Stavney: Why Colorado is losing its mojo
As if nothing had changed while everything shifted, State Demographer Elizabeth Garner was back May 5 at the Silverthorne Pavilion where Northwest Colorado Council of Governments hosted the first in-person Regional Economic Summit in three years. What sounded like far-off warnings in 2019 are now upon us.
My big takeaway: Colorado is losing its mojo. It’s economic mojo and that other mojo — the one that fills preschool classrooms.
Fifty percent of counties in the U.S. shrank in population last decade compared to the previous census decade, and 43 of 64 Colorado Counties are in absolute decline in producing under-18-year-old persons. Weld County in northeast Colorado accounts for 43% of those. Only Summit County in our region has a net increase in producing the next generation.
The peak of the last wave of childbirths in the U.S. was 2007. We’ve been underproducing since.
Of the absolute growth of births in the state, 2/3 are people of color. Garner challenged us with the question: “Are we adequately preparing and welcoming that population into our workforce?” This decline impacts schools, higher education, the workforce and eventually every community. COVID-19 has not produced a baby boom. Even if there is a time soon that we can honestly call post-COVID, considerable uncertainty — economic, social, political, make a 1950s-like boom unlikely to turn that around.
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A robust trend in migration due to Colorado’s blistering economy, quality of life and other factors, countered and masked that long trend of declining births in previous decades. International migration is down 70% and domestic migration into Colorado is down 35% according to Garner. We’ve been a magnet and a place of opportunity for those at the beginning of their work years in the past. That too has shifted.
Garner says: “Over the next decade expect a slowdown in net migration of young adults.” Colorado’s secret weapon — jobs, affordability, quality of life and intangibles that we’ve relied upon for decades to fuel rapid population growth through the 1990s and 2000s — well, that secret sauce doesn’t taste quite the same today.
As the baby boomers age out, and we block the flow of international migration for political (not economic) reasons, every state across the country is competing for a shrinking population of young people. Garner sees state colleges across the country out-competing Colorado for younger in-migrants that we’ve relied upon. The largest growth demographic in Colorado is over 65 years old.
How is this happening when NWCCOG’s own Mountain Migration Report shows the rapid influx of newcomers and part timers bringing in their wealth? For now, most newcomers remain non-residents under the demographic radar. They are also a generation older.
The shift of mid-career remote workers and part timers to the High Country has benefits, as well as deleterious effects on the opportunities for younger workers staying or coming into the High Country.
As the report showed, mountain migrants are much better positioned than in-migrating young folks to compete for higher rents and for shrinking housing stock. Garner’s data also shows that Colorado is far behind in keeping up in the production of housing units. Garner has been persistent over the years reminding those who would listen that a job is a person with a place to live, and you can’t have one without the other two.
Garner wryly notes, “there’s been a debate over time: Do we really like people? There are drawbacks for sure.”
It wasn’t all that long ago (for some of us) that the State Demography office was under fire for inflated projections of population growth across much of Colorado. Garner repeatedly corrects media reporting growth as “exponential.” The growth pressure was real — for a while. It was never exponential.
For instance, the town of Eagle grew 15% each year for a decade from 1998 to 2008 while I was on the board. In most places, the prospect of doubling or tripling of small-town populations resulted in a lot of local resistance that seems to have continued even as other dynamics have changed. One cannot vote to exclude people or choose their demographic. One can only oppose the development projects that would house newcomers — notably those of less means. Even when units are approved, the construction industry has never really recovered from 2008 to a degree that could build them.
In the 1990s, Colorado had a solid formula — a very attractive place to live (echoes of “The Rocky Mountain Way”), one of the most competitive and best-funded state university systems, a balanced political landscape, lots of tech, research and military jobs as well as entrepreneurs flocking to remain in the state, lots of developable land around a metro area that was investing heavily in amenities such as major sport stadiums and redevelopment, smaller towns waking up to what made them compelling, community-based resorts not bent on impressing stockholders, and a construction industry that had the workers and capacity to (nearly) keep up with housing demand.
Today, Colorado has fallen from the top 10 in growth to the top 20 — that’s pretty much the middle, folks. Each of those factors have slowed or been reversed for various reasons, not the least of which is the ability to approve development and build homes that would allow a younger generation to stay, and attract talent. Garner points out that we also need to be realistic about producing not just “jobs” but jobs that pay the bills.
“What does it take to attract a young adult? A house,” she replies, “or the potential to own a home.” Well, we know how that is going these days.
Jon Stavney is the executive director of Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. He is also a past county commissioner, as well as having served as trustee, mayor and manager of the town of Eagle through his career.