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How A Diverse Economy Helps And Hurts Northern Colorado

Jim Hill

Colorado is currently the seventh fastest growing state in the nation. Experts expect the bullseye of future growth to be the northern Front Range.

“We’re forecasting the state to increase between 2010 and 2040 by about 2.8 million people — about 500,000 in the north Front Range, in Larimer and Weld counties,” said state demographer Elizabeth Garner.

It all has to do with jobs -- sort of. Data show that in the past 10 years many people are moving from the Western Slope to the northern Front Range looking for work, while high-paying tech industry jobs has brought workers in from other states. It’s the marriage of these two counties and what they have to offer commuters that makes them so economically diverse.

Weld has huge amounts of natural resources and cheaper housing, while Larimer has higher paying jobs. That diversification may help cushion the region in the coming years.

“They balance each other to some extent. Just in terms of a more diversified two-county economy as opposed to one county that has tremendous natural resources and agriculture another county that has great entrepreneurship and technology and other things,” said Richard Wobbekind, an economist with the University of Colorado, Boulder.

“But when they are together its kind a powerful force in terms of business cycles,” he said.   

Weld County relies on two industries known for their high booms and low busts -- oil and gas extraction and agriculture. As housing becomes more expensive in Larimer County, people are looking for more affordable options east of I-25. So they commute.

Credit Colorado Department of Local Affairs
Colorado Department of Local Affairs
The most recent data from 2014 shows the Weld has more commuters, reflected in the light green circles.

In 2014, about 80,000 people who lived in Weld county drove to another county to work every day. Many of them work in Larimer. That commuting taxpayer base helps buffer their home county of Weld against low oil and gas or agricultural dives. Economist Richard Wobbekind said there are other benefits.

“It certainly keeps wages higher and it keeps unemployment rates in a more respectable range. That helps offset -- people can find other jobs in construction and other industries that are looking for employment,” he said.

Credit Colorado Department of Local Affairs
Colorado Department of Local Affairs

Officials are concerned about keeping population growth at a manageable level. But Garner cautions other communities to avoid the City of Boulder’s current situation.

In the 1990s officials limited housing growth -- but not jobs. More and more high paying businesses moved to the area creating a huge number of commuters who can’t afford the limited housing. That’s lead to the transportation issues and gridlock to and from the cheaper surrounding communities.

“You don’t want to end up like some communities that have allowed commercial growth without any housing unit growth,” Garner said.  

Legislators are trying to tackle some of these issues during the current session. But no matter what happens under the gold dome, Garner has seen how decisions made by city planners and officials on growth impact communities for decades.

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