In the 1980s, the city of Denver, Colorado, was hardly a model for any type of economic development.
After the oil bust, the vacancy rate in Denver's downtown soared, with the city auctioning off office space for mere cents per foot, remembers Tom Clark, the chief executive officer of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. Residents cordoned themselves off in the nearby suburbs. And the state budget was in such dire circumstances that the government stopped funding prominent cultural institutions like the Denver Art Museum and Denver Botanic Gardens, write Bruce Katz and Jennifer Bradley in their book, The Metropolitan Revolution.
It's hard to square this portrait of Denver with the city today, which consistently ranks high on lists of the best places to live and work in the country. How did Denver go from an ailing city to a vibrant regional economy, connected by robust public transportation, thriving cultural institutions, and shared economic values? The city and its surrounding suburbs had to decide that working together was preferable to struggling separately. After some initial finger-pointing, localities joined forces in the mid-1980s to transform the Denver metropolitan area from a resource-based economy that was concentrated on oil to a vibrant, diverse one. The resulting collaboration has tackled everything from air quality to building a new train system. "It's a culture issue. It's the way they do business there," says Bradley, the director of the Center for Urban Innovation at the Aspen Institute.
Denver's turnaround began with a regional agreement, signed in January 1987, which laid out the region's shared economic principles. The mayors of Denver and surrounding areas still gather once a month to meet on economic plans. And, even though the original regional agreement remains voluntary, people stick to the core ideas. "It's an approach to regionalism that's about creating a culture instead of a legal structure," Clark adds. "People want to behave at the highest level of ethics, provided the guy next door does, too."