I spent a week in Denver this summer. One of the reasons the Mile High City appealed was its status as one of the prime urban competitors to Minneapolis/St. Paul. I wanted to see what Denver had going for it and better understand why our regional economy seemed unable to keep up. Denver, Seattle, and Portland are the “new economy” cities we envy for their success in attracting national buzz as great places to live, luring young professionals (“the creative class”) and jobs regions covet.
Denver is landlocked, with a four-season climate and a rep as something of a cow town, so I was intrigued with how the region had made itself over so quickly. I was on vacation, so I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive academic study of it, but I talked to insiders with history and perspective of both Denver and MSP, and the conversations and observations were enlightening.
Denver is booming. Its population bottomed out around 400,000 in the early 1980s and is more than 600,000 today. Wonder if Minneapolis can meet its goal and add 100,000 people? Denver did it—without beaches or a nationally recognized cultural or culinary scene.
The Denver metro area is actually smaller in population than the Twin Cities, but Denver feels larger. I-25 is as wide as an L.A. freeway and it loops around downtown in a way that makes the center city seem majestic. Denver has large suburbs like we do, but it is a couple decades ahead of us in bringing new residents back to downtown and environs.
Ubiquitous four-story apartment blocks like those sprouting around Uptown and downtown Minneapolis are everywhere in Denver. Typical of many western cities, Denver had vast tracts of underutilized land surrounding its downtown given over to warehousing and transportation logistics. That land has mostly become housing.
Denver also is one city, not two—it hasn’t split its hub into halves as we long ago did. Downtown Denver may be too large for its own good, but it finally feels vibrant and alive, even on weekends. And though I saw many homeless men, I was not once panhandled like I am daily in downtown Minneapolis.
And though Denver has a four-season climate, it’s four-season lite. There’s no humidity, no bugs, snow falls then melts two days later; there are no multi-week stretches below freezing or multi-day stretches below zero. The sun is out 300 days a year and there are always mountains on the horizon.
Denver has come a long way from the 1980s, but I was surprised to see that a lot of what is drawing people to it today are not grandiose public ventures, but an incomparable climate and the good fortune of having available land to slake the thirst of millennials with urban aspirations.
Comparing cost-of-living, and the arts, culture, and food scenes, we’ve got Denver beat. But we can’t merge our two sort-of-downtowns, create acres of developable land right where people most want to live, nor turn off our harsh climate.
The question Denver left me with was not whether the Twin Cities is doing all it can to compete, but whether there are simply limits to how high we can fly.
Adam Platt is the executive editor of Twin Cities Business Magazine and formerly held the same post at Mpls.St.Paul Magazine. City Centered is his monthly column in Mpls.St.Paul Magazine that examines the cultural climate of the Twin Cities.