By Tom Still
DENVER, Colo. – Shortly after he was elected mayor of Colorado’s largest city, businessman John Hickenlooper invited all 31 suburban mayors to a victory party. The goal was to ceremoniously bury the hatchet of intra-regional rivalry and to make it clear that Denver would prosper as a metropolitan area, or not at all.
Every suburban mayor showed up. A year later, they joined Hickenlooper in a near-unanimous effort to pass a $4.7-billion mass transit initiative that had been opposed by Colorado’s governor. The business community got behind the 12-year transit project, too, and it won voter approval by a convincing margin.
Of course, there’s nothing all that new about regional cooperation in Denver. The same voters who ignored county and municipal lines to pass “FasTracks” in 2004 had also voted to finance Coors Field, the new Mile High Stadium, Denver International Airport and other large-scale regional projects over time. Nor is regional cooperation limited to big-ticket items: Metro Denver communities embraced a “non-compete” economic development code of ethics 19 years ago, and complaints of foul play have been all but non-existent.
Denver may epitomize the once-Wild West, but its recent business and political culture is the opposite of an old-time range war. Communities in the greater Denver area (about 2.7 million people) recognize they won’t get ahead by rustling businesses from one another. Rather, they have resolved to “grow their own” by creating the right business climate, and by competing jointly when new prospects call.
The lesson is slowly being learned in Wisconsin, where regional collaboration efforts are taking root in Northeast Wisconsin, the Madison area and the greater Milwaukee region.
A group of 50 business, non-profit and local government leaders from Dane County visited Denver last week to see for themselves how the model works. The Dane County Collaboration Council is pulling together under a decidedly private banner, and similar efforts are under way in northeast Wisconsin (called “NewNorth”) and Milwaukee.
The Dane County group heard from elected officials such as Hickenlooper, but they mainly talked with economic development professionals and business leaders who have grown accustomed to working together.
A prime example was the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp., a non-profit affiliate of the Denver Chamber of Commerce. It helps bind about 60 communities in seven counties and is the keeper of the development ethics code, which markets Denver as a region and discourages border wars pitting Aurora against Denver, or Thornton against Westminster. “Thou shalt not steal from thy neighbor” is Denver’s economic development motto.
Led by executive director Tom Clark, the Metro Denver EDC provides mountains of data to help all communities attract companies and site selectors. At least half the time, a company may start its site search in one community and wind up in another – and there don’t appear to be any hard feelings among the “losers” because the entire region wins.
As Clark described the mission of the Metro Denver EDC, “it is leadership by service versus leadership by proclamation.” Its goal is to create 100,000 jobs and brand Denver as a sustainable hub for new economy businesses, entrepreneurs and workers.
Denver has decades of collaboration experience, but it wasn’t always so. Until the oil-and-gas bust of the mid-1980s, Denver was pretty much like any other metro area. Communities feuded over just about anything and competed, sometimes viciously, to attract businesses. But as Clark noted, “we were driving those companies straight to Phoenix or Dallas.”
In Wisconsin, there is a long and unproductive tradition of inter-city rivalry: Madison versus Milwaukee; Appleton versus Green Bay; Stevens Point versus Wausau. That might have worked in an earlier time, but not in today’s global economy. Among the enduring legacies of the Wisconsin Economic Summits between 2000 and 2003 is the notion that cities within naturally occurring marketplaces should work together on regional opportunities.
The business and political climate in Denver isn’t perfect, but cooperation there is more than a buzzword. Perhaps the lessons of the “Mile High City” can move Wisconsin to a new plateau of economic growth.
Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council and a member of the DaneCounty Collaboration Council, which visited Denver Feb. 1-3.