Buoyed by breathtaking scenery, an entrepreneurial spirit and a diversified economy, Denver is attracting more than 1,000 newcomers a month—and providing one of the most potent workforces in the nation.Destination 2018: CharlestonDestination 2018: Detroit
The Family Jones, a new distillery and restaurant in the booming LoHi (Lower Highland) neighborhood of Denver, was bustling on a recent Saturday night. Small groups of mostly young people sat at communal tables or the half-circle bar, drinking meticulously crafted cocktails and nibbling on charcuterie. A full moon illuminated the room through massive windows on one side.
It felt like the ultimate local scene, but “local” is a relative term in the Mile High City. The Wisconsin-raised guy to my right moved to Denver two years ago after escaping “congested and attitude-heavy” San Francisco for a job as a programmer at a tech startup. The bartender came to Denver from Philadelphia to go to college, fell in love with the city’s socially progressive atmosphere and never left. A middle-aged couple smooching over housemade vodka and gin paused long enough to say they’d moved to Denver a year ago from Texas, drawn by the beauty of the area. Both work for online retailers and can basically choose where they want to live.
For more and more people, that choice is Denver: 1,000-plus people move to the city each month. Blessed with extraordinary physical beauty and nurturing an entrepreneurial culture that goes back to the 19th-century gold rush, Denver is attracting everyone from disaffected Bay Area techies to socially engaged East Coast creatives. “It’s the new capital of the West,” says Ryan Diggins, a Denver real estate developer who just opened the elegant Ramble Hotel in the city’s RiNo (River North Art District) neighborhood. “Things feel more possible here. You can breathe.”
Last April, a coalition of 10 Colorado-based tech companies, along with state agencies, launched Pivot to Colorado, a $500,000 marketing campaign that encourages tech talent to leave Silicon Valley for the state. It’s just one of the ways Colorado, and Denver in particular, has been diversifying its economy since the 1980s, when it was largely dependent on the oil and gas industry. Today, Denver’s strengths include aerospace (second in the nation after California), from space exploration to four military commands; IT software (growing 20 percent faster than the national average for the last five years); and, of course, marijuana (residents voted to legalize the product in 2012). Metro Denver has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation—it’s just under 3 percent—and adds about 35,000 jobs a year.
“Business in Colorado works across geographic and political boundaries,” says J.J. Ament, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, the first regional EDC in the nation. “You’ll never hear Denver criticize Boulder or Aurora. It’s not a competitive place; it’s a collaborative place.”
That atmosphere is part of what attracted Frank Bonanno, a New Jersey native, to the city. One of Denver’s most successful chefs—he’s opened nearly a dozen restaurants in the city—Bonanno and his wife, Jacqueline, just opened Milk Market, a massive retail food and restaurant complex not far from Union Station. Milk Market includes Mano Pastaria, offering hand-rolled pastas; Ruth’s Butchery, featuring Colorado-raised meats; Stranded Pilgrim, a lineup of all-Colorado beers; and Cornicello, a gelato shop.
“We’ve had a lot of success here—Denver’s a great city to do business. And enough people are figuring that out that there’s been a big infusion of capital from outside coming in,” says Frank Bonanno. Adds Jacqueline, “We’ve never had outside investors before, but Milk Market is so big we had to, and today we could get it. About 80 percent. It’s scary but exciting.”
San Francisco-based Vista Equity Partners is one of the private equity firms that have started investing in the city. It now has six portfolio companies in Denver feeding venture-backed businesses. “Denver is an entrepreneur’s dream,” says the EDC’s Ament—himself a Colorado native who worked in New York investment banking for years before returning to Colorado last year. “About 99 percent of the businesses in the metro area have fewer than 500 employees.”
Those employees are compelling: Denver has the second most highly educated workforce after Boston-Cambridge. But there are other factors attracting entrepreneurs to Denver. FasTracks, a $5.5 billion transit initiative begun in 2006, has added more than 122 miles of light rail connecting downtown to the surrounding suburbs and Denver International Airport.
DaVita, a kidney care company based in the city, recently polled its employees and found that 83 percent don’t use a car to get to work, walking, biking or taking the train instead.
You can do business with Europe in the morning and Japan in the afternoon.
In an interconnected world, Denver is geographically blessed. You can do business with Europe in the morning and Japan in the afternoon. It is equidistant to Canada and Mexico. And domestically, it’s within a four-hour flight of any continental location. To capitalize on these advantages, the city has been putting money into its airport, where 11 new nonstop international flights were added last year, including ones to London, Paris and Panama City.
Analyzing 30 data metrics—from available office space to housing costs to demographic diversity—to determine the best and worst cities for startups and small businesses, RewardExpert picked metro Denver as No. 1 out of 177 across the United States in 2018. Denver, says its report, gives new companies “the best chance to survive and succeed.”
Ben Parsons, owner and winemaker at the Infinite Monkey Theorem, launched his urban winery in Denver’s RiNo district in 2012 and appreciates all the business advantages. He has built a $10 million company with Colorado-grown grapes and a sophisticated and fun wine bar. But the biggest reason this Brit who has lived in Australia and New Zealand chose Denver is more elusive. “RiNo is like Brooklyn 15 years ago—it just has a fantastic, creative feel,” he says. “It’s hip, but not overdone. People are drawn here.” That was certainly the case on a recent afternoon, with young women tasting riesling at the bar while passing around something they were writing together and guys at outdoor tables sipping on cans of dry-hopped pear cider as they enjoyed Denver’s famously sunny sky.
