Denver’s Changing Economy: A Five Minute History

Part One
by Jeff Haanen

Recently a friend, Pastor Trevor Lee, asked me to speak on Denver’s changing economy and what it means for the church.

After saying yes, I realized that despite living in Denver for over a decade, I knew precious little about it.

So I researched the history, current economy, and future challenges facing Denver. If you’re one of the 100,000 newcomers to Colorado in the past year, or if you’re just interested in knowing more about the history of Denver, here’s a brief, skimmable five minute overview of the economic history of America’s #1 Best Place to Live.

History of Denver’s Economy

1. Denver was founded in 1858 as a mining town, first drawing a mix of gold/silver miners and ranchers.

  • The names of Colorado cities today bear witness to our mining heritage: Golden, Silverthorne, Leadville.
  • The early days of Denver were indeed the wild west: cowboys, saloons, brothels and gold diggers.
  • An easy way to remember our history is our pro sports teams: the Denver “Nuggets” (NBA) and the Denver Broncos (pointing to our history of cowboys and ranchers).

2. After the gold rush collapsed in 1893, a growing manufacturing industry revived Denver.

  • In 1906, the Colburn Automobile Factory opened only to close five years later. But in the process, companies like the Gates Corporation opened, which was one of the world’s largest producers of automobile belts and hoses.

3. The telecom industry has long been important to the history of Denver.

  • In 1911, the Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Company formed; it later became Qwest (and was then acquired by Century Link in 2011).

4. Post-World War II, an economic boom included the building of the Denver Technological Center in the 1970s.

    • Legendary developer George Wallace envisioned a new office park off of I-25 after getting fed up with Denver traffic.
    • The Denver “Tech” Center – commonly called DTC today — was soon home to a host of satellite, data process, computer, and communications giants.

5. Denver was economically stagnant in the 1980s, and had become overly dependent on “Coors, Carbon and the Cold War.”

  • Denver relied heavily on the oil/gas industry and military contracts, especially from the Air Force (bases both in Colorado Springs and at Buckley Air Force Base in Aurora).
  • With the OPEC oil crisis of 1973, and oil prices eventually falling below $10/barrel in 1986, Denver’s economy contracted.
  • “Denver was not a fun place to be in the 1980s.” – My friend Tom Wanberg, a commercial real estate developer, who was in his 20s during this time in Denver’s history.
  • At that time, one third of all office buildings were vacant, downtown was synonymous with skid row, and smog filled the air.

What changed? How did Denver transform from an economically stagnant “cow town” to America’s best place to live?

There are generally two different answers to that question…

1. The diversification of Denver’s economy in the past 30 years, says Tom Clark, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, saved the city.

  • Today, Denver’s economy has strong industries across sectors:
    • Aerospace – There are 19,560 Aerospace workers in Colorado (Lockheed Martin is a major employer).
    • Aviation – Denver International Airport, built in 1995, now brings in $28 billion to the local economy annually.
    • Bioscience – There 15,120 bioscience workers, supported by research universities like the University of Colorado.
    • Broadcasting and Telecomm – Century Link, Dish Network, Direct TV, and Comcast all have major operations in the metro area.
    • Energy – There are over 50,000 energy workers in Denver, anchored by companies like Anadarko and Noble Energy.
    • Healthcare and Wellness – With 192,290 workers/employees in health care and wellness, it’s a significant player.
    • Information Technology and Software – Today, Denver, Boulder, and the Front Range are a major start-up center for new tech companies.
  • In this story, Denver grew through strategic investment across sectors, fueling economic strength and a growing job market.

2. The other story is that Denver was rejuvenated by a small group of business leaders who invested in the city center, as the history the Lower Downtown District of Denver, or LoDo, illustrates.

  • In 1858, General William Larimer founded Denver by putting down cottonwood logs in the center of a square mile plot that became LoDo, Denver’s oldest neighborhood. (It is “low” because is sits near the lowest point of the South Platte River.)
  • When the transcontinental railroad bypassed Denver for cities like Cheyenne, Wyo., efforts of business and civic leaders like John Evans helped to pass a bond to connect the 106 mile railroad from to Denver, thus saving the city.

3. Union Station became the first hub of the city, welcoming visitors, employees, and commerce to the rest of the United States.

  • But, by the mid-twentieth century, the district became essentially skid row. With the building of highways and airports, trains became less important, and Union Station essentially lived in ruins.
  • In the 1980s, several buildings in the vicinity were designated as historical landmarks.

4. In this time, the Union Station neighborhood began its renaissance through the launch of a handful of small businesses.

  • The most prominent example is Wynkoop Brewing, started in 1988 by four business partners, including the future Denver mayor and then Governor John Hickenlooper. Wynkoop Brewing is now seen as Denver’s first craft brew pub.
  • LoDo then became a destination neighborhood for those seeking city life.

5. In 1995, urban redevelopment flourished.

  • Coors Field accelerated the urban redevelopment, and clubs, restaurants, and businesses flocked to LoDo. Now home to the Colorado Rockies, its developers intentionally built minimal parking around the field to allow patrons to walk past the businesses to get to the game.
  • In 2000, the Pepsi Center opened, which is located on the edge of the LoDo neighborhood.
  • Today, residential redevelopment and the redevelopment of pricey lofts and apartments, has made LoDo an attractive place to live.
  • The Union Station redevelopment project, completed in 2014, solidified the complete turnaround of the LoDo neighborhood and is now a shining symbol of the economic health of Denver’s new economy.

Read Part 2 in this series on Denver’s changing economy.

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Jeff Haanen

Jeff Haanen is the Founder of Denver Institute for Faith & Work and the 5280 Fellowship. He contributes to various magazines and publications, including Christianity Today. He has previously served as a school administrator, a pastor and missionary. He holds a B.A. in International Economics and Spanish from Valparaiso University and a Master of Divinity from Denver Seminary. Jeff attends Littleton Christian Church with his wife and four daughters.

Jeff has written for The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, The Gospel Coalition, and Christianity Today.