer, who previously worked for the city and served as a business consultant in the area in the 1990s, says he is amazed by the crippling effects of the housing crisis. “When I was here before, we averaged about 100 new residential water taps a year for new single family homes. Now, we are down to maybe seven a year,” he related. The city’s economic development chief believes new projects such as the nearly 200-unit Trail Ridge apartments will help fill the void. “The housing will grow,” predicted Fleer. “It will be a slow recovery,” said Perry. He believes the financial climate of 2014 will be very similar to 2013. Still, the Park State president is quite optimistic about the long-term future for Teller County.
According to Perry and Spivey, Teller was slow in experiencing the effects of the recession and the housing crisis. As a result, the area also lags behind when compared to the improving housing market in El Paso County. Unfortunately, one post-recession hurdle that remains is a scrutinizing regulatory market “I don’t see that easing up,” said Spivey, in describing some of the rules imposed on community banks and other financial institutions for handling loans. “The regulations have gotten to be a little more challenging than they once were,” said the Park State Bank vice-president.
As a result, future business entrepreneurs and homeowners seeking loans have to do more preparatory work. “Don’t make your decisions in a vacuum,” advises Perry, who cites the importance of people taking more ownership in managing their own personal and business affairs. He encourages people to contact their local banker. “We want to be a part of the process in helping families and businesses. We are committed to being a community bank,” said Perry.
As for national trends, Spivey doesn’t see any big dark clouds on the horizon, despite a sometimes dysfunctional Congress. He is confident that the Federal Reserve Board will offset some of the fiscal policies of Congress by continuing to maintain low interest rates. For the most part, the highly touted government shutdown that occurred several months ago didn’t adversely affect the local economy.
But according to both Perini and Spivey, the government sequestration–mandatory cuts that were implemented last year if certain reductions weren’t agreed on by Congress– could hurt the area. These cuts have impacted many defense programs and have even killed certain patriotic ceremonies that honor veterans. And with an area with close ties to Fort Carson and all military installations, these cuts could create a ripple effect for Teller County, notes Perini, who deals with many military-oriented clients.
Plus, Perry cites a need to attract young families to the area as a definite business goal for the bank and Teller County. “Young families are not moving up here,” said Perry. He says this trend affects the school district and many businesses. Fleer agrees and says he wants to work more with local businesses on how to market to shoppers between the ages of 18 and 29. “What are they purchasing?” questioned Fleer. He sees a gap in the local retail environment with regard to this age and demographic group.
But unlike past years, he believes the Woodland Station project and overall downtown activity is much more realistic, along with adjacent projects at the Gold Hill Square Theatres and the Country Lodge. That’s a change from the past, with Woodland Station and its earlier vision as the Woodland Village given the reputation as a “Build It and They Will Come” fantasy.