From the August 14 edition of the Denver Business Journal, unedited.
The recent Denver municipal elections revealed a significant shift from the past 30 years and the emergence of two dominant factions, neither of which bode well for leading the city into a new future. Rooted in the lessons of the 1980s, both our economic prosperity messages and messengers are showing their age. In response, an anti-growth faction threatens to halt progress when we could benefit from fresh thinking and a major policy realignment. What is needed is a new progressive coalition with fresh voices to tackle the new challenges of growth and continue our evolution as a great American city.
Many marvel at today’s economic growth in Denver. We are rapidly becoming the nation’s pre-eminent non-coastal city, a magnet for young skilled workers blessed with all of the trappings of a successful 21st century region including a vital downtown, regional transit and a legacy of regional collaboration to solve problems.
The foundation for today’s prosperity was set during the hard times of the 1980s. Denver was enduring a regional economic downturn and market dysfunction unlike anything we experienced in the recent Great Recession. In response, both private and public sector leaders got together and initiated a 30-year cycle of regional investment including DIA, the Convention Center, I-25 lane widening and transit improvements, FasTracks, the Scientific & Cultural Facilities District, new stadia and numerous local bond issues for infrastructure, public facilities and schools. The coalition of leaders that mobilized in the 1980s to rescue this town included a cadre of attorneys, lobbyists and politicians that were on a roll until the Denver municipal elections of 2015.
Today, the Denver region is encountering a very different form of market dysfunction that still demands regional leadership and collaboration to solve. The by-products of growth threaten our sustainability. Increasing congestion, a lack of affordable housing, diminishing federal resources to fix our infrastructure and schools are the challenges of our day. As in the past, regional approaches will be necessary to fix these things that do not stop (or should not stop) at municipal boundaries. The region needs a realignment in policy and thought – moving on from the drumbeat of economic development that started in the 1980s to a new narrative founded on equity, opportunity and innovation.
So why does the Denver municipal election cause concern? The election revealed two major factions that don’t seem to grasp the need for a drastic change in approach and philosophy. On one hand, several candidates supported by the 1980s political establishment were defeated in key Council districts and the Auditor race. Given a credible opponent, our Mayor may have been far more vulnerable than he appeared. The successful opposition was mostly from an insurgent coalition that looks backward to a simpler time and a strategy of halting growth to solve our problems.
Neither group offers an inspiring vision for the future that balances community aspirations with market realities. The election revealed that it is time to update both the messages and messengers that will influence Denver’s future.
On messaging, it’s not as simple as “pro-growth” or “anti-growth”, but it’s more about guiding Denver’s evolution as a great 21st century city. The growth is coming whether we like it or not and the issue is how we shape it. The anti-growth voices should look to places like Boulder or Aspen that are fighting density and choking new investment and, in bastions of liberalism, are ironically accelerating market forces to become islands of opulence. As these markets become more exclusive, they lose their diversity and distinctiveness and, on a more fundamental level, provide limited opportunities for service workers and mid-level professionals. Our children, saddled with college debt, cannot afford to move back to their home city. Similar gentrification patterns are found in other American cities from San Francisco to Brooklyn.
In Denver, a new progressive coalition needs to change the growth message to encompass themes of sustainability, quality of life, diversity and, perhaps most importantly, creating a city where our kids can have the same opportunities to thrive as we did. Success in developing and promoting this new agenda will require educating the region on larger demographic and lifestyle trends that are shaping cities, and then demonstrating how support for and investment in affordable housing, well-designed density, mobility options beyond vehicles and improved public schools are connected to our shared economic prosperity for the next generation.
In addition to a new message, it is also time to freshen the messengers that lead our city’s political establishment. New faces and voices can include many of us that have stayed on the sidelines for decades. Plus there is exciting new energy to be tapped from the emerging leaders that are working to improve our neighborhoods, downtown and region.
The times demand new solutions and leadership – waiting until the next municipal election cycle does not appear to be an option.