Denver and Calgary: A tale of 2 similar but very different cities

Calgary could stand to learn a thing or two from Denver about getting off an energy rollercoaster. The cities have many similarities, but decades ago our friends south of the border charted a different path — and are reaping the benefits. Calgary? Well, our economic wagon is still pretty hitched to the boom-bust cycle.

A look at past successes of the Mile High City, and what Calgary can learn from them

This story was originally published Oct. 19.

The city reaches out to the Rockies — a sprawl of suburbs, farmland, oil rigs, ranches and maybe even a ski hill or two. It's known for a high elevation and western roots. The population is diverse, and alive with a true entrepreneurial spirit and progressive attitudes.

Yes. It's Denver.

The thing is, Denver and Calgary have a lot in common. But while Denver is rising, Calgary is struggling.

Founded within 20 years of each other, both cities were 19th century western frontiers. Places built on railways, agriculture and oil. For decades, both cities followed a similar economic path — including the highs and lows of the energy industry.

But then, just a little more than 30 years ago, both cities faced a crisis. Calgary went one way, and is still riding the energy wave. Denver another, leading to a thriving economy. 

Calgary could stand to learn a thing or two from Denver. Something that occurred to Calgary Economic Development, which recently sent someone down on a fact-finding mission to study the successes of the Mile High City — named for the exact mile it sits above sea level.

How the cities' paths diverged

The world faced an energy crisis in the 1970s. It combined with other factors — like inflation and overpriced real estate — into a deep recession. Almost every industry was affected. Unemployment rates skyrocketed. The situation was dire for both Calgary and Denver.

"The '80s was a great recession for the Denver region," said Carrie Makarewicz, an assistant professor with the University of Colorado Denver's urban and regional planning department. 

"The OPEC crisis coming out of the '70s and early '80s, with the oil and gas industry declining. The Denver region was heavily dependent on it. Most of our downtown office space was rented by oil and gas industries — the energy sector. And the region was just really suffering."

Decisions had to be made.

Calgary? Diversification was a hot topic, but lucrative energy profits always resurfaced, and then didn't, and then did, and so on.

But Denver made a plan, and resisted the temptation to wait for the next boom.

Now Denver was never a one-trick pony. Since the days of the gold rush, other industries — like aerospace — have called the city home. But energy booms brought downtown skyscrapers, new homes for new residents and a flurry of investments. Still, the city knew it had to uncouple itself from economic dependence on the industry.

Tom Clark with the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation helped to make that happen when he started working in Denver in 1985.

Denver and Calgary: A tale of 2 cities

6 years ago
Duration 8:24
Find out what Calgary can learn from Denver from economic development leaders in both cities.

"So the people who were driving the economy were gone, and the only people left were the people that were living off that economy. This was the store owners and the small business guys and ladies. So they decided they were going to start again, And this time as they had said in the 1970s, 'We mean it this time. We really are going to diversify our economy.'"

Denver and its surrounding counties decided to stop competing against each other for new businesses and talent pools. Economic development funds sprouted up everywhere, and an agreement was struck on regional tax rates and recruiting key industries — like technology companies.

Even before the pact, Denver was building areas dedicated to specific industries (something Calgary is just starting to think about). 

The relatively new Denver Energy Center rents space to a variety of different oil and gas companies downtown. It's another example of similar businesses grouping together in the same building, like the Denver Tech Center started in the 1970s. The DTC has been called the first suburban office park in the country, and praised for its success. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Some of the best ideas come from the most mundane experiences. Take George Wallace, a local developer. The story goes his brand new Lincoln was scratched at his downtown office, and he was irate, so in the search for better parking he ended up founding the Denver Tech Center (DTC) — one of America's first suburban office parks. Thanks to lobby efforts for better roads and transit, more tech companies came knocking. Soon the campus of offices grew from 16 hectares to more than 340 hectares, and it did great things for the industry. 

Even Google recently set up shop just north of the city in Boulder, attracted in part by the highly-educated workforce that calls Denver home.

And it's not just the IT sector. The city actively targeted other sectors: insurance, renewable energy, financial services, aviation, bioscience, health care, telecommunications and even beverage production. It's paid off in many areas. For example, Colorado is now home to more than 10 per cent of America's craft breweries.

Denver's Wynkoop Brewing Co. turned this old warehouse downtown into a brewpub in 1988. The area, known as LoDo, used to be rundown and "beer drinkers across the state braved the sketchy ghost town" for some pints and billiards. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Denver made itself a major shipping hub in the Western United States. It expanded its airport and attracted a large United Airlines presence. Calgary is just finding its footing in that regard. WestJet has had a base at the city's airport for years, but the new international terminal — and Canada's longest runway — is opening in mere weeks. 

Denver built a massive convention centre in the heart of the city. Again, something Calgary's been mulling over. And after the state legalized marijuana, there are literally buckets of cash being made in the "green rush."

"Our economy has been booming," said Makarewicz. "We recovered sooner than others from the recession and, since there was a very intentional effort to diversify the regional economy, we have the jobs."

Meanwhile, diversification in Calgary is back on the table in a big way. 

Calgary Economic Development will get $3 million for researching which head offices can move here, hopefully with a windfall of supplementary businesses in tow. Calgary's bull's-eye is clean energy technology, agribusiness, financial services, tourism and transportation and logistics. 

