October 26, 2011 By Lauren Katims Nadeau
Each fall, the smell of roasting chilies drifts through the streets of Pueblo, an industrial city in southeastern Colorado. The scent is a trademark of Pueblo’s green chili harvest and the annual Loaf N’ Jug Chile and Frijoles Festival, a Pueblo trademark that attracts 100,000 visitors and helps local farmers collect upward of $50,000 in sales from chili peppers. The festival is one example of the importance that traditions have for the city’s culturally diverse residents.
Like most towns, Pueblo has much community pride, and not only for its Mexican food. Some refer to Pueblo as “America’s Home of Heroes,” a title awarded by Congress in 1933 for hosting National Medal of Honor Day and serving as home to four Medal of Honor recipients. Others call it “Steel City” for operating the only steel mill in the Rocky Mountain region.
You could also call Pueblo a victim of America’s economic downturn. Its median household income in 2010 was $37,700, well under the $54,400 U.S. average. Its 12 percent unemployment rate was also above the national average. The hard times have put added strain on the Pueblo government’s ability to deliver services and technology to citizens. The city’s budget is tight.
Lori Pinz, the city’s IT director, said she’s had to hold off on many e-government initiatives that don’t have funding. “When you have staffing cuts and no budget you have to find ways to make things more efficient in the field,” said Pinz.
Pinz is working on expanding the city’s use of social media and mobile devices in all aspects of the community. One project would notify citizens with disabilities when their ride to the doctor — a service provided by the city — is close by. Another mobile project would save field workers time by providing them with updated information on the job.
Pinz hopes to eventually expand the program to the city fleet. A real-time interface with public safety would improve response times. The move toward mobility services would also give citizens easier access to city tools.
More efficient e-government might also help heat up the local economy.
Evraz Rocky Mountain Steel is Pueblo’s largest employer, with more than 1,000 workers. With about half as many employees, Vestas Wind Systems, which uses its Pueblo location to manufacture metal bases for wind turbines, is the second largest. Other larger employers are the two city hospitals that serve as regional medical centers for the southern Colorado.
“We have some other potential companies looking at Pueblo,” said Scott Hobson, assistant city manager for community investment.
Economic development is a priority for the city, which is just starting to make a name on the map. Colorado State University, Pueblo is one of the fastest growing campuses in the state, attracting students from all over the country. Another selling point is that Pueblo was recently named by The Council for Community and Economic Research as having the second lowest cost of living in the U.S., and city revitalization projects are well under way.
“With the economy as crummy as it is, it’s amazing that we have quite a few city infrastructure projects going on,” said Hobson. They include a restoration of the city library, renovation of City Hall, a new downtown auditorium and a new fire station.
To help bring in new business, a half-cent sales tax still exists that citizens implemented 20 years ago to provide incentives for new companies to relocate to Pueblo. Over the last 15 years, the city has attracted 20 companies of varying sizes, including Vestas and Doss Aviation.
The city’s community spirit and economic drive, officials say, have helped Pueblo find ways to make progress with limited funding. One of those ways is shared services. This year the city of Pueblo and Pueblo County finished a 10-mile shared fiber-optic network that stretches from downtown Pueblo to the airport outside the city, connecting several county and city buildings along the way.
“The budget cuts have hit us pretty hard,” said Pinz. “But people share computers and refurbish stuff so we can keep moving forward.”
Editor’s Note: Digital Communities is starting a new feature called "Community of the Week." Digital Communities is seeking cities and counties that are using technology to drive innovation and improve government. If you would like to nominate your community, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.