Train stations once were among the world’s epicenters of connectivity and vitality. They represented the worth of a community as well as its future economic potential.
That’s an ethos the O’Neil Group Company wishes to recreate at its Catalyst Campus, a collaborative work and education environment slated to open next summer in downtown Colorado Springs.
The O’Neil Group announced last week its plans to create an “innovation district” surrounding the historic Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad depot at the intersection of Pikes Peak and Colorado avenues on downtown’s east side. The company purchased the 6.5-acre property and three buildings Oct. 30 for $4.5 million,
President and CEO Kevin O’Neil said work will begin immediately to renovate the three buildings on the property with the aim to create a collaborative work environment geared toward bolstering local technology, engineering and manufacturing industries.
The company is currently in negotiations with 20 companies interested in housing operations at the facility and expects that number to swell to the hundreds in coming years.
“We already think there will be a multitude of companies represented on the campus,” O’Neil said.
Colorado Springs-based venture capital firm PV Ventures has signed on to occupy space at the campus, and defense contractor Braxton Technologies Inc. plans to house its research and development operations there.
The O’Neil Group also is working to acquire a Philadelphia-based engineering company that O’Neil said would join Braxton at the site.
O’Neil said plans for the Catalyst Campus began nearly a year ago. Since then, in mid-September, the U.S. Department of Defense awarded $6.6 million to the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade to aid in the continued creation of jobs in advanced manufacturing. The grant funded the state’s “SMART Colorado” program, a public-private partnership that will include the creation of centers of innovation along the Front Range.
O’Neil said if all goes well, perhaps the Catalyst Campus will become one of those SMART Centers and start an economic boon for Colorado Springs.
“It will work,” O’Neil said. “I believe in what we’re doing here.”
The physical space
O’Neil said the century-old structures have been magnificently maintained and are ready for the initial $20 million phase of renovation, which will include a redesign by local architect Ryan Lloyd and his firm Echo Architecture.
The group will begin with 97,000 usable square feet and plans to start construction on another 50,000-square-foot structure sometime next year, according to O’Neil. The creekside property includes surface parking for more than 400 vehicles.
Hannah Parsons, co-founder of Epicentral Coworking in downtown Colorado Springs, was hired by O’Neil to strategize the launch of the project. She will work closely with Economic Development Director Ingrid Richter to work out the logistics of the space and its management team.
“I will be helping the team identify the best layout for the building and how to shape the collaborative environment, as well as helping round out the team and a lot of work with community relations,” Parsons said. “I love the project and want to be a part of it.’
She said the main depot building will primarily house collaborative and classroom space, while the nearby multli-level building will house many of the small and developing companies. The third, one-level structure will likely house advanced manufacturing and prototyping operations, she said.
“That is where software and hardware will collide,” Parsons said. “That’s where engineering will meet manufacturing.”
The depot includes an old restaurant the team hopes to repurpose as a commercial kitchen for events. O’Neil said the campus will also feature support staff to help companies with sales representation and business development.
The group also purchased the 37,000-square-foot City Center Plaza building at 455 E. Pikes Peak Ave. in September for $5.05 million and plans to incorporate the property in his innovation district.
The project’s backers hope the station that once ferried travelers north will welcome back a culture of youth and entrepreneurial spirit.
Though still in development, O’Neil said the group plans to create an environment where private-sector companies will collaborate with public-sector entities to spur workforce development, education and startups to create long-lasting jobs in the community.
“We want the entrepreneurial companies to start there, but it is a seeding ground where they can grow from,” O’Neil said. “We will encourage them to stay on campus to learn and grow — and then they’re here for good. … They come in but never leave, kind of like Hotel California.”
The O’Neil Group’s announcement came just weeks after Colorado Springs-based Nor’wood Development Group publicized plans to transform the former Gazette building directly to the east into a public market.
“We are very supportive of the O’Neil Group’s vision for the Catalyst Campus,” Nor’wood president Chris Jenkins said. “[O’Neil]’s companies have made significant investments in downtown Colorado Springs, and this looks like the most exciting yet.”
Other developers also have been active in residential projects throughout the urban core, including a condominium project by businesswomen Kathy Loo and Darsey Nicklasson called Blue Dot Place. These projects, O’Neil said, go “hand in glove” with the Catalyst Campus, which he expects to attract well-paid workers who could increase demand for multi-family housing in downtown Colorado Springs.
“We’re always talking about how we want to grow and need to grow as a community,” O’Neil said. “A 3 percent growth rate is a great thing. But if we’re going to grow 3 percent a year, let’s grow where the economic impact is above the cost of living. Lower-paying jobs devalue the wealth of a community. These are the most scalable, high-paying jobs we can find in America.”
The Catalyst Campus will work hand-in-hand with local colleges and companies to create an educational component designed to bridge the gap between demand and workforce readiness, according to Braxton CEO Frank Backes. Braxton Technologies is an O’Neil company.
“From an industry standpoint, which is really my focus, Braxton really needs to have access to this type of technological core,” said Backes. “We need a place where we can bring those worlds together. … Right now, it just doesn’t exist … not like we’re trying to pull it together here. That’s just one example of what this campus could do.”
Backes, an expert in the aerospace and defense arena, said the Catalyst Campus will give Colorado Springs potential to offer the industry something new. Rather than young workers spending years gaining experience in the workforce, he said the campus will incorporate methods of training not currently available in colleges and universities.
decades-long plan that is intended to shape the direction of the city for a very long time to come.” – Kevin O’Neil
Braxton recently put 25 of its staffers through a program to train software developers in new digital language architectures in command and control systems (the company’s specialty).
With these offerings, Backes said he envisions the facility attracting aerospace companies and defense contractors for a variety of work, including training in classified arenas.
“This campus will be able to take advantage of those resources and keep them here so that we can retain that kind of talent here in Colorado,” he said. “We want Colorado Springs to be branded as the place to do command and control, satellite operations, satellite design and manufacturing.
“The Catalyst Campus is a decades-long plan that is intended to shape the direction of the city for a very long time to come. We want more companies headquartered in the Springs so that when hard economic times come, we want this to be the place companies pull their work back to.”
One of the most promising functions the facility will serve, according to O’Neil, will be as a physical meeting space for partners working to transfer technologies and services between governmental and nongovernmental entities.
“That’s when we start creating synergies,” Backes said. “We tend to build things first and show them that they work, because the risk factor is dramatically lower.”
Backes said companies specializing in commercial industries such as satellite communications, global positioning system and other technologies will soon surpass military capability, leading Air Force and Army clients in the region to look for potential business partnerships.
“The model there is really where aerospace and the DoD needs to go,” he said. “Some things are inherently commercial and some things are inherently military. You wouldn’t ask a company to go to war, but at the same time there is very much infrastructure that can be carried in by commercial industry to the military.”
At some point, Backes explained, the U.S. government will want to just fight the wars and let industry take care of the rest. But there’s another defense-related socioeconomic issue peering over the horizon — one that O’Neil would like to circumvent.
“The largest problem we’re facing right now is Fiscal Year ’16,” O’Neil said.
“The budget and sequestration is going to hurt our economy if we don’t get it figured out.”
But the partnership has determined that now is the time to plant the seeds that will grow an economy positioned to bounce back from decreased government spending in a region so dependent on it.
“When an economy pulls back, it’s time to make moves,” O’Neil said.
“As the Air Force economy starts to pull back, it’s time to make moves in the civilian world … We want to make Colorado Springs a place people don’t leave.”