Breckenridge, Colorado

Without strategy, Boulder will keep growing older, richer

I attended the Boulder Economic Forecast last month and some of the news was predictable, but some was quite unexpected. Elizabeth Garner who is our Colorado state demographer dropped some of the biggest surprises on the roughly 400 attendees. By the way, if you have not heard Elizabeth speak and you get the chance, take it. You would expect a presentation from the state demographer to be boring but she is really quite entertaining.

One of the surprises from Elizabeth was the growth rate in Colorado. While it is true we are the eighth-fastest growing state, we are well behind some of our western neighbors including, Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona. Last year, the state grew at 1.2% which is the slowest since 1918 when World War I and the Spanish flu pandemic were slowing growth everywhere. Over the longer term, the decade that just ended showed the slowest growth in Colorado since records have been kept.

Closer to home, Boulder County added nearly 30,000 people from 2010 to 2018. That sounds like a lot until you compare it to our neighbors. Denver County added 113,000 over the same period. Adams County grew by 68,000 and Weld County added more than 60,000 new residents.

On a percentage basis, Boulder County grew by 10%. Our friends to the south and east in Broomfield and Weld Counties both grew by almost 25%. Up north, Larimer County (Fort Collins) grew by about 17%. So yes, Boulder County is growing but not at the rapid pace some nearby areas are adding new people.

Zeroing in further, the numbers were more surprising — at least to me. Despite all the complaints we hear about growth and crowding, both Boulder and Louisville are actually shrinking. In 2018, Boulder lost 525 people and Louisville lost 38. Other expensive communities like Vail, Avon and Castle Pines also lost population, but Boulder lost more people than any other city in Colorado.

Yes we still have affluent people moving in but young families are migrating out to Erie, Longmont, Frederick and other nearby towns that offer more affordable housing. In fact, Longmont was just named the top “Boomtown” in the U.S. by SmartAsset after a study of 500 growing cities. Young singles and recent college graduates are choosing Denver because of its burgeoning entertainment, social and employment opportunities. And, to be honest, people are dying in Boulder faster than babies are being born.

In addition to limiting growth, the above trends also are making Boulder grow older at a faster rate than the rest of Colorado. While the number of young people younger than 17 in Boulder will fall around 9% between 2015 and 2025, the number of those 65-plus is projected to surge by nearly 60%. Our retiree population is growing at triple the rate of working-age people.

This aging of Boulder will have major implications on the local economy including workforce supply (which is already very tight) and the demand for goods and services. Older residents consume fewer goods but require more services. While household net worth will likely go up, incomes will go down as fewer people who live here are working. As a result, look for major adjustments in the local economy as the demand for buying “stuff” declines and the need for service providers to help us take care of ourselves and our homes rises.

So what does all this mean for Boulder and our future? The key points I took away from Elizabeth’s presentation are: 1.) Despite perceptions, Boulder is not on a runaway growth binge. 2.) Instead of complaining about the University of Colorado and its impacts, we should be glad it is here and work with campus leaders to help the university grow in a sustainable way — including the south campus. 3.) The city should continue its laudable efforts to build affordable housing and allow more young working people to live here.

Boulder will never grow at the frantic pace of some nearby towns and most of us agree that is a good thing. But we should be careful not to let our vibrant community evolve into a place only for the wealthy and retired. That would no longer be the place I fell in love with over 30 years ago and it would be a pretty boring place to live.

Sean Maher is the CEO of RRC Associates in Boulder. You can email him at

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