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Denver’s ambitions are a mile high

Jeremy Hobson Aug 25, 2008

Denver’s ambitions are a mile high

Jeremy Hobson Aug 25, 2008


KAI RYSSDAL: Denver’s not a town that normally gets a whole lot of media attention. There’s a logical reason for that — it’s pretty far away from some of the bigger economic and political centers of power. But Denver is trying to break into that tier. And as Marketplace’s Jeremy Hobson reports, some in the city think they can show the rest of us the shape of our economic future.

TRAM ANNOUNCEMENT: This is the terminal. All passengers, please exit.

JEREMY HOBSON: Many Americans don’t know much about Denver beyond the airport. It’s the world’s 11th busiest, and it’s critical to Denver’s economy. But it’s no longer the talk of the town the way it was when it opened 13 years ago.

FEDERICO PENA: Well, today we have a very diverse economy.

That’s former Denver mayor Federico Pena, who now works at a private-equity firm high above Denver’s version of Wall Street.

PENA: And because our economy is so diverse, whenever one sector is down — let’s say the Internet sector or, perhaps, the oil and gas sector — there are other sectors that are doing well.

That diversity could really pay dividends for cities like Detroit that are tied to the booms and busts of one big industry.

So what’s booming enough to counteract national busts in aviation, telecom, tourism, financial services and the housing sector?

I asked Rich Wobbekind, associate Dean at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s business school.

HOBSON: Where’s the growth? What’s the future?

RICH WOBBEKIND: Well, certainly, currently the energy industry broadly has been a major driving force for the state economy.

And not just because of Colorado’s luck in having some of the largest oil and natural gas reserves in the nation. A big part of the state’s energy future is renewable. And ground zero for the nation’s alternative energy research is about 12 miles west of Denver.

TOM CLARK: We are just on the edge of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and we are driving now into the NREL or the National Renewable Energy Laboratory campus. You can see on the right the wind turbines.

Tom Clark of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation drove me to the region’s economic hot spots. He says the the federal lab here has already attracted Conoco Phillips. The energy giant is opening a 7,000-person campus nearby.

CLARK: A federal lab is really important. It takes kind of the upfront basic science risk, and then as they develop that technology, private investment comes in.

It’s a model Denver is using on the other side of town as well, where hospitals and drug companies now occupy an old military base that’s been transformed into a leading bio-science park.

CLARK: This allows inventions coming out of the research labs to go literally across the street to be taken into the open marketplace.

Denver’s strategic planning is helped by something not a lot of cities have — space. The downside of that is you’ve got to drive long distances to get from here to there. And that brings up another aspect of the mile high city that other big sprawling western metropolises might soon copy.

Colorado Taxpayers actually voted to pay a higher sales tax to build a light rail system that will span the region. It’s a point of pride as you can hear in this song Tom Clark wrote when part of the system — called T-rex — was completed.

CLARK: Hooray, T-rex you’re finally finished. How’d we ever build something so big? On budget and ahead of the schedule. Let’s tell the folks at Boston’s Big Dig.

If Denver’s economy is the futuristic success story Tom Clark would have you believe, it’s because of two things: A highly educated workforce, due mostly to outsiders coming to work in the high-tech industries that dot Denver’s landscape and, says former mayor Federico Pena, a regional mentality.

Dozens of cities across hundreds of miles all consider themselves part of the same community.

PENA: We probably have more metropolitan-wide districts of one kind or another than any other part of the United States.

For instance, unlike, say, New York, there’s one regional transit authority spanning numerous municipalities and governed by one body.

There’s similar regional cooperation in everything from sewage to the arts — and, of course, it helps that the whole region falls within the borders of just one state.

But there’s another big reason to work together, says Steve McMillan, business editor of the Denver Post.

STEVE MCMILLAN: There are no major cities for hundreds and hundreds of miles. Right here along the front range, we are an economy unto ourselves. Denver stands alone.

Perhaps the most futuristic things about Colorado are its problems. There’s not a lot of water around here, and ever more consumers, thanks to a rapidly growing population.

And there’s a real worry about the state’s crumbling education system.

Colorado’s libertarian streak led to the passage of a law that makes raising money for local education difficult.

And everyone I spoke with — including Colorado’s biggest cheerleaders — said if the state doesn’t start educating its own children and growing its own talent pool, its economy will suffer.

That warning is one thing about this region that’s far from unique.

In Denver, I’m Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

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