As I write these words, it’s a brilliantly sunny December day, with a predicted high of 60 degrees, the Broncos finally won a game and our local economy is as strong as it has been since the long-vanished tech boom of the late 1990s. How long will our present boom last?
When high-tech manufacturing companies accounted for tens of thousands of well-paid jobs in the Pikes Peak region a couple of decades ago, no one imagined that most of them would disappear within a few years. Remember the eager boosters who dubbed the region “Silicon Mountain?” Didn’t happen, just as the development of the Banning Lewis Ranch, the creation of a U.S. Olympic Museum and Hall of Fame and the renovation of southwest downtown didn’t happen. All of those dreams first surfaced in the 1980s and then faded away — until now.
The museum is under construction, plans for a glittering new southwest downtown seem eminently realizable and the Banning Lewis Ranch project may soon be resurrected.
The museum is real. It will open regardless of the economic health of the region. But for it to succeed, and for the Banning Lewis and southwest downtown projects to launch, we need a strong economy.
Here are a few reasons for optimism, and a few for caution. On the plus side:
• For Olympic City USA, the opening of the Olympic Museum will be a defining moment, as well as a catalyst for the rebirth of southwest downtown. A feasibility study in 2013 predicted annual attendance of 350,000, 82 percent from out-of-state. Factor in the improving economy and the impact of the Los Angeles Olympic games in 2028 and visitor numbers should climb steadily in the next decade.
• Banning Lewis development was stifled by an ill-conceived master plan, which made it impossible for would-be developers to compete with their counterparts in the county. That barrier will be removed by early 2018, allowing the ranch’s current owners to move forward with a sustainable, affordable long-term development plan.
• Southwest downtown is unstoppable. With planned public infrastructure updates and a restructured urban renewal area, the long-blighted former commercial/industrial district will become a national model for mixed-use urban renewal.
• Massive private investment in the city and its suburbs during the past few years has set the stage for further growth and development. Consider University Village, Polaris Pointe, Victory Ridge, Great Wolf Lodge and a dozen residential developments on the north side.
• As Denver becomes ever more crowded, congested and unaffordable, Millennial entrepreneurs have discovered the Springs. Our renascent airport now offers dozens of direct flights to major destinations, city government is welcoming and notably less bureaucratic than it once was.
• The traditional twin pillars of our economy — the military and visitors — are strong and getting stronger.
So much for the optimists — here are some caveats:
• All booms come to an end — and this one is running out of steam. The Dow Jones Industrial Average bottomed out at 6,627 on March 6, 2009. On Dec. 11 it closed at 24,361. That suggests that we’re near a market top, as do exploding real estate values nationwide. Moreover, speculative bubbles such as the present Bitcoin frenzy tend to appear just before a bust.
• The Olympic museum is fine, but it’s an artifact of another era. Colorado visitors and residents are doers, not viewers. Consider the Manitou Incline, which draws hundreds of thousands of annual users. Back when the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame was conceived, the then-obscure workout venue only had a few dozen hardcore users. Times have changed.
• The Trump administration is pushing for increased military spending, but that may come to a quick end if control of Congress shifts to Democrats in 2018.
• Banning Lewis? Southwest downtown? It’s a house of cards, dependent upon the whims of a single developer. If Nor’Wood and Chris Jenkins decide to go ahead, something will happen, but Nor’wood is notoriously cautious and conservative.
As a somewhat cantankerous old geezer, I’m attracted to the naysayers — but I think this boom still has legs. Unlike the Broncos, we’re not in a rebuilding phase — so let the good times roll!