What We Can Learn from Denver: Inter-City Visit 2013

The snow swirled on May 1 as 150 Richmonders landed in the tent-like city of Stapleton International Airport and boarded buses bound for downtown.  This Inter-City Visit (ICV), sponsored by the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce, was the twenty-first such visit intended to glean best practices, promote collaboration, and spur innovation and action in the metro Richmond region.  While our delegation, consisting of elected and government officials, and business, not-for-profit, and K-12/higher ed leaders from the Greater Richmond area, marveled at the early May snow, the locals took it in stride and provided a warm reception. 

During our two days in Denver, we heard about the city’s transformation from a ramshackle, ski country jumping-off point to one of the most vibrant cities in the country which is in now attracting more YPs (Chamber speak for young professionals) than any other city in the country.  The following are a few of my observations as to why Denver has been so successful.  None of these are surprising, as most are critical success factors for any organization.

Denver Success Factors:

  1. Strong leadership – Denver’s transformative mayor and now governor is John Hickenlooper.  Trained as a geologist, he was laid off after the energy bust in the 80s.  What else would an unemployed geologist do?  You got it – start a micro-brewery!  Wynkoop Brewing Company, located in the aforementioned ramshackle downtown, started the mayor down an urban renewal path that would transform Lower Downtown (LoDo) and lead to the governor’s mansion.

  2. Regional collaboration – Every speaker from local chamber heads to economic development folks underscored the “one for all; all for one” nature of the commitment of the ten counties making up Denver metro.  They trust and respect each other and are focused on shared success.  As downtown goes, so goes the region – There is clear recognition that for the region to flourish, the downtown must flourish.

  3. Bold thinking – They think big and long term.  One significant example is The Denver Center for Performing Arts, which is second only to Lincoln Center.

  4. Capital – The items above have positioned the city to attract private sector dollars to support downtown real estate development and the largest transportation infrastructure project (Denver Union Station and commuter rail) in the US. 

  5. Public Transportation – Newsflash – YPs don’t like to commute by car – afterall you can’t text and drive.   So ride a bike to the light rail station, or for that matter, ride it all the way into downtown along the 800 miles of dedicated bike lines.   Don’t own a bike?  No worries – borrow one from the bike share program – Denver B-cycle.

  6. Sports – Wow, Denver has this nailed as well.  Coors Field, built in 1994, was the accelerant (not the catalyst) that really got the LoDo District going after the governor’s brewery and others started gaining traction.  Though obscured by blowing snow, I am told that the mountains, which serve as the backdrop in the outfield, are quite the sight!  Can’t forget the Broncos at Mile High and other venues which provide a host of entertainment opportunities.

  7. Education – Not much to say here…other than families will not relocate to the city unless the public schools are good.  RVA deserves and should have good K-12 schools.  Our higher ed offerings are terrific between VCU, UR, and our exceptional community colleges.  We need more of their grads to want to stay and work in RVA.

  8. Healthy and Productive Workforce – Wellness in not just a feel-good initiative that employers are promoting to reduce healthcare costs, it is a matter of economic development.  Prospective employers will shun cities where the workforce is 35% overweight or obese (the national stat) simply because of the productivity loss.  Colorado has the lowest obesity rate in the country, despite doubling over the last 15 years or so.  The statewide campaign, LiveWellColorado.org, targeting obesity (in Spanish and English) is impressive.

Takeaways:

  1. Get involved – learn about our challenges and opportunities.

  2. Think regionally – RVA

  3. Support downtown – Learn about the Riverfront Development Plan.  It’s transformative.  Let‘s make it happen now!  .  Think transformative, not incremental.

  4. Pressure your elected and government officials to collaborate for the good of the region.

  5. Support a regional sales tax increase to support infrastructure improvements.

  6. Support active living programs – SportsBackers is one great example.  I am proud that RCM&D Richmond is a certified “ActiveRVA” employer as a result of our health and wellness programs.

The ICV provides a constructive opportunity to reflect on the region’s accomplishments, as well as the challenges that remain.  While some challenges may seem insurmountable, we cannot throw our hands up in frustration and resignation. No, we all (especially our elected officials) must reach across political, jurisdictional, and ethnic boundaries to join hands for the greater good of RVA. 

As a member of the Richmond business community, I am thrilled to have the opportunity to make a difference here in our own backyard.  One of RCM&D’s core values is to support the communities in which we live and work.  We are proud of the impact we’ve had to date in our communities and we look forward to being instrumental in further incorporating these noted best practices across the metro Richmond region.

E-Mail John at jmcelroy@rcmd.com or connect with John McElroy on LinkedIn