The Forgotten State: The Problem and Potential of the Other Colorado

The buzzword in Colorado these days is “economic development.” While Denver mayor John Hickenlooper has done impressive things with the capital, the rest of the state is struggling. Yet it is the rest of the state that is largely ignored, both by the government and nonprofits. Colorado is, in fact, structured to ignore it; structured as though as goes Denver, so goes Colorado. Yet it is the forgotten part of the state that is the key to Colorado’s economic—and political—revitalization.

The Background

Colorado is really two states; the Front Range corridor between Denver and Colorado Springs, and…everywhere else.  The Front Range, mainly Denver, is the state’s central source both of income and of spending for the state. The vast majority of government and nonprofit funds are funneled into Denver, and most of what the state has to speak of in terms of culture can be found there (museums, music, art, etc.).

The second state—the Forgotten State—is largely rural, defined by agriculture and industry, and comprised of small, scattered towns. Even in the ski towns, there is little to draw people there permanently. Jobs are often seasonal. Industry shifts to different power centers as different commodities rise and fall in demand. The forgotten small towns across the state are left to figure out on their own how to convince businesses to come there, how to provide healthcare with too few doctors, and how to give adequate job training so they can grow their own futures.

The paradox is that good job training—let alone a quality liberal arts education—seems to fit a rural Coloradan for only one thing: leaving for Denver (or worse, New York). The focus of current society is centralized; there is a sense that opportunity is to be found in the cities, and the success of the city must inevitably trickle down into the rest of the state. Yet the main economic drain on Colorado is outside the city, and as long as Denver remains the only thing propping up the state, even Denver will be held back. The economic success of Colorado depends on the midsize towns across the state becoming independently, sustainably productive.

The Denver Problem

But this requires a serious change in mindset for the people with the money and power. Denver—its urban economic vitality, its millions in nonprofit funds, its state and federal resources—is the center of the state, and philanthropists and policymakers have allowed their knowledge of this fact to make them lazy. There is an understanding, born out of years of centralized 20th century politics, that cities drive economies. So money and, more importantly, administrative control are centralized in Denver; 2009 federal funds per capita in Denver were $2,570, while even nearby Adams County saw only $490.

This status quo leaves most of Colorado with a parasitic umbilical cord to the city. On the one hand, Denver is almost the only thing the state has left in terms of a working economy, culture, and man-made places worth caring about. On the other hand, the state’s economic and political dependence on the city holds the entire state back in these troubled times—partly because the rural areas are a consistent drain on state resources, but also because their potential remains untapped.

Daniel Kemmis, former mayor of Missoula, Montana, published a book in 2001 that holistically captures both the difficulty and the opportunity Coloradans face. Kemmis (speaking in the context of federal administration) believes the long-term solution to the problems of the interior West lies in treating localities as if they matter.

“Whatever the feelings nonwesterners have about the region—whatever affections, whatever myths—the only way to take care of the West now is to give it the room it needs to take care of itself. If the West is to be the West that people care so deeply about, it will have to do it on its own sovereign terms.” (“This Sovereign Land: A New Vision for Governing the West”)

Kemmis doesn’t argue for an absence of government control; he argues for a power transfer from the general to the particular; from the central to the local. In his view, the problem is not government (or lack thereof), but the fact that the people closest to the problem have been divorced from their power to solve it. He envisions a West in which local governments and communities have power over their own destinies, administratively independent of far-off bureaucrats and, presumably, far-off cities.

An Investment of More than Money

To some, this is radical. Under the Denver-centric mindset, outside communities are seen merely as pieces of a bigger picture—as means to an end. Philanthropy, government aid, and administration are run as large-scale programs dished out to satellite locations across the state. It is an urban economic development strategy, carelessly slapped onto a mainly rural state.

Yet for someone familiar with Colorado’s actual socio-political terrain, Kemmis’s broad idea is intuitively sensible. Policymakers talk loudly of “creating jobs,” but never of creating towns and cities—coherent, stand-alone political communities that can sustain themselves without economic goody bags from outside. Colorado is built around just such midsize towns, potential local hubs of economy and culture, many of which are well-equipped with hard-working citizens and local nonprofits anxious to help them.

A 2009 paper by Mike McGrath of Philanthropy for Active Civic Engagement points out the political potential inherent in such localities. McGrath argues (like Harvard’s Robert Putnam) that the future of community revitalization is in innovative local solutions born of experiences in these “laboratories of democracy.” But he rightly observes that outside funding and changes in political emphasis are needed.

“Given these circumstances, it will be even more important for advocates, funders and nonprofits to push for innovation and provide the data and tools necessary to take this grand experiment to the next level, or to put it somewhat differently, to move beyond the ‘laboratory’ phase of civic engagement into a new stage of implementation and institutionalization.” (“The New Laboratories of Democracy: How Local Government is Reinventing Civic Engagement”)


But at present, the Forgotten State is largely cut out of the equation. To become a help rather than a hindrance to Colorado, the state’s midsize towns need to be magnets for ideas, funding, infrastructure, workers, and citizens. As McGrath indicates, they need outside help. The right people—policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs, nonprofit directors—have to be convinced that the investment is worth it. This will require action from two parties.

Denver—meaning both the state government and other sources of funding and administrative control—will have to act on a decentralized economic development strategy, making a loud statement by giving more political and economic control to localities. Rather than looking to the city for opportunities, Colorado’s citizens and nonprofits need to know they have the power make good things happen right before their eyes.

And the Forgotten State must respond to this renewed political relevance with an investment of entrepreneurship and social capital. If their towns matter, and they can create a community defined by more than a shared two-hour commute, the people of the Forgotten State need to act like it. This practice of self-government does not come easily, but Colorado has a respectable network of local leaders and nonprofits ready to lead the way if given the chance.

Rebuilding Colorado in this way will require a fairly dramatic rearrangement of administration, funds, and priorities, and it will take time. But until state leaders realize that it is local governments and organizations—and not offices of experts—that are the laboratories of democracy, the Forgotten State will remain at the mercy of other people’s memories. And as goes the Forgotten State, so goes Colorado.

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