Why Millennials Are Flocking to Denver (Hint: Not for the Legal Weed)

by Derek Loosvelt | July 22, 2016

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There's a saying in Colorado that people come for the winters but stay for the summers. And now, in Denver, the state's capital, there's a similar saying: people come for the cannabis but stay for the jobs. That is, Denver's become the new great magnet for the millennial generation. And it's not the legal marijuana that millennials are flocking to the city for (though, certainly, that doesn't have zero effect on their mile-high migration) but for the job opportunities, the entrepreneurial spirit, the good housing stock, the revitalized downtown, the beer, the food, and having the Rocky Mountains within biking distance doesn't hurt either.

According to a Brookings Institution analysis of population movement from 2009-14, the city had a net annual migration gain of 12,682 people ages 25 to 34, the highest of any metropolitan area in the United States. That means an average of 12,682 more millennials per year moved here than left, for each of the five years measured.
Similarly, an analysis of census data by Zillow, the real estate website, found that 18- to 34-year-olds accounted for 35 percent of the city’s population growth from 2010 to 2014, up from 26 percent in the first 10 years of the century.

It's no secret that the major metropolitan cities in the U.S. such as San Francisco and New York are becoming more and more unaffordable for younger people to live in. Silicon Valley has created a major real estate problem (and neighbors are brawling with one another as a result) out West. And Wall Street and BigLaw and Silicon Alley and other industries in New York City have been driving up rental and housing prices for years, pushing younger people further and further away from the center of the city. First from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and now from close-to-Manhattan Brooklyn to far-away-from-Manhattan Brooklyn. And many Brooklyn residents have been hitting the road altogether. Some have moved to places like Portland and Austin and Detroit. And now, some are feeling that Rocky Mountain High. That is, moving to Denver, which ranked No 1. in U.S. News and World Report's 2016 Best Places to Live study. The city was singled out for its great outdoor activities, its "progressive mind-set," and its walkability.

Those were some of the attractions for Adam Frank, 35, a Brooklyn native and lawyer who moved here in 2011.
“Best decision I ever made,” Mr. Frank said. “It has a lot of old homes with character and doesn’t look like a prefab community.” He also cited the brewpubs and restaurants, as well as access to skiing and hiking, which he loves and could do only rarely while living in New York.
Mr. Frank and his wife, Kathleen, a California native, met here and live in the Baker section in an 1886 two-story, mansard-style house. A partner in a civil rights law firm, he said he appreciated the entrepreneurism here that helped give him and his law partner the impetus to put up their shingle in 2015.

As for the allure of the legal cannabis, city planners say that long before Colorado legalized the recreational use of weed in 2012, Denver was beginning its revival and setting the stage for a big, youthful migration.

“Denver was in a major recession in the ’80s,” said Professor Makarewicz, an urban planner. “The main industry was gas and oil, so when the energy sector bombed, the business community and government got together and decided they needed to diversify and make some major investments.”
Among the changes over the next two decades were a growth boundary to limit urban sprawl, better air-quality controls, a new airport and a downtown baseball stadium (Coors Field, where the Colorado Rockies play).
The efforts of local preservationists kept many historic buildings from destruction, while new zoning laws changed neighborhoods to accommodate mixed-use buildings and what urban planners call a form-based code. That means, Professor Makarewicz said, that “buildings are approved more by how they look than what’s in them.”

Another change was a massive move to improve Denver's public transit system. Citizens voted for a tax hike to fund the system in 2004. And now it's paying off.

Matt Prosser, a vice president of Economic and Planning Systems, a California-based consulting firm, said the transit system was a “central component” in the area’s ability to draw millennials. “It makes living here a lot easier for younger folks,” he said. “You don’t necessarily have to own a car.”

Prosser and others aren't stopping now. They have plans to continue to lay more groundwork that will further attract young people and entrepreneurs. And they seem to be on the right track (even if housing prices are going up since demand for Denver is rising), as one of the things that young people continue to voice, with respect to what they want in a place to live as well as an employer, is a sense of community.

“As we started talking about what made Denver successful over the last 10 years, particularly with millennials, one theme kept coming up: the openness,” Mr. Prosser said. “It’s a community that you can move into and feel like you’re accepted and find your way.”

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Filed Under: Job Search | Workplace Issues

Tags: best cities to live and work in | college graduates | denver | medical marijuana | millennials

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