It would be easy to look at the steady stream of Millennials pouring into Denver and attribute the recent surge to the legalization of pot in 2012. But lately, a different crowd has been touching down in Mile High City: tech entrepreneurs, media types and even fashion businesses are relocating from New York and Los Angeles because of tax incentives, lifestyle and a less saturated market.
This story first appeared in the July 29, 2015 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The migration of Millennials to Denver started long before marijuana became mainstream. And for good reason. From 2000 to 2012, the percentage of 25-to 34-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree increased by 46.6 percent, according to a study by City Observatory, a Portland, Ore.-based think tank. The unemployment rate has steadily decreased since 2010 to 4.2 percent, and compared with other major urban centers, housing costs are pretty cheap — median rent hovers around $883 a month. It’s a winning combination, especially for cash-strapped recent grads. The research firm Niche ranked Denver number 11 — ahead of both Austin, Texas, and Brooklyn — in its Top 25 Cities for Millennials list of 2015.
Now, businesses that are stereotypically linked to New York, Silicon Valley and Los Angeles are following the masses, moving their headquarters, expanding with regional branches or commuting to the state from other cities. Take Kaily Smith Westbrook and Randi Kleiner, who started a television pilot festival called SeriesFest earlier this year (John Legend and Whitney Cummings performed on opening night). Kleiner runs Trifecta Studios, a production company, out of Manhattan while Westbrook is between Los Angeles and New York as an actress, writer and producer. When it came to SeriesFest, though, neither wanted to launch on the coasts.
“I knew right off the bat that I wanted to transplant out of L.A. or New York. Those are both heavy industry towns and we really wanted to create a destination film festival, a place where people could go to be immersed in the world of episodic storytelling,” says Kleiner. “There’s so much else going on in New York, and in L.A., we didn’t want to become a secondary pilot season.” Their plan worked; executives from HBO, Starz, USA, Condé Nast Entertainment and ABC flew out for the festival in June. (The duo also say they’re considering that they could be making a full-time move to Denver soon.)
Jenna Lee Scott, who’s worked in public relations and marketing at Nadine Johnson and The Metric Group, decamped to Denver in October 2014, even though most of her clients are still based in New York. “Denver offered three things that I was determined to find after New York: a work/life balance, close proximity to the outdoors, and the ability (and ease) to travel,” she says. “I’m able to stop answering emails at 5 p.m. on most days and I take a few hours every afternoon to do something active and outside.”
If not the sun and mountain air, it’s the business incentives that are drawing young enterprises. The start-up Layer3 TV Inc., which fancies itself a “next generation cable company,” was lured from Boston to the city last summer by nearly $3 million in job-growth tax incentives from Colorado, according to the Office of Economic Development. In June, the company raised $51 million in second-round funding, making it the biggest start-up to come to Denver thus far, though certainly not the only one. (Other companies to watch include customer loyalty program FiveStars, start-up incubator Galvanize and consulting and management firm Nimbl.) A recent Wall Street Journal article reported that altogether, 3,200 new firms have opened in Denver in the last four years.
Even the smallest of business owners and entrepreneurs are looking to Denver. Mark Snipe moved there from New York to open a men’s clothing boutique, Sully & Co., in 2013. In a city where Patagonia rules, he’s banking on less competition for his store. Getting a new business up and running, he says, was much easier in a city that’s more affordable than its coastal counterparts. “[Plus], in Denver I can experiment, make mistakes and recover compared with New York, which is much less forgiving,” says Snipe. Still, the coastal city will always have a certain appeal. Snipe for one travels back to New York three to four times a year for trade shows and market appointments.