Sonoran Institute

Mixed-use development and pedestrian-friendly downtowns are the next frontier for the Rockies.

When you think about America’s Rocky Mountain West, you probably think of big skies, open spaces, and wild natural beauty. The region is justly famous for all those things, and they’re among the qualities that have been attracting new residents—making this one of the fastest-growing regions in the U.S. for more than a decade.

But the Rocky Mountain states—Colorado, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming—are also grappling with the question of how to build a diverse, 21st-century economy that will provide good jobs and affordable housing for the all people who live there as well as those who want to move there.

A recent report from Community Builders, an initiative of the region’s nonprofit Sonoran Institute, looks at how the mountain states might think about economic development in a modern economic landscape. To that end, the group surveyed 1,000 or so business owners and community members to find out what attracted them to the region and what they value most when it comes to choosing where to live and do business.

“We were really interested in understanding this both from the perspective of business community and also from employees,” says the institute’s Clark Anderson. “So much of it is about attracting talent. Where do the smart, sharp, creative people want to be? Why are people and businesses attracted to one community over another?”

The survey found that trying to entice big employers through old-school economic development tools such as tax incentives—what the report refers to as “elephant-hunting”—might be less effective than an approach based on creating communities that are desirable to live in. They also found that that the enduring stereotype of ideal Western living, in which single-family homes are widely dispersed across the panoramic landscape, is shifting.

“A number of communities have begun to rethink their approaches to economic development,” says Anderson, citing Bozeman, Montana, and Rifle, Colorado, as examples. “The ones that are looking for answers are the ones that get that old-school approaches aren’t taking them very far, and maybe not even in the right direction.”

Here are some of the findings of the “Place Value” report:

  • About 70 percent of business owners did not move to a community specifically to start a business, but rather picked a community they wanted to live in and then decided to start a business once they moved there.
  • When asked about what factors were most important to them when deciding where to locate their businesses, only 4 percent of business owners cited favorable tax structures as one of their top two criteria.
  • The top criterion chosen by business owners was “overall quality of the community,” defined by respondents to a follow-up question as including “people and overall friendliness, sense of community, sense of safety, access to activities, and access to outdoor recreation.”
  • Some 83 percent of employees said they were willing to accept a smaller salary to live in a community they considered ideal.
  • When asked what their preferences were in terms of neighborhoods and housing, 75 percent said they favored a smaller home close to services and amenities over a larger home with a longer commute.
  • Some 71 percent said they preferred to be able to bike or walk to work and errands rather than driving.
  • Another 52 percent said there are too few shops and restaurants within walking distance of their homes.
  • And 71 percent preferred to live in a mixed-use neighborhood rather than a purely residential neighborhood.
Sonoran Institute

Anderson—a native of Colorado’s Eagle County himself, who grew up on a five-acre ranch—says he has seen the region evolve rapidly. While there’s still some resistance to the idea of building local economies through newer approaches, such as strengthening transportation networks, encouraging walkable downtowns, and creating mixed-use developments, he says that’s changing.

“We’re going through the exact same trends that are happening in the rest of the country,” he says, citing greater national demand for neighborhoods where jobs and amenities are within walking distance. “Not at the same level of density. But there is a desire for walkability, a desire for convenience—for the design of the place that makes it an intriguing place to walk.”

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