Column: Is Colorado losing its economic mojo? |

Column: Is Colorado losing its economic mojo?

Patrick Brower
Grand Enterprise Initiative

Mojo is defined as magic charm, a talisman or spell.

I think it’s fair to say that for the last 40 years, or much of the time I’ve lived in the Mountain West, Colorado’s economy and its quality of life for most people really did have a certain “mojo.”

In particular, people who wanted to live in the mountains and enjoy the outdoor quality of life that is unique to the Rockies could actually work in the mountains and enjoy living in the mountains. By that I mean many could play well, work hard, have families that were educated well and feel as if they owned and could gain from a small piece of paradise.

But as Jon Stavney, executive director of the NorthWest Colorado Council of Governments pointed out recently, Colorado mountain living is losing its mojo. He bases that conclusion on comments by Colorado State Demographer Elizabeth Garner at a recent NWCCOG economic summit.

The first sign that Colorado is losing its mojo is reflected in the demographic that states 43 of 64 Colorado counties are in absolute decline in producing under-18-year-old people. Only Summit County in our region has a net increase in producing the next generation, he states.

Nationally, the last peak in the wave of children was 2007. That was 15 years ago. Of the absolute growth of births in the state two-thirds are “people of color.” So the question is: Are we, as local communities, preparing and welcoming that population into our workforce?” Think about that.

Secondly, this decline in births affects schools, higher education, the workforce and, ultimately, all of our communities. For starters, just take a look at all the help wanted signs out there, which reflect a level of desperation for workforce that I have never seen.

For a while, Colorado could attract people. As Stavney states: “A robust in-migration due to Colorado’s blistering economy, quality of life and other factors masked that long downward trend in births in previous decades. We’ve been a magnet and a place of opportunity for those at the beginning of their work years in the past.”

Not anymore. Now, the largest growth demographic in Colorado is over 65 years old, (my demographic). “As the Baby Boomers age-out of the workforce, and we block the flow of international migration for political (not economic) reasons, every state across the country is competing for a shrinking population of young people. Garner sees state colleges across the country out-competing Colorado for younger in-migrants that we’ve relied on.”

There is “some” in migration to the high country, of course: “Most newcomers remain non-residents (read second homeowners or part-timers such as location neutral workers) under the demographic radar. We do know they are also a generation older. The shift of mid-career remote workers and part-timers to the high country has benefits, as well as deleterious effects on the opportunities for younger workers staying or coming into the high country.”

These newer mountain migrants “are much better positioned (read richer) than those previous waves (people like me) of in-migrating young folks to compete for higher rents and for shrinking housing stock.”

Not surprisingly, Garner’s numbers show that Colorado is far behind in keeping up in the production of housing units. As Stavney says: “Garner has been persistent over the years reminding those who would listen that a job is a person is a place to live, and you can’t have one without the other two.”

Not only all that, TABOR (the Colorado Taxpayers Bill of Rights, passed by the voters in 1992) has strangled the state’s ability to provide good higher education that can compete with other states and has indirectly stifled our ability to fund education in general. This hurts Colorado’s ability to compete for people.

I know this is a re-hashing of the continual complaint about the need for housing and workers. But it reveals a broader structural and seemingly inevitable trend in our state and much of the country.

Are we in the Mountain West capable of mounting the political will to take-on and ameliorate these issues?

I think so, but don’t hold your breath!


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