Now the animals are gone, and the land is cleared and ready for the new development surging along the Denver-to-Boulder corridor.
At campaign rallies throughout the South and Midwest, economic frustration and sluggish wage growth are dominant themes. States like Alaska and Oklahoma, faced with low oil prices, are grappling with bankruptcies and layoffs. And overall growth in the United States economy remains disappointing.
But this thriving industrial park is just one sign of the many metropolises and smaller cities across the nation that have not only regained their footing since the recession, but are on the upswing.
“It’s pretty clear that some metropolitan areas are doing really well,” said Andrew McAfee, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The ingredients to that formula seem to be some combination of great research universities and knowledge-intensive industries, whether it’s high tech on the West Coast, biotechnology here in the East or clusters of technology and robotics in places like Pittsburgh.”
The Denver metropolitan area has become a showcase of the sunnier side of the American economy. While the region has some inherent advantages, like a spectacular landscape that beguiles outdoor enthusiasts, Colorado had long been held back by a dependence on natural resources as its economic base.
Its transformation into one of the most dynamic economies in the country was led by local business leaders and government officials, who took advantage of existing assets while also raising taxes at times to invest in critical transportation links, development-friendly policies and a network of colleges and universities.
“It’s the outcome of really about 30 years of diversifying our economy” away from fossil-fuel industries and military contractors, said Tom Clark, chief executive of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. “In the 1980s, we were Coors, carbon and the Cold War.”
With a history of boom-and-bust commodity cycles, Colorado hit bottom in the mid-’80s, when energy prices collapsed. Nearly a third of the office space in downtown Denver, the state’s oil-and-gas headquarters, sat empty. Many of the city’s cultural institutions teetered, and a cloud of brown smog smeared the horizon.
Now the brilliant blue skyline is punctuated with red cranes, and Denver’s soundtrack includes the steady thrum of power drills operated by hard-hatted construction workers who are putting up office buildings and housing at a feverish pace.
Technology start-ups, including Ibotta, Craftsy, Home Advisor and Gnip (bought by Twitter in 2014), found a footing in Colorado. Financial services firms like Charles Schwab, TIAA and Fidelity Investments expanded their operations.
A raft of smaller aerospace and commercial satellite companies like Sierra Nevada, which just won a NASA contract to build the mini-space shuttle Dream Chaser, have elbowed in beside giants like Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Colorado led the country last year in new health care jobs.
Several measures helped things along. A new rail line that will connect the airport to the downtown and serve outlying industrial parks and a push to support cultural institutions “required people to vote to raise their taxes,” Mr. Clark of Metro Denver said. “This wasn’t something done by the elites.”
What Denver and its surrounding cities share with other boomtowns is an appealing environment for a skilled work force, which has increasingly meant the difference between prosperity and stagnation.
Such places have become business incubators and magnets for educated millennials. The lifestyles that 20- and 30-somethings often seek depend on a medley of urban living, public transit and lots of entertainment options (which in Colorado includes marijuana, legalized for recreational use since 2014).
“Opportunity is being driven by the digital economy,” said Zoë Baird, president of the Markle foundation, which recently began a pilot program called Skillful in Colorado to match employers and workers based on skills, rather than simply degrees. “That is where the job growth and economic growth is coming from.”
According to the latest figures available, the Denver-Aurora-Lakewood region had an unemployment rate of 2.7 percent, the lowest of any metropolitan area with a population above one million. (The national average was 4.9 percent in February.)
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