In Defense of Positive Change

October 7, 2007
By Ed Byrne

The rhetoric and opinions we hear during this City Council election season always touch on the vision people have for Boulder and how best to support and enhance the city’s countless positive characteristics. What we hear reveals a variety of implied and explicit visions for what Boulder should become. To varying degrees, the topic of “growth” and its impacts frequently comes up, and very often it is not in a positive context. I believe that certain types of growth in Boulder are necessary, beneficial and deserving of our wholehearted support.

First, a definition of terms is in order. Boulder cannot substantially grow outward; future growth will mostly be confined to various types of internal redevelopment. When viewed from this perspective, Boulder’s future growth will include creation of new structures; changes to what occurs within different areas of the city, changes to the city’s demographic mix, and adjustments resulting therefrom. In fact, the use-related issues will happen with or without new buildings. Boulder’s “growth” is, therefore, guaranteed, and constant change should be expected. Hopefully, in the long run, this change will be for better, not worse. The devil is in the details.

Perhaps unfairly, growth and change are often broad-brushed as somehow inappropriate and forceful actions driven by developers and the business community. Such loose and fearful assessments of the role business plays in Boulder reveals a failure to recognize the incredibly positive role “growth” has played in the creation and maintenance of Boulder’s overall quality of life.

The city of Boulder’s 2008 budget projects that 47% of our general fund revenues will come from sales and use taxes. This equates to nearly $44 million dollars and represents the single largest source of funding for a wide range of city departments, programs and services. This includes police and fire protection, parks, the arts, housing and human services and various other governmental responsibilities Boulder’s citizens have come to take for granted.

Outside of the provision of governmental services, contributions by businesses to local non-profits, the role of tourism, and the benefits flowing to the City from the presence of the University of Colorado and the federal labs are examples of how growth has made Boulder a more desirable place to live over time.

The crucial role Boulder’s economy plays in supporting our quality of life is sometimes overlooked as the concerns about “change” cause people to forget how consistently dynamic Boulder really is. Growth has always been occurring in one way or another in Boulder, and on balance, our lives are much better for it.

Consider your daily activities compared to 5, 10 or even 25 years ago. Are you still doing the exact same things? Have you learned new skills in the interim? Developed new hobbies? Made new friends? A community can also choose to develop new strengths, confront new challenges and tap into the evolving passions of its residents. This is possible when “growth” is seen as an intentional and positive force.

On the other hand, considering the city to be “complete” or “mature enough” creates resistance to change, which is both unrealistic and unhealthy. However we choose when, if ever, Boulder was “perfect”, there were decades of land use decisions, economic trends and demographic changes that evolved together to create Boulder at that point in time. Such a snapshot is not the end game; it is, instead, a subjective benchmark for what was possible then and what was likely to occur next.

How many people who say Boulder is growing “too much” nevertheless enjoy shopping at a store that didn’t exist in the city five or even ten years ago? Or enjoy walking a trail built since the extension of the open space sales tax in 1997? Or have friends they met in the last couple of years who came here to accept a great job? Upon reflection, if you’ve been in Boulder more than just a year or two, you are likely to have happily spent time and money enjoying the benefits of Boulder’s “growth”.

Boulder could not have become the compelling magnet it is for entrepreneurial, progressive and interesting people, if there was a pervasive resistance to growth. Boulder has been remarkably visionary in managing that growth and creating a community that is renowned for its quality of life. It is the “steering” of growth in positive directions to better meet community needs – not the stopping of growth – that will keep Boulder the remarkable place we all love today.

The Boulder Chamber of Commerce, the Boulder Economic Council, and other business advocacy organizations are not thwarting this evolution. These organizations are promoting effective policies for sustainable economic growth, without which the City of Boulder’s much appreciated programs could ultimately cease to exist.

To quote a city council candidate with a refreshing grasp of common sense: “Boulder doesn’t have a trust fund, it has a tax base.” Whatever you love most about Boulder, our economic vitality almost certainly helps fund it, either directly or through support of the vibrant atmosphere within which such amenities thrive. Acknowledgement that the city’s economic vitality supports our high quality of life is not a concession; it simply recognizes that our city’s budget, and our lives, are enriched by those who conduct business here.

This isn’t a call for sweeping or massive redevelopment. Boulder’s awareness of long-term impacts and the very public processes proponents of development must endure ensure that change will not occur too quickly or easily. But change should and will occur. Recognizing that change will enable us to realize our dreams is the healthiest, most positive and empowering way for the city’s leadership to guide Boulder’s journey to becoming one of the greatest cities in the world. Don’t put a fork in Boulder; we’re not done yet!

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