Neil Marciniak, Centennial’s economic-development manager, makes a point as Littleton’s Denise Stephens listens. The two officials were part of a panel on the local business climate last week at the South Metro Denver Chamber. Photo by Peter Jones
BY PETER JONES
The south metro suburbs—or Denver South in economic-development speak—may be well poised for the 21st century, as long as it does not lose sight of accompanying challenges.
“We’ve got more millennials that actually work in Denver South than work downtown,” said Neil Marciniak, economic-development manager for the City of Centennial, at a forum last week at the South Metro Denver Chamber. “… The trick is how do we keep them here?”
Home affordability, the decline of traditional retail, and the need for water are among the challenges, but the opportunities found in such areas as intergovernmental cooperation, technology and skilled labor may be important steps on the pathway forward.
“We work together, but we don’t have group think. We’re independent,” said Jeannine Shaw, a community-relations specialist for Denver Water, whose intergovernmental watermark stretches well beyond the city at the center of the metro area.
Even the spicket on Colorado’s complex world of water law has gotten a little less stuck in recent years, Shaw told the room of business leaders on Aug. 23, noting an increased partnership between Denver, Aurora and the South Metro Water Supply Authority.
“I don’t think we would have seen that 20 years ago,” she said. “… You’re going to still have lawsuits and you’re going to still have eminent domain … but there is so much more collaboration on innovation, both on the technology side and the policy side.”
On the technology side, south metro’s bevy of high-tech firms has been matched by “smart cities” like Centennial, whose partnerships with industry have been largely unprecedented. The city’s public works, in particular, have placed Centennial onto the cutting edge.
“Before too long, the ‘smart cities’ technologies, the ‘smart cities’ way of delivering service will be the norm,” Marciniak warned other cities. “It will be the baseline for how services and infrastructure [are] delivered.”
At the same time, Centennial continues to foster a critical mass of likeminded technological innovators in the private sector, including companies like Arrow Electronics and CH2M, the city’s contracted public works provider.
“If you’ve got a government like ours saying we want technology companies, we want high-paying jobs, we want high-skilled labor coming into this state, that gets noticed, not just around the country, but around the world,” Marciniak said.
Taking full advantage of a talented workforce can be a challenge, however, especially for companies with an old-school approach to seeking candidates, said Beth Cobert, CEO for Skillful, a Colorado nonprofit initiative connecting workers with middle-skill jobs.
With an array of technology-focuses careers seeming to change every day, Cobert said it is important for employers to start looking further than the degrees on an applicant’s resume.
“To be successful as the economy continues to change, you need a dynamic labor market that focuses on skills,” Cobert said. “… We help [employers] change the way they post their jobs to focus on skills because if they describe it exactly the way they always have, they [don’t get] enough people coming in the pipeline.”
Even as technology makes business easier, the problem of diminishing brick and mortar retail remains a challenge across the economic-development spectrum—and technology is in large part responsible. Cities are feeling the pinch. Retail accounts for more than half of Centennial’s general fund, Marciniak said.
A new Amazon warehouse in Aurora may only exacerbate the shop-local challenge.
“They’re already forming partnerships with Uber and Lyft,” said Dennis Houston, president of the Parker Area Chamber of Commerce. “… You hit enter on the order, that package will be on your front porch in 90 minutes. Think about that.”
Marciniak sees a glass half full in the upsurge in restaurants that are now filling the void in some of those otherwise vacant retail centers.
“People are spending more money behind their computers on soft goods like clothes and whatever things you didn’t know you needed on Amazon, but are spending more generationally—generation X, millennials and down the line—on going out to eat, so that’s an opportunity,” the economic-development manager said.
Older cities like Littleton, which has never gone much for big-box stores, may be better poised than most for the changing retail climate, though some of the city’s specialized stores have still felt the pinch amid Historic Downtown Littleton’s “old urbanism.”
Denise Stephens, Littleton’s economic-development director, is optimistic.
“We have a lot of boutique retail, a lot of specialty restaurants,” she said. “People can be there, have urban amenities and also have a small-town kind of feel.”
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