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What we can learn from Denver’s Mile High vision
BY STUART LEAVENWORTH, Editorial Page Editor, The Sacramento Bee, Sacramento, CA

Republished with the approval of The Sacramento Bee, where this column originally appeared on Sept. 23, 2012.

The future of the capital region is inextricably tied to the health of its largest city, as well as Sacramento’s relationship with the rest of the region. Both the health of this city and its outward relationships should be cause for concern.

As I argued in a July 29 column, much of the rest of the region is outpacing Sacramento in providing well-run governance, schools, services, and a climate where businesses might like to locate and grow. Yet instead of learning from its neighbors, Sacramento’s elected leaders too often disparage them, blaming the suburbs for the area’s transportation challenges, “sprawlapalooza” and efforts to grab sales tax revenues.

Thirty years ago, the city of Denver had a similarly toxic relationship with its neighbors. The city resented that suburban residents refused to contribute to city services they enjoyed. The suburbs resented Denver’s arrogant attitude and ability to manipulate the wheels of state government.

Today, there are still tensions between Denver and its surrounding municipalities. But there also is a record of cooperation that has reaped rewards for the Mile High region, as I learned in a recent trip to Denver.

In 1989, this seven-county area passed a one-tenth of 1 percent sales tax to create the Scientific and Cultural Facilities District. Since then, the tax has generated about $40 million yearly to support Denver’s cultural giants—its art museum, botanic gardens, zoo, the Museum of Nature and Science and the Center for the Performing Arts—as well as smaller endeavors, ranging from film festivals to art shows.

In 2004, voters in the Denver metro region approved a $4.7 billion sales tax to expand light rail and other transit. In four years, transit ridership doubled. Although the recession has reduced expected tax revenues, delaying rail and bus extensions, construction for “FasTracks” lines is under way to Golden, Boulder and Denver International Airport. The city is also using FasTracks funds to remodel its historic Union Station, which will be the hub of new transit lines that could eventually stretch 119 miles.

As nearly everyone in Denver will tell you, the city and region have benefited from strong leadership, including visionary mayors such as Federico Peña and John Hickenlooper, who is now Colorado’s governor. Less known, however is the strong role that mayors of smaller cities have played in pulling the region together.

In 1993, on the prompting of Peña, the region created the Denver Metro Mayors Caucus, which has now grown to include 40 municipalities. It has been instrumental in supporting both renewing taxes for the Scientific and Cultural District and the passage of FasTracks.

Randy Pye, a former mayor of Centennial, a town of 103,000 south of Denver, says the caucus was needed so mayors could get to know each other, speak candidly about concerns and create their own power base. Although Denver mayors haven’t been as active in the caucus as mayors from suburban cities and town, the collective clout of this group means that it can’t be ignored.

Pye says mayors in regions like Sacramento would be wise to follow suit.

“Somehow your elected officials have to get friendly with each other outside of just being elected officials,” said Pye, who was elected three times by his fellow mayors as chair of the Metro Mayors Caucus.

Here in Sacramento, Mayor Kevin Johnson convened a meeting of the region’s mayors in 2009, but it hasn’t become a regular gathering. Christopher Cabaldon, mayor of West Sacramento, says some elected officials interact in the Sacramento Area Council of Governments, but that tends to be a formal process. Do local mayors have a forum where they can share ideas and get to know each other? “We don’t have anything like this,” said Cabaldon.

Two weeks ago, I joined Cabaldon and about 80 other elected officials, business leaders and community activists on the Sacramento Metro Chamber’s study mission to Denver. In three days, we toured the city and some of its surrounding attractions, including Red Rocks Park and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. We saw the construction under way in Denver’s railyard – giving us some hope for our own – and the transformation of once humble Lower Downtown (“LoDo”), which is now a thriving entertainment district.

One thing that sets Denver apart is the strength and collaborative nature of its business community. As in Sacramento, the chamber of commerce in Denver mobilizes when it wants to stop a policy or regulation it doesn’t like. But it hardly stops there. Denver’s chamber has been a force in rallying the business community around improved public services, arts, culture and education.

For more than a decade, Denver has marketed itself as a home for young people and young professionals. It’s worked. According to the Brookings Institution, Denver was the top destination in the country for people in the age group between 25 and 34 during 2008 and 2009.

Kelly Brough, president and CEO of the Denver chamber, said improved rail and bus service have been instrumental in helping to attract a younger generation. “When young people come to a city, they see transit as almost a given,” said Brough, who previously served as Hickenlooper’s chief of staff.

Comparing Denver with Sacramento can be misleading. Denver is bigger. Its region dominates the state in wealth and population. Its mayor has more authority than Sacramento’s mayor, and it is an epicenter for banking and commerce that stretches into several Rocky Mountain states.

Nonetheless, Denver has shown what can happen when cities and suburbs put aside their provincial jealousies, work together and plan for the future.

All of us in Sacramento wince when someone calls our area a “cow town.” Denver once had that name. Not anymore.

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