Denver’s economic history is one of struggles and reinvention as the city has weathered dramatic ups and downs through the years.
From the time it was just a tent city of hopeful prospectors, Denver’s financial future was uncertain. At that time, the goal was to keep attracting people to the city to build more and spend more, making it bigger and better all the time. Mining quickly turned out to be the first bust for the city, as the gold found near Confluence Park was just placer gold and the real treasures were up in the mountains where Leadville, Central City, and Blackhawk were then founded. Denver transformed into a supply town for the mountain miners and catered to this crowd with saloons and brothels as well as mundane supplies.
After building a spur line to the transcontinental railroad line, Denver began to change rapidly—adding hundreds of new citizens daily and bringing the population from less than 5,000 in 1870 to over 35,000 in 1880.
By the late 1800s, Denver was attracting not only new residents, but tourists and new businesses. (Denver also gained a reputation for being healthy, as the dry, thin air helped tuberculosis patients. Sanatoriums were built to care for the thousands—like future mayor Robert Speer—who came for a cure.) The city brimmed with pride over one of the earliest telephone systems and electric street light systems, and luxurious mansions and hotels were built to show off the wealth pouring into this evolving frontier town.
By the turn of the 20th century, as gold and silver prices crashed, it became clear that Denver needed a more diverse economy. Instead of booming, Denver began to slowly build an economy reliant on a variety of industries such as agriculture and manufacturing.
Yet when World War I began, silver again was valuable and long-closed mines were reopened as the precious metal once again provided a boom to the local economy. But the post-war years and the Great Depression hit Denver hard and it wasn’t until state and federal governments provided some relief that things began to turn around for the better.
Next, civic leaders lured the federal government to Denver, with the large affordable tracts of land perfect for army bases and weapons manufacturing. In the next several years, the federal government established Lowry Air Force Base east of the city, Rocky Mountain Arsenal, Fitzsimmons Army Hospital, and many more sites. There was even a shipbuilding plant for the army. The end of the war meant that many of those facilities became useful for research and so the thousands of jobs were not lost.
After the war, Denver went through yet another boom cycle as soldiers from the local bases and others made the city their home. Between 1945 and 1983, over one million people settled in the metro Denver area. New highways were built to loop the growing suburbs to each other and downtown.
The 1970s were a time of urban renewal and uplift for the downtown skyline as many oil and gas companies headquartered their offices in Denver. Skyscrapers were added while historic preservationists fought to maintain the integrity of some of the city’s original structures.
All the growth wasn’t so appealing to everyone. Richard Lamm ran for governor—and won—on an anti-growth platform. Lamm famously (or infamously, depending on your perspective) fought off hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics, citing a concern for how the environment would be affected in the long run. Though the state—and Lamm—have long been ridiculed for not embracing the opportunity to host an Olympics, concerns about growth remain today.
By the 1980s, the city went through yet another bust cycle when oil prices fell. Denver had some of the highest office-vacancy rates in the nation and people left the city in search of work in other states.
Once again, transportation was the answer, this time in the form of the new Denver International Airport that was built and opened in the 1990s. Population has continued to grow, and projections are for more people to be lured to the Mile High City in the coming years.
In 2008, the Brookings Institute, a Washington, D.C., think tank, released a report stating that Denver is at the center of one of the West’s five “mountain mega” regions that will see intense growth in coming decades. The report predicts that the Front Range area will add 2.6 million people over the next 32 years. In essence, the area—with Denver as the hub—is becoming more crowded and more significant economically and politically and that trend is going to continue.
Beyond the federal scientific research facilities and offices in the Denver metro area, many companies have a strong presence here as well. Colorado has the second-largest aerospace economy in the country with companies such as Ball Aerospace, Lockheed Martin, and Raytheon all here. Other significant industries include aviation, bioscience, financial services, information technology services, and energy. Various cultural entities in Denver are also a significant part of the new economy, and it is just one of the qualities that attract tourists to the Mile High City year-round.
At 150 years old in 2008, Denver celebrated its sesquicentennial and its place as the country’s 21st-largest metropolitan area.
To learn more about business and business development in the Denver area, go to the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation website, www.metrodenver.org.
© Mindy Sink from Moon Denver, 1st Edition