Report from the Rocky Mountain West Urban Leadership Symposium

Kathleen McCormick_updated2

By Kathleen McCormick

Denver and the Rocky Mountain region are well-poised to leverage urban resources to make this region the nation’s most desirable place to live, work, and visit, according to several speakers at the second Rocky Mountain West Urban Leadership Symposium, held February 15, 2012 at the Ritz Carlton in downtown Denver. Sponsored by the Downtown Denver Partnership, the symposium featured national leaders in business, higher education, government, and social policy discussing the potentials for economic development in the region.

Denver has been touted recently as the nation’s number one city for drawing the Millenials, or people born between 1981 and 2000. The allure is not just jobs, but lifestyle and the “spirit of the West,” said Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. Noting the metro region’s growth of the new-energy economy, aerospace, health care, small businesses, and the public transit system, he said, “the nation is taking notice because we can still grow.” Hancock said Denver was “looking for best practices” from other parts of the Rocky Mountain region.

Key presentations related to urbanism included the following:

“Cities are America’s heartland,” and enable “creative collaborations that forge human capital,” declared Edward Glaeser, professor of urban and social economics at Harvard and author of Triumph of the City. The successful cities of the late 18th and early 19th centuries, he noted, were fueled by “small firms, smart people, and connections to the outside world.” City growth generally is linked to higher education levels and personal wages, and since 1982, metropolitan growth in the U.S. also has shown a strong correlation with sunshine and higher January temperatures, as well as pro-business and pro-housing policies. Denver metro’s schools and universities are a factor in attracting and training smart workers, he said, while the Rocky Mountain region’s particular asset is its “environmental edge.” For all these reasons, Glaeser said, Denver and the region are well situated to thrive in the coming years.

The top four factors in attracting and retaining talented young workers are social offerings, great urban spaces, aesthetics, and education, said Carol Coletta, director of ArtPlace, a collaboration among federal agencies, including the National Endowment for the Arts, and some of the nation’s top banks and foundations. “Wide open spaces and picket fences are hard-wired into our politics, but that image of the [American Dream] is out of step with a new generation,” said Coletta. She said well-educated people between the ages of 25 and 34 are fueling a migration to urban areas, especially central business districts and within a three mile radius of city centers. This migration trend has spanned four decades and is still-accelerating. In 1990, for example, 12 percent of people in this age group lived in downtown neighborhoods, and now 42 percent do, with the college-educated more than twice as likely (110 percent) to live close-in. Young home buyers want to live within a quarter-mile walk of transit and services, and vehicle miles driven for the under-40 segment of U.S. society has declined markedly, she added. Coletta’s take-away for urban areas: “The quality of place has to move up on the priority list for economic development.” She said Helsinki recently was selected as “the world’s most livable city” because of creative placemaking—a new harbor district, good architecture, transit, a dense and lively downtown, and plenty of public art. She closed with a question and challenge: What American city is that ambitious?

To recover economically, cities in the Intermountain West “must become very intentional as metropolitan centers,” advised Mark Muro, director of policy for the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. Since 2007, 600,000 jobs have been lost in the Rocky Mountain region, “and 500,000 jobs are still missing,” he noted. He said “bottom-up” strategies from state and municipal governments, rather than the federal government, will be more successful in creating jobs and growing the economy. He cited several regional efforts that show promise, including the Denver region’s efforts to attract global business and the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade’s Colorado Blueprint, developed collaboratively by state agencies, organizations, and over 13,000 residents.

The Hon. Tom Murphy, Urban Land Institute senior resident fellow and Pittsburgh mayor from 1994 to 2005, expanded on the factors he said could make Denver a city for the 21st century, including the FasTracks transit expansion and high education levels. The Denver region could improve its competitive advantage by becoming a center for innovation, he said, adding that two-thirds of venture capital now goes to California and Boston. Denver receives $520 million a year in federal research dollars, he said, compared with San Francisco’s $2.4 billion, which generates 300 companies a year for the Bay Area.

One reason DaVita, a Fortune 500 kidney-care company, chose to relocate to Colorado from California was that “a much higher percentage of people in this area call themselves citizens and commit to doing community work,” said Kent Thiry, chairman and CEO of DaVita, which is building a sustainable corporate headquarters in downtown Denver. He said DaVita, with more than 41,000 “teammates” or employees nationwide, selected Denver because company officials believe Colorado can provide an excellent model of core business values for the next generation, including philanthropy and a healthier work environment.

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