Denver Job Market Lures Millennials

Millennials are flocking to the Mile High City, but it isn’t the nearby ski slopes, microbreweries or urban hiking trails that are attracting them: It’s the jobs.

A shared office space called Industry, in the popular River North Art District, stands as an example of the entrepreneurial forces that are luring a flood of young professionals here.

Formerly a depot for the truckloads of produce that rolled into Denver from Colorado’s farmland, the firm’s 155,000-square-foot warehouse is now an open-air maze of workspaces for everything from ride-sharing company Uber to CirrusMD, which connects doctors and patients virtually.
“You don’t move just because some place is cool,” said Aaron Duke, a 39-year-old San Francisco transplant and CirrusMD employee. “You’ve also got to be able to earn a buck.”
While the new arrivals are transforming the city’s landscape and economy, they also are generating tensions among locals, who complain they are driving up rents and fueling a building boom that is marring some mountain views.

The metro area, which has a population of about 2.7 million, received more than 100,000 out-of-state residents from 2010 through 2014, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That is the fifth-largest influx of domestic migrants in the country, surpassing cities such as Seattle and Washington, D.C.

Some 3,200 new firms have opened their doors in Denver during the past four years, according to city estimates, contributing to more than 165,000 new jobs in the broader metro area and helping drive the unemployment rate to 4.1% in May, among the lowest for big metros in the nation.

Public improvements to lure millennials, such as building bike paths and revitalizing neighborhoods, can result in a nicer place to live, economists say, but for an economy to thrive, more fundamental investments are needed, including a well-connected airport, universities to train workers and a business base that attracts people from around the region, they note.

Those advantages are helping to power Denver’s growth.

“A city like Denver from the beginning was a central place,” said Mario Polèse, an urban economics professor at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique in Montreal. “It was destined to grow.”

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Denver has long been a regional hub, with established industries such as oil and telecommunications that leaders have built upon to create thriving sectors such as energy information technology and digital health care.

While Denver is benefiting from a booming economy, residents are dealing with big-city problems such as traffic and skyrocketing rents.

Though rents remain well below New York and San Francisco, they jumped 7.8% last year to an average $986, the second highest increase among U.S. metros, behind San Jose, Calif., according to Reis, a real-estate research firm.  Some critics also are concerned that newcomers are out-competing Coloradans, who tend to be less educated than the recent transplants.

“We’re not growing our own talent fast enough,” said J.B. Holston,dean of the University of Denver’s engineering and computer science school and founder of the Blackstone Entrepreneurs Network, which focuses on scaling up Colorado’s promising companies.

Paul Washington, head of Denver’s Office of Economic Development, says officials are committed to spreading the city’s prosperity, building affordable housing and educating residents in disenfranchised neighborhoods.  They’re not giving up, however, on the millennial generation—those born roughly between 1980 and 2000.

“The influx of millennials is extremely important,” said Mr. Washington, adding they “bring energy and enthusiasm and optimism.”

Craftsy, an online learning firm co-founded by former Bay Area residents, has gone from five employees in 2010 to 270. John Levisay,one of the company’s founders, said it made sense for the firm to settle in Denver because of the city’s lower operating costs, its big pool of engineers and growing interest from tech investors.

At IMA Financial Group, an insurance provider, young jeans-clad recruits are helping develop tech products. Since the company moved its headquarters near Union Station, a trendy transit hub, it is getting three times more applicants for every job it posts, says chief executive Rob Cohen.  New development, however, also is pushing some locals out. In Jefferson Park, a century-old residential neighborhood, 11 homes have been replaced with 65 townhouses on just one street.

Otilia Mendoza works at MM Local, a canning company in the trendy River North Art District neighborhood. The MM owners are concerned that new development will result in higher rents. PHOTO: NATHAN W. ARMES FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Otilia Mendoza works at MM Local, a canning company in the trendy River North Art District neighborhood. The MM owners are concerned that new development will result in higher rents. PHOTO: NATHAN W. ARMES FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Rafael Espinoza, who lives there and recently was elected to the Denver City Council after expressing concerns about gentrification, complains that the townhouses are unsightly and are making the area unaffordable.

“You shouldn’t be so fixated on bringing in the new revenue and the new warm bodies at the expense of having a diverse population,” he said.

In the River North Art District, Jim Mills, co-founder of an organic-produce cannery, has seen the former industrial strip transformed into a gathering spot for flip-flop-wearing hipsters and young entrepreneurs. It is the kind of customer Mr. Mills is targeting with his live-fermented Sriracha sauce and rosemary pears. As breweries and lofts sprawl closer to his warehouse, however, he worries he will no longer be able to afford to stay.

“It’s been both exciting and a little unnerving to see,” said Mr. Mills, an out-of-state migrant himself.

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