Lots of stimulus spending, but few jobs added in Larimer County

A superficial glance at the stimulus spending in the Fort Collins area – including the zip codes 80521, 80524, 80525, 80526 and 80538 – tells a rather gruesome tale: $60 million of grant money pouring in to produce a total of 33.5 principal jobs. Add in Colorado State University, which took in $151 million to create 22.64 jobs, and the situation looks even bleaker.

If that sounds like a lot – that is, spending $350,000, give or take, per job – that certainly is a widely used criticism of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. There was an incredible amount of money that ended up here supporting human services, a maze unto itself, and $120 million was spent on “school stabilization” for the university, but Larimer County also had some big projects that have yet to deliver their full impact.

The dust has settled over the most obvious projects – the $5.2 million spent on the Colorado Highway 14 resurfacing approaching Cameron Pass and the $4.5 million spent on I-25 north of Colorado Highway 24. But one of the larger projects in this area, going to the City of Fort Collins, is really just getting started.

Using the Obama’s Administration “Track the Money” website at www.recovery.gov, it appears that about $19 million will be spent on the Fort Collins “Front Range Smart Grid” project, from grants that also included the City of Fountain.

This project includes money that will create a two-way transmission between the utility and the meters of home residents in a test area, and then test that system to determine what savings may be derived from peak load reduction. With testing, it accounts for almost $23 million of the grant total coming into the area, with much of the remainder going to a Fountain subcontractor.

The project was just beginning deployment in March and initial testing of the system will probably begin in the second quarter of 2013.

“The goal of the Advanced Meter Fort Collins project is to develop a foundation that supports, informs and empowers our community to make informed decisions about how they manage water and electricity consumption,” said Steve Catanach, Light and Power Manager at City of Fort Collins Utilities in a press release. The prime contractor is Elster of Raleigh, N.C.

“We look forward to working with Elster as we build out our multi-utility AMI project. The flexible architecture of the Elster EnergyAxis Smart Grid solution, combined with the power of the Tropos network, will enable Fort Collins Utilities to deliver Smart Grid benefits across our service territory,” Catanach added.

Not all the grant money that apparently poured into Fort Collins was actually spent in the area, though, and a prime example of that was $5 million that went to CSU Ventures for a grant designed to improve education in support of the electric vehicle industry.

“Our CSU subcontract was about $700,000,” said Thomas Bradley, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Colorado State University. “This was a true strategic partnership and that’s what the DOE was looking for.”

CSU Ventures teamed with Georgia Tech, Arapahoe Community College and Douglas County public schools, which helped the partnership secure one of nine grants design to help improve the nation’s competitiveness in the electric vehicle market awarded by the Department of Energy.
Georgia Tech and CSU are working to design college engineering curriculum, Arapahoe Community College is developing training for auto technicians and also for first responders encountering electric vehicles involved in accidents, while the goal at the public school level is to introduce this market sector to potential engineering students, allowing them to apply higher mathematics and physics to some industry models.

“We’re now teaching and training these students and that is true of all the partners,” said Bradley, noting the partnership is asking for an extension into 2013 to spend the remaining funds. At CSU it is reaping dividends, he said, as students in the program were selected by the DOE to compete with other universities in the design of a plug-in hybrid car in May, an experience that would probably not have been available without the new coursework that is already in place.

“In order to compete with these universities (that have a larger tradition of auto engineering) we really had to have this strategic partnership,” Bradley said.

The Poudre School District, which did not respond to requests for comments, was also a big recipient of stimulus funding, much of which is difficult to track coming in as subcontracts to grants. The district is listed as receiving $8.7 million in funding, including $4.5 million for improvements for teaching students with disabilities, $2 million for improvements to basic programs and $1.8 million for “school stabilization” in the midst of the recession. There were also other subcontracts that benefitted the district, such as $200,000 for Head Start programs.

While actual job creation appears to have some strict accounting under the stimulus program, job retention is not accounted for, at least in the program website tracking. And in truth it would appear that the final subcontracts and transactions were probably where the stimulus spending had its biggest impact in saving jobs and businesses.

The Obama Administration claims that nationally as many as 3.5 million jobs were “created or saved” through the $800 billion spending program. Here in Larimer County that spending took root in a wide range, including $12,650 to Wayne’s Pump Service for a new well, $427,000 to Invirogen Inc. for vaccine development and more than $1 million to Riverside Technology Inc. for a real-time data system that supports the Army Corps of Engineers software for water management.

“It definitely had a dramatic impact on our ability to retain our staff,” said Brian Ashe, business development director at Riverside. In Colorado, Riverside has about 55 employees, primarily civil engineers, hydrologists and computer experts in support of water projects.
“We never had to reduce our staff. This year we’re adding staff,” Ashe said. “We’ve been able to secure additional federal contracts.”

Included in the firm’s recent success was being one of five firms selected for a $500 million program for science and technical support, in which Riverside employees will support programs at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

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