Commercial and residential rents still aren’t anywhere near those of San Francisco, New York or Boston, but Parsons notes that they are on the rise. “Just a few years ago, RiNo was about $3 a square foot for commercial space. Today, it’s closer to $38. There is definitely a danger of gentrification, and if things go too far, you lose what makes the place special to start with.”
Parsons and others worry about all the ways Denver will change if growth continues at its current pace. But he isn’t worried about a little turmoil. “We love cities—it’s where you find art, culture, ideas. It’s where you can create order out of chaos. And Denver, right now, is in that sweet spot.”
The Downtown Denver Partnership is the connective tissue between development, tourism and business entities in the core of the city. It’s a great source of information for entrepreneurs and investors. 1515 Arapahoe St., Tower 2, Suite 400, firstname.lastname@example.org, 303.534.6161, downtowndenver.com
Real estate along Colorado’s Front Range, facing the southern Rockies, is a hot commodity, but there are still significant new projects in which to invest. ICOR connects developers, investors and property managers to help get deals done. 625 W. Mulberry St., Fort Collins, 970.682.4267, icorockies.com
Denver’s infrastructure boom has been paralleled by an expansion of its tech industry, with its attendant ecosystem of startups and venture capital firms. Backed by Silicon Valley Bank and the Rocky Mountain Venture Capital Association, Startup Colorado connects investors and entrepreneurs in the region. builtincolorado.com
The only hotel set in Union Station, this independent boutique property features rooms overlooking a grand atrium and amenities including a Tesla car service and craft beer tastings. From Denver International Airport, take the University of Colorado A Line to Union Station. The check-in desk is tucked off the station’s main lobby. 1701 Wynkoop St., 844.432.9374, thecrawfordhotel.com
Just steps removed from Boulder’s Pearl Street, where unique boutiques, dynamic restaurants and street musicians converge, St. Julien is a luxe oasis of pampering and beauty. There are mountain views from most rooms, plush beds, excellent spa offerings and first-class service. The University of Colorado Boulder is within walking distance with its beautiful campus, terrific art museum and exciting Fiske Planetarium. 900 Walnut St., Boulder, Colo., 720.406.9696, stjulien.com
A new 50-room boutique hotel in the RiNo neighborhood combines an industrial American feel with old-world European charm and beauty. Legendary New York cocktail purveyor Death & Co. runs the lobby bar as well as a breakfast and lunch café. 1280 25th St., 720.996.6300, theramblehotel.com
The 900-square-foot café in RiNo has been recognized as one of the best restaurants in the U.S. this year for its snacking menu and ambiance. Its fancier sister, Beckon, will open next door in November. 2845 Larimer St., 303.954.0230, call-denver.com
The city’s newest food court offers a terrific mix of take-away and dine-in restaurants, bars and artisanal food options. There are 16 venues, from a salumeria to a bao station to a crepe maker. 1800 Wazee St., 303.792.8242, denvermilkmarket.com
A stylish bar that distills its own spirits and offers small plates of yummy fare, from eggplant caponata toast to Berkshire pork tenderloin with pickled peach butter and bourbon-peach vin. There are guided tours of the distillery every Saturday. 3245 Osage St., 303.481.8185, thefamilyjones.com
Set in the heart of Denver’s Union Station neighborhood, Hearth & Dram evokes the city’s Gold Rush past with a rustic but modern feel. There’s a seven-foot wood-fired grill churning out everything from ribeye minute steaks to “whole beast feasts,” a long marble-topped bar offering 450 varieties of whisky and a wall of windows to take in the neighborhood’s feel. 1801 Wewatta St., 303.623.0979, hearthanddram.com
An urban winery and wine bar, Infinite Monkey is a pioneer in Colorado winemaking with delicious offerings, a cool vibe in the heart of the hot RiNo district and a formidable operation on premises. 3200 Larimer St., 303.736.8376, theinfinitemonkeytheorem.com
A little bit of the South in the Rocky Mountains. Low Country cooks up a terrific brunch, from fried chicken or pork belly biscuits to deviled eggs with beer mustard to a fried green tomato benedict. The outdoor spaces (in front, out back or on the roof) are lovely, and the indoor bar and seating is a lot of fun. 1575 Boulder St. A, 720.512.4168, lowrestaurant.com
A great spot to stop for a seasonal, locally sourced bite in the theater district. Housed in the former Denver Tramway Building, part of the city’s tramway network in the early 20th century, the café features the original vault that once collected the nickel fare from streetcar passengers. 1100 14th St., 720.889.2128, thenickeldenver.com
Coors Field, home of the Rockies, opened in 1995 and helped kick off the development boom that has transformed downtown. Catch a game and see where it all started. The private suites offer fantastic views, catering and free tickets to future games. 2001 Blake St., 303.762.5437, mlb.com/rockies
A cultural anchor of downtown Denver, the art museum has one of the nation’s best collections of Native American art and western American art. 100 W. 14th Avenue Parkway, 720.913.0130, denverartmuseum.org
One of the world’s finest outdoor concert venues—its acoustics are astounding—Red Rocks hosts the biggest bands on tour. 18300 W. Alameda Parkway, Morrison, 720.865.2494, redrocksonline.com