Federal Base Closures are Part of Metro Denver’s Success

by Tom Clark

Let’s not kid ourselves. Luck plays an important element in a region’s successful economic development. When it comes to luck, Metro Denver has had its share. For example, the Cold War set the stage for Colorado’s key role in aerospace when the Department of Defense needed a safe location out of reach of Soviet missiles. In the recent past, two crucial military base closures provided new land that brought young families back into the Denver after years of “white flight,” and the other created a $5 billion life sciences center at the Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora. Lowry Air Force Base and the Fitzsimons Army Hospital became anchors to a new way of thinking about economic development.

Despite this good luck, it is not that these opportunities simply appeared, it was what happened to maximize their potential. All this good fortune required collaborative responses to make these redevelopments the economic powerhouses they have become. 

Much of the public conversation in the 1980s revolved around court-required busing of school children – transporting children from one part of the Denver school district to another, with the goal of racial balance. The resulting departure of young, white families to the suburbs was something that the region saw as unacceptable.

But at the time, Denver had no surplus land for any type of major housing and employment projects that appealed to younger families. Lowry’s acreage became the magnet for their return. The new development also gave Denver Public Schools and other types of K-12 schools the opportunity to experiment with educational options appealing to parents. Two mayors -Wellington Webb of Denver and Paul Tauer of Aurora - agreed to develop the site together, despite the fact that 80 percent of Lowry was in Denver’s city limits. Despite the frequent disagreements between the two mayors, the result was extraordinary. Today, Lowry has the highest-priced housing zip code in Denver. Yet, the development has housing options that span from homeless adults to million dollar houses.

When the Feds chose to close Fitzsimons Army Hospital, built in 1918, the City of Aurora offered the new land to University Hospital as an anchor for a massive life sciences center. Today, the Anschutz Medical Campus has moved healthcare and wellness from its previous stature as an employment cluster responding primarily to the region’s market demand for services. The Anschutz Medical Campus now drives a significant amount of new revenue into the market as a result of its magnificent campus and superior talent.

Both of these projects are testimony to the success of regionalism, whereby a significant number of regional leaders were continually searching for projects or employers that could make game-changing moves to catapult the region forward. Had the entire region not been focused on new opportunities, these two projects could have developed at a more leisurely, unfocused pace. Instead, Lowry and the Anschutz Medical Campus are projects that changed the economic face of the region.

Tom Clark

Former CEO of Metro Denver Economic Development Council

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