Bill Virgin: Time to compare our turf and Denver's on economic terms

Staff writerJanuary 26, 2014 

When the Seattle Seahawks made their first Super Bowl appearance, in 2006, it afforded business scribblers like your columnist an opportunity to do an economic compare-and-contrast between the Steel and Jet cities.

Further opportunities to piggyback on a big sports story and do some scouting reports on the economic competition did not prove to be as plentiful as had been expected in those heady days. So with the Seahawks making just their second appearance in the Big Game (the default term if you haven’t shelled out big bucks for the promotional rights to the name), and the Mariners unlikely to provide a similar opportunity to take a look at their World Series opponent for the foreseeable future (i.e., couple of decades), let’s make the most of what we have and check out Denver.

And yes, our comparison will go well beyond the fact that both states have legalized marijuana sales and consumption, a point that will be hammered in media accounts ad infinitum and ad nauseum from now until kickoff.

We’ll pause just briefly to define our terms. By Seattle, we mean the entire Puget Sound region, including Tacoma. By Denver we mean the entire north-south corridor of suburbs and nearby towns stretching along the Front Range.

That’s an important definition to include, because on the national and global economic stage, it’s entire regions, with their airports and seaports and ring cities and educational and research facilities, that compete.

Like Seattle, Denver sits at the center of a north-south metroplex that, depending on how you define it, could be said to run from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs. Similarly Seattle is the midway point in a population, business and transportation corridor stretching from Vancouver, B.C., to Portland. While Seattle has the geographical advantage of being on water with ocean access, Denver has an advantage of not being hemmed in on both sides by physical barriers.

Speaking of barriers, both regions have mountain-dominated skylines. Seattle-Tacoma’s are to the west and east, but include just one peak of more than 14,000 feet in elevation. Denver’s are all to the west, but include so many 14,000-foot-plus mountains that they’re collectively referred to, appropriately enough, as The Fourteeners.

Both regions are somewhat geographically isolated from other population centers and business hubs; they’re roughly comparable in population and status as second-tier big cities.

That last point might be grating on the ears of Seattleites (Tacomans wouldn’t be so bothered; they haven’t been allowed the luxury of a superiority complex since, oh, the Northern Pacific’s arrival) who see their burg as one of America’s top-level business hubs.

Certainly the roster of nationally known companies on the Fortune 500 is impressive for a region and state of this size – Costco, Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks, Nordstrom, Weyerhaeuser, Boeing – oh wait, that last one isn’t ours any more, is it? Eight in all.

Interestingly, though, Colorado has 10 on the list, including a few well-known names such as Dish (the satellite TV folks), Da Vita Health Partners, engineering firm CH2M Hill and Western Union.

The Denver region isn’t dominated by one industry the way aerospace holds such sway over the Seattle-area economy, although aerospace is one industry that the Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. touts on its website as being a significant presence in the regional economy.

Its aerospace cluster tends to focus more on defense and space than commercial aviation, with the economic development group noting that “Colorado has the nation’s second-largest aerospace economy and is home to four military commands, eight major space contractors, and more than 400 aerospace companies and suppliers.”

But that’s not the only sector in which both regions are interested. Washington wants to be a big player in clean tech and clean energy. Colorado is already a big player, with such companies as wind-turbine maker Vestas and a strong research component through universities and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. One thing Colorado has that Washington doesn’t is a sizable fossil-fuel energy sector; the revival of domestic oil and gas production has been a boost to the state’s economy, including the Denver area where many energy companies maintain corporate offices.

The Seattle area likes to think of itself as one of the nation’s great hubs of entrepreneurial activity, ranking close to that of another recent football opponent, the Bay Area. But the Denver region also sees itself as a hotbed of entrepreneurs and innovation. “Here, there are no rules, no pedigrees, no barriers,” says a bit of promotional boilerplate that, aside from the geographic reference, could have been written in and about Seattle. “One simple thought pervades Metro Denver: Let the best idea win. The bright and adventurous gravitate here because they can make their mark relatively quickly.”

In that perspective the region got some outside validation when Inc. magazine proclaimed Boulder, home of the University of Colorado, as “America’s start-up capital” and “an entrepreneurial powerhouse like no other.”

The point of this exercise is to provide a gentle reminder that, as in football, there are competitors out there just as capable and maybe better at what you hope to accomplish.

Like football, if you don’t make the effort you don’t win. Unlike football, the game and the season are never over. In economic terms the competition is in generating the people, companies and ideas that generate long-term jobs, income and growth for a region and its residents. A week from now, the game and the season will be over, but win or lose, both regions will have to go back to work to figure out how to make those things possible.

Bill Virgin is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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