Attracting Talent: Denver

In his terrific book, Triumph of the City, Edward Glaeser writes: “There is every reason to think that an increasingly prosperous world will continue to place more value on the innovative enjoyments that cities can provide. The bottom-up nature of urban innovation suggests that the best economic development strategy may be to attract smart people and get out of their way.”

Talk about contrary to conventional wisdom! The best economic development strategy may be to attract smart people and get out of their way sure isn’t how state and local policy makers and economic development officials approach the task of growing the Michigan economy. Their focus, almost exclusively, is on attracting business investment. And yet the evidence is on Glaeser’s side.

The fact is that the single best predictor of regional and state prosperity is the proportion of adults with a four year degree or more. Cities – the theme of Glaeser’s book –  are the driving force of economic growth in large part because increasingly college educated adults are concentrating in big metropolitan areas anchored by vibrant central cities.

One city – and region – that gets that attracting talent is central to prosperity and is reaping its benefits is Denver. Tami Door, CEO of the Downtown Denver Partnership, in a must read Denver Post guest column, writes:

Before moving or opening an office, companies strongly consider the workforce available in a particular place. Employers will follow the workforce. For a city to remain economically competitive in the future, it must attract the millennial generation, the future workforce. … Nationally, employers recognize that the millennial generation is more likely to choose to live and work in or near an urban center. Mountains and oceans have become secondary to downtown amenities. … Employers in Denver tell us that during the interview process, candidates are asking questions beyond benefits and salary. They ask about the vitality of the city center, culture and amenities, if an area is walkable or if there are continuous bike lanes and paths to get them between home and work.

Door writes that the Denver has made its priorities “amenities, transportation infrastructure, educated population, (downtown) residential growth, innovation and entrepreneurship, and emerging green economy — that make the urban core of the Mile High City an attractive place for these younger workers.”

And metro Denver has repeated big benefits from making attracting mobile young talent a priority. In 2009 (still the latest available data), metro Denver among the 55 metros in the country with a population of one million or more is 9th in per capita income and, maybe most importantly, 7th in private sector employment earnings per capita.

The lessons Denver, and as I have written about previously  New York City, Chicago and Pittsburgh, have learned that creating vibrant central cities that attract mobile young talent is essential to economic growth is a lesson that we have not, but need to, learn here. The simple fact is without concentrated talent you cannot recreate a high prosperity Michigan.

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Lou Glazer

Lou Glazer is President and co-founder of Michigan Future, Inc., a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Michigan Future’s mission is to be a source of new ideas on how Michigan can succeed as a world class community in a knowledge-driven economy. Its work is funded by Michigan foundations.