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Stavney: Why Colorado is losing its mojo

As if nothing had changed while everything was changing, state demographer Elizabeth Garner was back on May 5 at the Silverthorne Pavilion where the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments hosted the first in-person regional economic summit in three years. What seemed like distant warnings in 2019 is now upon us.

Jon Stavney

My big takeaway: Colorado is losing its mojo. It’s the economic mojo and that other mojo – the one that fills preschool classrooms.

Fifty percent of counties in the United States have declined in population over the past decade compared to the previous census decade, and 43 of Colorado’s 64 counties are in absolute decline in producing people under 18. Weld County in northeastern Colorado accounts for 43%. Only Summit County in our area has a net increase in next-gen production.



The peak of the last wave of childbirths in the United States was 2007. Since then, we under-produce.

Of the absolute birth growth in the state, 2/3 are people of color. Garner challenged us with the question, “Are we preparing and accommodating this population adequately in our workforce?” This decline impacts schools, higher education, the workforce and ultimately all communities. COVID-19 has not produced a baby boom. While there is a time soon that we can honestly call post-COVID, considerable uncertainty – economic, social, political, makes a 1950s-like boom unlikely to turn the tide.



A robust pattern of migration due to Colorado’s booming economy, quality of life, and other factors, has countered and masked this long trend of declining births over previous decades. International migration is down 70% and internal migration to Colorado is down 35% according to Garner. We have been a magnet and a place of opportunity for those beginning their working years in the past. That too has changed.

Garner says, “Over the next decade, expect a slowdown in net migration of young adults. Colorado’s secret weapon—the jobs, affordability, quality of life, and intangible assets we’ve relied on for decades to fuel rapid population growth in the 1990s and 2000s—well, that secret sauce doesn’t quite have to tastes the same today.

As baby boomers age and we block the flow of international migration for political (not economic) reasons, every state in the country is competing for a shrinking youth population. Garner sees state colleges across the country surpassing Colorado for the young immigrants we’ve relied on. Colorado’s fastest growing population is over 65.

How is this when NWCCOG’s own Mountain Migration Report shows the rapid influx of newcomers and part-time workers bringing their wealth? For now, most newcomers remain non-residents under the demographic radar. They are also a generation older.

Moving mid-career remote workers and part-time workers to the High Country has benefits, as well as deleterious effects on opportunities for younger workers to stay in or enter the High Country.

As the report showed, mountain migrants are much better placed than young immigrants to compete for higher rents and a shrinking housing stock. Garner’s data also shows that Colorado is far behind in maintaining housing unit production. Garner has insisted over the years on reminding those who would listen that a job is a person with a place to live, and you can’t have one without the other two.

Garner notes wryly: “There has been a debate over time: do we really like people? There are definitely downsides. »

Not too long ago (for some of us), the state’s demographics bureau was under fire from inflated population growth projections for much of Colorado. Garner repeatedly corrects the growth of media reporting as “exponential.” The growth pressure was real — for a while. It has never been exponential.

For example, the town of Eagle grew 15% every year for a decade, from 1998 to 2008, when I was on the board. In most places, the prospect of a doubling or tripling of small town populations has led to much local resistance that seems to have continued even as other dynamics have changed. You cannot vote to exclude people or choose their demographics. We can only oppose development projects that would welcome new arrivals, especially those with less means. Even when the units are approved, the construction industry never quite recovered from 2008 to a degree that could build them.

In the 1990s, Colorado had a solid formula – a very attractive place to live (echoes of “The Rocky Mountain Way”), one of the most competitive and well-funded state university systems, a balanced political landscape , lots of technology, research and military jobs as well as entrepreneurs flocking to stay in the state, lots of developable land around a metropolitan area that was investing heavily in amenities such as large sports stadiums and redevelopment, small towns waking up to what made them attractive, community stations not bent on impressing shareholders, and a construction industry that had the workers and the ability to (almost) meet housing demand.

Today, Colorado has gone from top 10 in growth to top 20 – that’s about the middle, folks. Each of these factors has slowed down or been reversed for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is the ability to approve development and build homes that would allow a younger generation to stay and attract talent. Garner points out that we also need to be realistic about creating not just “jobs,” but jobs that pay the bills.

“What does it take to attract a young adult? A house,” she replies, “or the potential to own a house. Well, we know how it is these days.

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