Denver’s population has jumped by 100,000 to 704,000 since 2010: Brookings estimates that only Houston saw a bigger influx of millennials between 2010 and 2015. Almost half of the city’s 25 to 34-year-olds are college graduates (helped by the fact that two-thirds of University of Denver alumni stay in Colorado after they graduate).
BP and Slack, the messaging group, are among the companies to announce plans to open offices in Denver. The former “cow town”, known for its oil, gas and cable companies, has been attracting technology and professional services groups. Denver has also made the 20-city shortlist for Amazon’s second headquarters, alongside other millennial magnets such as Columbus, Dallas, Nashville and Raleigh.
“Ten years ago, if you were talented you had to go to the Bay Area or Chicago,” says Dan Peterson, 31, who was born and raised in Denver. Now, as he sees friends and clients getting priced out of such places, he is finding plenty of talent moving in the other direction; the only problem is the intense competition for good people, and the newcomers’ high salary expectations.
Mr Peterson built his digital marketing company, Attis Media, in a WeWork office, one of many co-working spaces across the city. The repurposed warehouse looks like a photographer’s staging of a millennial workspace, with entrepreneurs and freelancers communing over nitro cold brew coffee, fussing over their colleagues’ dogs and bonding over the occasional game of shuffleboard as peppy slogans exhort them to “do what you love”.
Down a corridor of tightly packed offices, Jason Ayachi, 34, and Morgan O’Malley, 33, are among the migrants looking to capitalise on Denver’s millennial moment. The two college friends moved from LA and Arizona to launch a recruitment agency in a city where the unemployment rate has fallen from nearly 10 per cent in 2010 to 2.8 per cent: 90 per cent of their applicants come from other states.
“We came here to do research and fell in love with it. It’s an adult playground,” Mr O’Malley says. Denver also provided a concentration of like-minded millennials who shared their business ambitions as much as the desire to get to the mountains at weekends. He adds: “The start-up community here was a lot more open to collaborating.”
Aliaksandra and Francesco Spitaleri are among the converts. Originally from Belarus and Italy, the couple met in New York before where they ended up in an apartment in the hipster haven of Williamsburg, which they could only afford by renting out two of the rooms.
“I couldn’t imagine having kids there,” says Ms Spitaleri, 28, who now makes perfumes for a Denver boutique. Colorado offered “a better quality of life in a place with a decent economy, a slower pace of life and more nature”, says Mr Spitaleri, 38, who works as a waiter, DJ and driver for Uber and Lyft when he is not trading stocks and cryptocurrencies.
Cities such as Denver that are gateways to the great outdoors have obvious appeal to employees looking to bike to work and go to the slopes in their free time, observes Luis Benitez, who runs Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office. “With the millennial generation it’s much more about experiences than things — and if the outdoors does anything, it provides a whole lot of experiences,” he says. “Whenever they touch nature, there’s always this brooding sense of reflection that I only see in millennials.”
The cyclists and skateboarders in neighborhoods with Manhattan-worthy nicknames such as LoHi and RiNo are just one sign of how the millennial influx has changed the fabric of Denver. The century-old Union Station has converted its atrium into a bustling hangout filled with couches, carpets and reading tables, surrounded by boutiques advertising “hand-dipped ice cream” and “doodads, gewgaws and whatnots”.
“You can’t move without running into a shared office space, a food market or a brewery,” observes Chuck Sullivan, co-founder of Something Independent, an events and content company. But he notes that change has not come without a cost, ticking off a list that sounds like what recent arrivals were trying to escape when they moved: shortage of affordable housing, gentrification that is excluding some minority populations, the connected problems of addiction and homelessness, and lengthening traffic jams — even to the mountains.
“As a city, how do you maintain soul through growth?” Mr Sullivan asks. “Who’s it including and who’s it leaving behind? These are the same conversations that are happening in Silicon Valley and New York and Boston.”