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Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Dateline Denver: What Do They Have That We Don't? A Summer Trek To The Mile High City Shows The Upside And Downside Of One Of The Nation's Fastest Growing Metros  

It's not a Utopia. Far from it. But a trip to Denver, just a six hour drive from ABQ,  brings you to one of the most thriving and  fastest growing metro areas in the nation. It also reveals reasons why that is and what keeps our city from matching some of that success.

--First, the most obvious reason. Denver does not have a crime epidemic. People you speak with feel safe in their homes and cars. That's what a booming economy does--it circulates money and jobs. For too many ABQ has become a fearsome place to reside.

--Denver has a metro population that is now over 3 million.  The ABQ metro has yet to breach the  one million mark and stands at around 900,000. That's a huge difference in potential.

--Denver and Colorado have billionaires. From fortunes in high tech to cable TV, they've minted five of them. And they are rooted in the state, giving immense sums to enhance the culture and arts which in turn attracts bright young people seeking an exciting lifestyle and good jobs. In NM, the richest person is said to be oilman Mack Chase with assets of $650 million (maybe less in the wake of the oil price debacle). Even though he is a non-billioanire, he still has very few peers keeping him company.

--Denver has an incredibly diverse economy, attracting professionals in the high tech, biotech, financial services and health care fields. Denver's culture is entrepreneurial while ABQ's is governmental. When federal spending began to collapse here, that was the end of the party. Denver was also hit by the Great Recession but it had such diversity it soon bounced back.

--Like ABQ, the Denver area is set against a magnificent natural setting and blessed with a relatively moderate climate. Without the widespread crime and poverty that afflicts ABQ, it has proved more attractive to the legions of Easterners and Midwesterners who have been gravitating West in recent decades.

DOWNSIDE OF DENVER

Their problems? They are not little. Homelessness has increased and experts generally agree the legalization of marijuana exacerbated the situation. The homeless more than dot the landscape as you walk the cultural district into downtown. They seem to be everywhere.

Homeless in Denver
Housing costs can be stiff, with some regular neighborhoods even selling homes for nearly $500 a square foot and the average price of a one bedroom apartment is near $1,400 a month. Housing prices have soared but appear to be finally leveling off. Still, it's expensive. Well-paying jobs make it possible but many Denverites are getting squeezed hard.

In the early 90's Colorado added budget restrictions to its Constitution and some believe they are cramping its style. Miller Hudson, a government relations pro we lunched with at one of the many trendy restaurants on downtown Denver's 16th Street Mall, is one skeptic.

He explains that the Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) passed in the early 90's restricts increases in government spending to population growth and the rate of inflation While that has kept the reins on government, the state now ranks 49th in per capita spending on higher ed and 44th in road spending.

We need more and better roads to handle the wave of growth and keep the momentum going, but the restrictions are hurting us. Reform is getting serious discussion as we work to keep up with the growth, 

Hudson also pointed out that Denver's housing boom has been egged on by very low property tax rates:

A home that went for $400,000 in our neighborhood a decade ago was recently valued at $700,000. Still, the property tax is only $1,300 a year.

Well, homeowners will fight with their lives to keep that tax rate.

Adding momentum to the economy--along with some headaches--is the 2014 legalization of marijuana in Colorado.. It has brought droves of tourists to the city who spend millions. Then there's the $150 million a year in taxes legalized pot generates. That sounds like a lot but with a state budget of $27 billion a year, that's only a few drops in the bucket.

THE TAKEAWAY

Our visit made us a little bit more understanding of the Innovate ABQ concept that has been launched to spark more entrepreneurial activity, but it also reinforced our belief that Innovate ABQ is akin to putting the cart before the horse.

Too much of our workforce remains unprepared for the 21st century economy of cities like Denver. The social conditions crisis here--crime, poverty, lack of early childhood education and drugs--must be fully attacked and contained if we are to advance in a meaningful way. The recent threat of high tech company Lavu to leave ABQ and NM because of crime is undeniable evidence of that.

IF YOU GO 

The ART, a hotel, with a lot of whimsical art decorating the place, is right in the middle of the cultural district, next to the Denver Art Museum and across the street from the History Colorado museum. (Both are well done).

It's a short walk to catch the shuttle to the 16th Street Mall to downtown and its many attractions, or the hotel shuttle will take you. It's also a short walk to the state capitol where there are regular and informative tours.

There's a decent on-site restaurant at the ART, but a Denver breakfast institution--Dozens--is only a short walk away and filled with down home comfort. Downtown, the restaurant Rioja is touted as the best in the city and is worth a stop. Ditto for the top notch chain steakhouse Capital Grille. The Crimson Room is a cool Larimer Square jazz venue. We ran into Stu Macaskie playing there, who for years was a fixture on the ABQ music scene, but has found a better vibe in the Mile High City. He misses ABQ but said the opportunities here dried up.

If you are driving, on the way back you can treat yourself to a bite to eat at one of the finest resorts in the USA--the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs. A casual lunch at La Taverne and a stroll around the grounds will do you a world of good.

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(c)NM POLITICS WITH JOE MONAHAN 2017
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