Denver residents no longer need to padlock their liquor cabinets and hide away their daughters when the Legislature arrives in town. The legal protection that Colorado voters learned about last session, when state Rep. Laura Bradford was released after a suspected DUI stop by Denver police officers, wasn’t established to forestall partisan kidnappings — it was authorized to insure quorums weren’t threatened by multiple incarcerations in the Denver County jail. Following decades of good government ministrations on the part of Common Cause and a blogosphere alert to every rumor of bad behavior, lobbyists can no longer offer leisurely, all-expenses-paid junkets for preferred legislators at favorite watering holes. Influence peddling has evolved into a mind numbing repetition of sober conversations at Starbucks where each participant is responsible for purchasing his or her own stimulants. (Perhaps Amendment 64 will alter this balance, introducing a hazed and confused burst of public policy creativity — something equivalent to the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour.)
The Colorado Legislature assembles each year amidst somber pledges to strengthen the state’s economy. For the better part of the past century, however, these schemes frequently involved raids on jobs performed in Denver with the sole purpose of transferring economic activities into the hinterlands. Thirty years ago, when I served in the House, rural legislators would routinely round up suburban Republicans to short change Denver in the school finance act, highway funding formulas and the state’s capital expenditure programs. It was regarded as great fun to make Denver pay its own way while spreading around revenues collected from Denver to everyone else. Despite a barrage of admonitions to these suburban ‘fellow travelers’ that the “outstate” envy and resentment of Denver was not confined to the boundaries of the City and County of Denver — that it, in fact, extended to Lakewood, Aurora, Thornton, Englewood, and the entire metropolitan region — proved persuasive. ‘Piling on’ paid greater political dividends than regional solidarity ever promised.
At that time, there was also a lot of beggar-thy-neighbor annexation and zoning taking place along the Front Range designed solely to steal sales tax revenues from neighboring jurisdictions. Few municipalities’ hands were clean. Have you ever wondered why the Southwest Plaza shopping center, almost entirely surrounded by Jefferson County, is a part of Denver? Developers were adept at auctioning their tax increment financing schemes in exchange for free infrastructure and an assortment of special tax breaks. Access to Denver water was a particular plum. A standard economic measure of urbanization is the portion of a state’s population that resides in cities of 100,000 or more. Counter-intuitively, you will find the Rocky Mountain States of Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Nevada among the most urbanized in the nation. That’s not how we like to think of ourselves in the land of wide-open spaces and vast expanses of vacant federal lands. The ranching ethos that good fences make for good neighbors has long trumped any commitment to coordinated planning in Colorado.
That is changing. Perhaps the final spasm of winner-take-all development battles resulted in the creation of Centennial, an entirely irrational ribbon of strip malls that string across the South Metro suburbs, constructed as a defense against the aggressive annexations launched by Greenwood Village. It has struggled to provide a coherent set of public services. Equally unsettling was the middle-of-the-night flight of hospital complexes from Denver to Aurora and Lakewood. The University of Colorado, Veterans, Children’s and St. Anthony’s hospitals each generate nearly a billion dollars annually in economic activity. Denver was asleep at the switch, recklessly imposing ruinous restrictions and onerous approval hurdles on expansion that ultimately proved intolerable, while remaining blind to the options available to these institutions. Enter Aurora. Denver paid a dear price for this bureaucratic cluelessness.
Economic theorists have posited in recent years that it is the vitality of urban centers that actually drives regional economic growth. The implications of this for Colorado is that the Denver metroplex, with assists from Colorado Springs, Pueblo, Fort Collins and, increasingly, Greeley, provides the economic engine that spins off benefits across the state. Consequently, it is the quality of leadership along the Front Range, far more than anything the Legislature might initiate, that will determine our shared prosperity as we transit the 21st century. Fortunately, Denver’s recent mayors launched a variety of projects from Federico Peña’s new International Airport, Webb’s first class convention complex and the successful redevelopment of the Platte Valley railyards, as well as the Stapleton and Lowry redevelopments that have driven growth. RTD’s FasTracks network and Aurora Mayor Steve Hogan’s shepherding of the E-470 and Northwest Parkways have proven equally important. The Denver metro area has emerged as the de facto provincial capital of the entire Rocky Mountain West.
We need to pay more attention to the projects that will drive economic growth in the years immediately ahead of us, and to the men and women who are piloting these initiatives. To John Hickenlooper’s lasting credit, he was able to drive the final nails in the coffin of irresponsible jurisdictional competition in favor of regional cooperation. Everywhere, from the business community, with a special tip of the hat to Tom Clark at the Chamber, to DRCOG, the policy conversation has moved from who gets what to how we can make what we get benefit everyone. That’s a paradigm shift. A prosperous Front Range strengthens our tourism industry and purchases more agricultural products from our ranchers and farmers. Economic vitality in Denver also drives entrepreneurial start-ups in communities throughout Colorado. Now that the political center of gravity within the Legislature has finally and decisively moved to the Front Range, we can quit treating our metropolitan communities as cash cows and begin crafting policies that will grow revenues across the state. That means public investments.
This is particularly important as projects like the Front Range rail initiative moves from concept to feasibility. Its funding should not be treated as a question of local responsibility, but must be acknowledged as a matter of statewide concern. The same can be said of the mobility challenge along the I-70 mountain corridor. Access to Colorado’s world-class resorts is just as important to residents in Sterling and Durango as it is for those living in Denver and along the Front Range. (Convincing everyone of this is another matter.) It also means better schools, inexpensive job training programs and first class colleges and universities.
During the months ahead, I plan to report regularly about these initiatives — efforts to improve Denver’s public schools, complete the metropolitan beltway and kick-start the city-within-the-city, an Aerotropolis at DIA. Each of these, as well as others, can provide a vital brick in the wall of Colorado’s economic independence. We don’t have to wait on Washington to mail us a check, nor should we. Colorado can and should engineer its own economic success. (If you have suggestions for future reports from the engine room, please pass them along to: firstname.lastname@example.org)
Miller Hudson is a longtime Denverite with interests beyond the city borders.