Destination 2018: Denver

The Family Jones, a new distillery and restaurant in the booming LoHi (Lower Highland) neighborhood of Denver, was bustling on a recent Saturday night. Small groups of mostly young people sat at communal tables or the half-circle bar, drinking meticulously crafted cocktails and nibbling on charcuterie. A full moon illuminated the room through massive windows on one side.

It felt like the ultimate local scene, but “local” is a relative term in the Mile High City. The Wisconsin-raised guy to my right moved to Denver two years ago after escaping “congested and attitude-heavy” San Francisco for a job as a programmer at a tech startup. The bartender came to Denver from Philadelphia to go to college, fell in love with the city’s socially progressive atmosphere and never left. A middle-aged couple smooching over housemade vodka and gin paused long enough to say they’d moved to Denver a year ago from Texas, drawn by the beauty of the area. Both work for online retailers and can basically choose where they want to live.

For more and more people, that choice is Denver: 1,000-plus people move to the city each month. Blessed with extraordinary physical beauty and nurturing an entrepreneurial culture that goes back to the 19th-century gold rush, Denver is attracting everyone from disaffected Bay Area techies to socially engaged East Coast creatives. “It’s the new capital of the West,” says Ryan Diggins, a Denver real estate developer who just opened the elegant Ramble Hotel in the city’s RiNo (River North Art District) neighborhood. “Things feel more possible here. You can breathe.”

Last April, a coalition of 10 Colorado-based tech companies, along with state agencies, launched Pivot to Colorado, a $500,000 marketing campaign that encourages tech talent to leave Silicon Valley for the state. It’s just one of the ways Colorado, and Denver in particular, has been diversifying its economy since the 1980s, when it was largely dependent on the oil and gas industry. Today, Denver’s strengths include aerospace (second in the nation after California), from space exploration to four military commands; IT software (growing 20 percent faster than the national average for the last five years); and, of course, marijuana (residents voted to legalize the product in 2012). Metro Denver has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the nation—it’s just under 3 percent—and adds about 35,000 jobs a year.

“Business in Colorado works across geographic and political boundaries,” says J.J. Ament, CEO of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation, the first regional EDC in the nation. “You’ll never hear Denver criticize Boulder or Aurora. It’s not a competitive place; it’s a collaborative place.”

That atmosphere is part of what attracted Frank Bonanno, a New Jersey native, to the city. One of Denver’s most successful chefs—he’s opened nearly a dozen restaurants in the city—Bonanno and his wife, Jacqueline, just opened Milk Market, a massive retail food and restaurant complex not far from Union Station. Milk Market includes Mano Pastaria, offering hand-rolled pastas; Ruth’s Butchery, featuring Colorado-raised meats; Stranded Pilgrim, a lineup of all-Colorado beers; and Cornicello, a gelato shop.

“We’ve had a lot of success here—Denver’s a great city to do business. And enough people are figuring that out that there’s been a big infusion of capital from outside coming in,” says Frank Bonanno. Adds Jacqueline, “We’ve never had outside investors before, but Milk Market is so big we had to, and today we could get it. About 80 percent. It’s scary but exciting.”

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