A Denver native, James Mejia is currently the executive director of the Denver Preschool Program. He recently served as an appointed senior executive to both Mayor Hickenlooper (to oversee the construction of the new Denver Justice Center) and Mayor Webb (as the head of Denver's Parks and Recreation Department and the head of the city's Office of Human Rights and Community Relations). In 2010, he was named the 9 News Community Leader of the Year by the Denver Metro Chamber Leadership Foundation.
James holds a bachelor’s degree in business administration from the University of Notre Dame, a master’s in business administration from Arizona State University, and a master’s in public policy from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University. Find out more about James Mejia at www.mejiaformayor.com.
James, can you explain the role the mayor of Denver has in actually developing new jobs?
James Mejia: First off, it’s important to acknowledge the struggle of being unemployed. There is not one person I know that has not been impacted at some level by the unemployment crisis caused by this extended recession. The toll that unemployment takes on individuals, families and communities at large is profound.
There are many, many individuals who were first rocked by the impact the stock market crash had on their retirement savings and then a week later, got the news that they had been laid off from their job as well. There’s a very real sense of indignity that is truly painful to those who have worked hard all of their life and, due to no fault of their own, now find themselves on the street struggling to find a job – when jobs have become scarce.
Saying that, local government, which most would agree is the closest government to the citizens, should play a significant role in helping people get back to work. There’s a reasonable expectation that we can offer somewhat of a safety net to the unemployed and I believe that in the City of Denver’s case, we simply need to do a better job of reaching out and helping the unemployed.
The mayor of Denver is the CEO of the city. It has been proven time and time again, that working together with the business community, civic and neighborhood leaders throughout Denver, the mayor's office has tremendous influence in developing, inspiring and motivating the vision, the goals and ultimately is accountable for creating an economic environment that supports existing and new businesses to succeed, which ultimately, is the base of employment and new jobs in the city.
When I worked for Mayor Webb and we experienced the burst of the dot.com bubble in the late ‘90s, there were a lot of people who were thrown out of work. The Mayor’s Office of Workforce Development approached the local newspapers and they partnered to place full-page ‘reverse’ job ads that advertised people needing a job – similar to AH Jobs List Jobseeker Profiles. It was an effective measure that not only got job seekers in front of recruiters across the city, but also gave job seekers another level of hope in their job search. This is an example of a simple partnership between private companies and local government that can be developed using existing resources to have an impact on getting people back to work – these are simple things that go a long way.
In addition to the pure problem of unemployment in the sense of there not being work available, there is also as big of a problem in job seekers whose job-seeking skills are rusty; they have not had to look for a job in a long time! With the Internet and other new technologies, looking for a job is very different than it used to be – it’s a lot more complex and network based than simply mailing out a resume to companies.
I will direct our office of Workforce Development to do a better job of marketing their services and working more directly with the satellite office of Denver City Council members, neighborhood organizations and other community based organizations to schedule regular free classes and seminars to teach those looking for a job about the latest trends and strategies on how to find a job and manage their careers.
Finally, the city should develop new partnerships with our local universities to help promote life-long learning opportunities for citizens. If you’ve been laid off and need to gain additional skills or want to reinvent yourself, the prospect of going back to school or the cost of classes can be daunting; but in this economy, new skills are often the tipping point between getting hired or not. The city has tremendous opportunity to market and promote ways for job seekers to get back into the classroom at low cost – whether it's through simply taking classes at the Denver Free University or gaining new skill through certification programs at community colleges or MBAs through the Executive MBA Program at UCD.
AH: How does a strong city economy help job seekers?
JM: A few things – first off, Denver, as the capital city of Colorado, is the main economic hub and the gateway for the economy of the entire state. As such, it is incredibly important that the City of Denver create a business friendly environment for companies large and small that create new jobs.
The city’s brand has simply got to be “OPEN FOR BUSINESS"!
Small businesses just starting out need to know that the City of Denver will help them; the Office of Economic Development has small business experts that offer free business planning services and access and advice to capital funding to start new businesses. But we also want existing businesses to expand, grow and add new jobs in Denver. There are many incentives for businesses to develop and grow – a few examples are through DURA’s TIF financing programs and Enterprise Tax Zones – but there are also state and federal incentives that we need to do a better job of promoting to encourage business to grow and expand in Denver. I'm also committed to doing a better job of promoting Denver businesses to opportunities that exist at Denver International Airport and big taxpayer-funded development projects such as the Union Station Development, FastTracks and any and all development projects that are funded through tax dollars. Qualified Denver businesses need to be given the first bite of the apple on all of these projects.
AH: Why is city government often seen as an obstacle to businesses wanting to start, expand or relocate to Denver?
James Mejia: Too often, the unfortunate stereotype of city government is that it is an obstacle to businesses wanting to grow, and that has got to change. City permits, inspections, rules and regulations simply must be reexamined, realigned and set up in a way that not only allows, but encourages businesses to want to grow or relocate to Denver. Every new administration talks tough about streamlining these thick layers of bureaucracy but I want to actually be the mayor that does something about it.
An example is a friend who wanted to expand his restaurant business. During his expansion, his front window was covered with at least 30 different permits that were required by the city. The horror stories were outrageous! There was one inspector from one department telling him he had to do one thing and another inspector from another department telling him had to do the exact opposite after he'd spent the money to do it the way the first one insisted! This caused unnecessary delays and unacceptable costs that were the direct result of the City of Denver’s sometimes arcane, confusing, contradictory and business unfriendly permitting system.
Now, granted, there are reasonable expectations that businesses need to follow, but there needs to be ways to consolidate policies and procedures and create new efficiencies to make it easier, and more affordable for business to expand and grow in Denver successfully.
Last week, I announced my plan to create the Denver Business Concierge Service which will act as a liaison between the city and businesses wishing to relocate or expand in Denver. The concierge will act as a single contact point for obtaining permits, tax incentive opportunities, interacting between city agencies and dealing with all city-related issues for large, medium and small projects. The Business Concierge Service would also act as a clearinghouse for all new business opportunities with the City of Denver.
Secondly, I commit to focus on funding and marketing the City’s Small Business Loan Program to connect entrepreneurs with low-interest start-up loans. The City of Denver does billions of dollars of business with lending institutions – many of the same lending institutions that were bailed out with our tax dollars - and I want our banking partners to be on notice that if they are not freeing up loans at reasonable rates to our small businesses and entrepreneurs, I will shift the city’s banking business to give preference to those lenders that do free up capital to fund this program.
AH: Anything else you’d like to add?
James Mejia: Mayor Peña inspired our entire city during a painful recession in the ‘80s to Imagine a Great City. Imagine a Great City was not just a catchy slogan, it was a call to action that motivated the entire city and helped us focus on some audacious but achievable goals. Elected officials, business and community leaders, neighborhood organizations and average citizens – we all came together and instead of taking a ‘woe is me’ attitude, we rolled up our sleeves got to work, invested in our future and look at how the city has progressed in the past 20 years as a result.
Right now we, as a city, are facing a tipping point – the next 5-10 years are critical if we are to maintain and expand on the success of the past 20 years. It’s about nurturing innovation and entrepreneurship and developing robust economic opportunities that create new jobs, and it's about protecting and preserving our unique ‘Denver’ quality of life.
A city ultimately won’t be defined by buildings, monuments, museums or malls – it will be defined by the character, the integrity and the resilience of its leaders and its citizens.
I believe my platform, coupled with my experience, positions me to be an effective mayor and I respectfully ask for your vote in the upcoming election.
To find out more about James Mejia's campaign for mayor of Denver, go to www.mejiaformayor.com.