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Denver With Amazon HQ2: A Game-Changer. Without It: Continued Exceptional Growth Anyway

The prospect of Amazon HQ2 was on everyone's mind at Bisnow's Future of Downtown Denver event Tuesday. Denver seems to be a front-runner. Our speakers all agreed it would be a game-changing event for the Mile High City. 

On the other hand, Denver is already in a growth mode that shows no signs of slowing down. Amazon or not, Denver has a strong future outlook.

Brookfield Executive Vice President David Sternberg and SendGrid Chief Marketing Officer Scott Heimes

Brookfield's David Sternberg said Denver is not going to start with a negative in its bid for Amazon.

"Some markets will say to Amazon, we want you, but ... That's not going to be a factor in Denver's bid for the headquarters," he said.

The city is going to go all-out to win the prize.

SendGrid Chief Marketing Officer Scott Heimes said Denver's tech industry might be relatively small when compared with the likes of Silicon Valley or Boston, but Denver has the capacity to grow its tech ecosystem, and grow it quickly.

Should Amazon tap the city for HQ2, the talent the retail giant would need would be here — or willing to move here — right away. Talented people are already moving to Denver for the mountains, and for its relatively low cost of living.

Sternberg and Heimes also talked about an example of Downtown Denver's revival: 1801 California. Brookfield acquired and redeveloped the building — which went from about 30% occupied more than five years ago to 96% now — and SendGrid has its HQ there.

Brookfield found tech companies wanted to be in the Downtown building, which is near transit, to better attract talent. The lower floors of 1801 California are occupied by tech tenants. As a tech company, SendGrid decided to move Downtown, using its new space at 1801 California to create an environment for millennials, Heimes said.

McWhinney Senior Vice President Dan Cohen and Parikh Stevens Architects President Harsh Parikh

Amazon absolutely would be a game-changer for Denver, taking the city and its economy to a new level, Parikh Stevens Architects President Harsh Parikh said. In the future, people would talk about Denver before Amazon and after Amazon. Parikh had no reservations about it: Amazon would be very good for Denver.

McWhinney's Dan Cohen said an Amazon HQ2 might be a more mixed blessing. After all, Amazon has had a similarly outsized impact on Seattle. The company's presence there has helped push the the cost of living higher than before.

Parikh said housing affordability is going to become, and is already becoming, a critical challenge for Denver.

"People move here for the quality of life, certainly, but the deciding factors are jobs and housing, just like anywhere else," he said. "Take away housing by making it too expensive, and what happens?"

State and local governments must support affordable housing, Parikh said. Not only for Denver to be competitive, but because affordable housing projects are often the first to go in blighted areas and become catalysts for growth.

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck shareholder Bruce James, who moderated the Downtown Design and Development panel, and Larimer Associates CEO Jeff Hermanson

Larimer Associates CEO Jeff Hermanson said the recent New York Times article highlighting Denver as the best place for Amazon to go validated Denver's strong points.

"The reason Denver is such a strong contender is all of the things we're doing right," he said.

Denver's willingness to reinvent itself is also an important asset. A lot of effort has gone into placemaking here, and that impulse is not likely to change.

A prime example of placemaking in Denver is Larimer Square.

"It's a work in progress," Hermanson said, one that is always on the lookout for partnerships with new retail concepts and operators, and looking to be on the cutting edge of Denver's food culture chefs. 

Cohen said experiential restaurants have turned out to be critical in the success of McWhinney's Dairy Block redevelopment.

"We anticipated that the property would be about two-thirds soft goods sales and one-third restaurants," he said. "The actual ratio turned out to be the reverse of that. People want experience-oriented food."

HomeAdvisor Senior Vice President, Consumer Product Paul Zeckser; Beacon Capital Partners Senior Vice President Cathy Mossman; and WTC Denver President Karen Gerwitz

The speakers on our RiNo Rising panel had a more specific focus: What now for River North? Once a neighborhood for pioneering artists and other culture creators, it is now a place with scores of galleries, entertainment venues and restaurants and new office development.

RiNo still has authenticity, HomeAdvisor's Paul Zeckser said. His company, a fast-growing tech specialist, looked for that quality when considering a move, because the company believed being in an authentic place makes it easier to recruit talent. After moving to RiNo, HomeAdvisor found that to be the case.

Will new development spoil that vibe? Beacon Capital Partners Senior Vice President Cathy Mossman said if done correctly, development will fit in the neighborhood. Her company is overseeing the development of The Hub, which will offer creative workspace.

"The building isn't designed to be a building anywhere," she said. "It's designed to be a building in RiNo, with its murals and bike racks and gardens and beehives [on the roof]. Creative tenants want nonstandard office space."

For its part, the Denver World Trade Center being developed in RiNo is going to be a welcoming presence for international visitors coming to Denver because it is near the 38th & Blake station on the A Line to the airport, Denver WTC's Karen Gerwitz said.

But more than that, the development will complement RiNo by offering a diverse business ecosystem with a single focus on global connectivity, including globally oriented retail and restaurants. It will add diversity to an already diverse RiNo.

Dynia Architects principal Stephen Dynia, who moderated the RiNo Rising panel, and Mainspring Developers President Fiona Arnold

Mainspring Developers' Fiona Arnold said she picked a RiNo location for her company because of the area's creative energy, which is like a magnet for young talent. Now, she said, that energy is at risk from commercial gentrification.

"It's important that the makers of products stay in the community," Arnold said. "Developers and landlords need to commit to making that possible, or the neighborhood might lose its soul. It's happened in other places, and can happen in RiNo."

Developers need to think long and hard about their approach to creating new space in RiNo, she said. An important goal of such space is to add to the community. One way is through public green space, which is not mandated by the city, and which might seem like giving up part of a developer's return on investment.

But a property that successfully interacts with the community will be worth more than one that does not, especially in a place like RiNo, with its special vibe, Arnold said.

The event was held in raw space on the 18th floor of the Wells Fargo Center.

Another idea brought up by the speakers is that Denver is not pursuing density with the same vigor as other cities. That omission might be detrimental to its longer-term prospects, as the newly found taste among the economic elite for urban living becomes more permanent. 

"Townhomes have their place," Arnold said. "Just not in a neighborhood like RiNo, which needs to be denser."

While they do not speak for Amazon, the speakers predicted that wherever the retail giant picks, the end result will probably not be like the Facebook main campus, which has created an ersatz community something like Disneyland. Authenticity will count for something.

Amazon would kick Denver's tech community into an altogether different world, the speakers said. But even without Amazon, Denver's tech industry is on the rise. And not just big names, but creative startups: On average, there’s a new digital tech company launched every 72 hours in Colorado. The local tech industry, like Denver itself, has momentum and a lot more growth ahead of it.