The province just announced its Energy Diversification Advisory Committee. Its homework is to deliver a report to Energy Minister Marg McCuaig-Boyd next year. Then there's the $90 million in tax credits for investments for small businesses in the technology and tourism sectors.

But it will take time for those plans to make a difference in Calgary. In the meantime, there are other lessons to learn form Denver. 

Build it and they will come

Like Calgary, Denver was a city built for cars.

Interstate 25, or I-25 as they say in Denver, runs through the city near downtown and is a major transportation corridor. Not unlike Calgary's Deerfoot Trail, both of which have seen their fair share of congestion problems. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

It had a downtown core, surrounded by suburbs, and people drove to work. Part of a vision called Blueprint Denver, city planners decided to improve quality of life through civic redesign — spurring character preservation and downtown housing, and smoothing out transit kinks.

Denver wants people to stay inside the core to shop, party, eat and go to sports games.

"Downtown Denver is very much the place to be," said Heath Fuehrer with Colorado Sightseer, which gives tours of the area.

Take the Lower Downtown district.

Known as LoDo, it's become one of the hippest places in the city. It's what Calgary's East Village could be once developed.

It makes the downtown vibrant, drawing thousands of people to the core for the modestly-priced restaurants, music and shopping along the 16th Street Mall — called one of the "most successful pedestrian malls in America." In Calgary, it's like Stephen Avenue with a different mix of offerings. 

People hang out in downtown Denver. Calgary has a mass exodus at the end of the day.

Historically, both cities grew rapidly, which saw the destruction of a lot of heritage buildings.

But Denver decided that had to change. Through a tax credit system, that had federal backing, it was able to preserve many areas like Larimer Square — a downtown block named after the city's founder. 

On most nights, lights twinkle in between the vast array of trendy shops available in Larimer Square. The downtown block is a throwback to Denver's start when the gold rush brought massive wealth to the forming city. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Calgary has spit-shined the King Eddy at the National Music Centre, and the St. Louis Hotel nearby. But they haven't yet become hangout spots. LoDo has social spaces everywhere.

Now, get this, Denver built a sports stadium in the LoDo district.

The Coors Field, built of retro brick, has been credited for playing a part in LoDo's revitalization. It was built in 1995, after a public vote created a special tax to get it done. With help from the economy, it was paid off in half the time — so they decided to build a new stadium for the Denver Broncos.

The Coors Field has been credited for helping to revitalize the Lower Downtown neighbourhood in Denver. It even has one of the area's old warehouses built into the large brick structure that houses the Blue Moon Brewing Co. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

Calgary is still debating whether taxpayer money should go towards a new arena, and would need a city charter to incorporate the same tax as Denver. The CalgaryNext proposal for downtown's West Village was soundly rejected by council (as was public funding) and won't be back on the agenda until next year. 

And then there's transit.

Denver built new light rail transit (LRT) lines to get people directly from their homes to office parks, like the Denver Tech Center. It also built one from the heart of the city up to the revamped airport. Two more LRT lines are expected in the near future.

All these changes are paying off for Denver. Millennials are flocking to the city. A stark contrast to Calgary, which saw a drop in young people in the last census.

But Calgary has plans. Boy, do we have plans.

Planning Calgary's future

The city's Municipal Development Plan — formed out of community feedback from the 100-year vision called Plan It — is hoping to guide urban planning for the next 60 years.

Meanwhile, other projects like Main Streets are planning to invigorate Calgary's most popular areas, like Bridgeland, Inglewood and Kensington. The Green Line LRT will soon be shovel-in-ground, and there are future plans for a C-Train to the airport.

There are proposals for redevelopment at Olympic Plaza, City Hall itself and a vision for a downtown with processional avenues and more green space. Mayor Naheed Nenshi says the new downtown library will be an icon for the city. Chinatown is planning for the future and 17th Avenue is getting a facelift, with new rapid bus lines being proposed.

An artist rendering of a proposed 17th Avenue S.E. expansion between 100th Street and 116th Street. The plan includes doubling the number of lanes for drivers, adding transit-only lanes and room for cyclists as new communities get built in the area. (City of Calgary)

But we're late to the game. All these plans won't come to fruition for decades — possibly 30 years for an airport train — and they depend on funding from the province and Ottawa.

"I'd like to say Calgary is about 20 to 25 years behind most other cities in North America, particularly south of the border," said Rollin Stanley, general manager of urban strategy for the City of Calgary, who has worked for both American and Canadian municipalities.

"And that's not a knock, it's just saying that's where we are in our evolution as we replace infrastructure."

So. Time to catch up.

As Calgary's downturn doesn't look like it's going away, there appears to be recognition that whatever we've done in the past to make it through economic storms, there might be a better way. It will be interesting to see if some of Denver's successes can be recreated here.

Calgary at a Crossroads is CBC Calgary's special focus on life in our city during the downturn. A look at Calgary's culture, identity and what it means to be Calgarian. Read more stories from the series at Calgary at a Crossroads.


Rachel Maclean

Former CBC reporter

Rachel Maclean is an award-winning journalist who worked with the CBC Calgary digital team from 2011 to 2021, specializing in social media and visual storytelling.


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