Denver and the allure it has for millennials

If you've ever travelled to Denver, you may notice it feels a bit like Calgary. And there are similarities. But the city south of the border is attracting millennials by the thousands while Calgary has recently lost some.

What Calgary can do to attract a strong young workforce

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      This story was originally published Oct. 20.

      If you've ever travelled to Denver, you may notice it feels a bit like Calgary. 

      It's close to the Rockies — a high elevation city. It's dry, but gets lots of sun. There's also a strong western culture and entrepreneurial spirit. With progressive attitudes, it makes for a battleground state in the upcoming American election.

      But Denver is attracting young people by the thousands, and Calgary is losing them.

      The Brookings Institution analyzed the numbers from 2009 to 2014 and found that Denver had a net annual migration of 12,682 people aged 25 to 34 — the highest of any metropolitan area in the United States. And anecdotally that movement is still taking place.

      It's not the case in Calgary. The city lost more than 4,000 residents aged 20 to 24 in the past two years. Many leaving in search of new opportunities. And there wasn't much growth in the 25 to 34 age group either — 0.9 per cent to be exact.

      Now while those numbers aren't directly comparable — as Metro Denver has roughly three times the population that Calgary does — it does show a trend that young people are moving to Denver and moving away from Calgary. One reason is the Mile High City charted a new path decades ago, and it's now reaping the benefit. But it's more than that.

      Drawn to the beautiful natural terrain, millennials are moving to Denver for jobs and staying for the contemporary urban experience and quality of life.

      In this 2005 photo, parkgoers watch from the banks of the Platte River at Confluence Park in Denver as a couple of kayakers make their way through the whitewater. Denver has more than 200 parks, rivers and trail areas, public golf courses and recreation centres. (Ed Andrieski/Associated Press)

      Here's what Calgary can do to follow in Denver's footsteps.

      Create a place for innovation

      Millennials — loosely defined as those born from 1981 to 1997 — can be a fickle bunch. Ever trying to be defined, they often repel those stereotypes in the next breath.

      But one thing they do want is to get ahead in their careers. Mary Moran with Calgary Economic Development says one important thing to do is create a culture of innovation, but Calgary has a lot of work to do on that front. She pointed to successes like the research lab at the University of Calgary, but says more collaborative hubs are needed. 

      Denver has been doing that for decades.

      There is a large tech industry settling around the Denver region. Google recently set up a campus in Boulder. Then there's the campus of offices at the Denver Tech Center, which is home to hundreds of companies. Silicon Valley is even losing some start-ups to Denver because it's not as expensive to set up shop.

      It's what drew 27-year-old Anatasia Briggs to Denver. Hailing from the Midwest, she was offered a job in the tech industry doing social media and liked the appeal of the mountains (and the fact that smoking weed is legal).

      But when she got to the city she decided to bank on the success of marijuana legalization and start up her own business.

      "It's a ganja yoga and hospitality service that we have here in town running out of a consumption-friendly space," said Briggs about Cannastasia, which holds weed-infused yoga in a private smoke-friendly space.

      Anastasia Briggs was lured to Denver with a job in the tech world, but said the atmosphere provided the perfect opportunity to open her own business. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

      She thinks the so-called "green rush" in the city is creating a workforce of millennials that changes the definition of "potheads."

      "We're extremely productive," she said.

      Embracing a booming industry

      There are lots of jobs in the weed industry, especially for young people who don't have a lot of experience. And it literally brings companies buckets of cash. Then there's the tax revenue, although some of that is spent on regulating the industry.

      There are both medical or recreational shops available, and customers are allowed to consume the vast array of products only on private property (if caught in public it's a ticketed offence).

      Carrie Makarewicz, an assistant professor with the University of Colorado Denver's urban and regional planning department, says legalization of marijuana put Denver on the map for some young people who would have never considered it before.

      Like Angelo Pietrosanti, a lab director for TR Concentrates. He came to work in Denver after leaving a molecular biology job researching breast cancer in New York.

      "I met these guys who had an idea to open a cannabis company here, and they needed an R&D and product development guy," he said. "I went in, interviewed with them and they offered me a job right there. Offered to move me, wanted me to quit my job and kinda just drop everything and move. And I did."

      TR Concentrates specializes in different types of marijuana products like shatter, dabbing (called oil in Canada) and essential oils. The company decided to focus on this market since the industry for flower (or bud) has exploded since legalization in Denver in 2014. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

      After getting his foot in the door of the industry, other job offers poured in, so he was able to weigh which option provided the best future. Now he works for one of the top five companies for revenue, and their company is expanding its concentrate lab from 1,000 square feet to a space that's more than 25,000 square feet.

      Marijuana will be legal in Canada next year, but how it will operate is still in question, or whether Calgary will reap a financial benefit. But undoubtedly there will be opportunities for people looking to switch careers.

      Be the city young people want to see

      Other features that attract young people is not having to own a car if you live in one of the many walkable, transit-orientated neighbourhoods in Denver (it gets tougher to find efficient transit outside the downtown core).

      There are bike paths, and many urban parks. Denver has been called the "fittest state in the nation." And it's an hour to the heart of the mountains where you can go hiking or biking.  

      Kevin MacConnell has lived in Denver's Lower Downtown, or LoDo neighbourhood, right next to the Coors Field. He moved from New Jersey last year.

      "I think the best part is just how new of a city it is ... full of just people in their 20s and early 30s," he said. "It's been extremely easy to meet people out here. And everyone is really motivated — business driven and tech savvy. Everyone that I have met so far has been looking to jump-start their careers. It's definitely been a great place to start my career." 

      LoDo is the hip place right now, but Makarewicz says her class at the University of Colorado Denver has also been studying the next neighbourhood going through an update.

      It's called RiNo, or River North Art District, and it's right beside LoDo. The community is hoping to keep its funky artistic vibe.

      University of Colorado Denver's Carrie Makarewicz points to the next area under going an update in Denver called the River North Art District, or RiNo. It's an artist's paradise, and is hoping to maintain its unique charm once developed. (Rachel Maclean/CBC)

      Makarewicz says skyrocketing rents on the East Coast of the States also have young singles and families coming to Denver in search of affordability — although with thousands migrating to the city each month that is quickly changing. 

      But some say the price of housing, along with the allure of jobs and legalization of marijuana, may have added to the homeless population — which is very prevalent downtown.

      Both cities are struggling on the affordable housing front. Denver city council is trying to stem the problem, and recently approved a $150-million affordable housing strategy (partly funded by marijuana tax revenues).

      Some of Denver's younger residents are sharing rental units, just like many are in Calgary. But there are social spaces everywhere in downtown Denver, in the case renters need to get away from their roommates. 

      CED's Mary Moran says in Calgary, economic development initiatives would like to tap into that notion.

      "If you look at our office space in the downtown core right now, that's not really conducive to keeping millennials here," she said.

      She says young people need places to hang out and a great arts and culture scene. She has big hopes for Calgary's East Village, but says many organizations will have to work together to make that happen.

      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.

      About the Author

      Rachel Maclean is an award-winning journalist who joined the CBC Calgary team in 2011. She now works as the newsroom's social media guru, and can be contacted at


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