In Defense of Positive Change (6/17/2013)

The rhetoric and opinions we hear during this City Council election season always touch on the vision people have for Boulder and how to best 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 contend that certain types of growth in Boulder are necessary, beneficial and deserving of wholehearted support.

First, a definition of terms is in order. Boulder cannot substantially grow outward; future growth will be mostly variations of internal redevelopment. When viewed this way, growth can be seen not only as new structures; growth will include changes to activities within areas of the city or changes to the city’s demographics and their needs. In fact the latter issues will happen with or without new buildings being built. Boulder’s growth can therefore be viewed more generally as guaranteed and constant change, hopefully in the long run, change for better, not worse. The devil is in the details.

Perhaps unfairly, growth and change are often broad-brushed as somehow being inappropriate and forceful actions of developers and the business community. Such loose and fearful assessments of the role businesses play in Boulder reveals a failure to recognize the incredibly integral role growth plays in Boulder’s quality of life.

The city of Boulder’s 2008 budget projects 47% of the general fund revenues will come from sales and use taxes. This equates to nearly $44 million 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 expect to be performed. Outside of the government, the contributions by businesses to the local non-profit community, the role of tourism and the synergies between the city and the University of Colorado are examples of growth’s positive impact over time that has made Boulder such a desirable place to live.

The crucial role Boulder’s economy plays in supporting our quality of life is sometimes overlooked as the concerns over “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 – we are better for it.

Consider your daily activities compared to 5, 10 or 25 years ago. Are you still doing the exact same things? Have you since learned new skills, developed new hobbies, made new friends? A community also can choose to constantly develop its strengths, confront 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, to consider the city as “complete” or somehow mature enough that very little change is acceptable is unrealistic and unhealthy. For whatever image one has of the time when 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 goal, bur rather a subjective benchmark.

How many people who say Boulder is growing “too much” nevertheless enjoy shopping at a store that didn’t exist in the city 5 years ago? Or 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 for a great job? Upon reflection, if you’ve been in Boulder more than just a year or two, you are likely to have willingly spent time and money enjoying the benefits of “growth”.

Boulder could not have become the compelling magnet it is to entrepreneurial, progressive and generally interesting people if there was a pervasive resistance to growth. Instead, Boulder has been amazingly 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 that will keep Boulder the remarkable place we love, not the “stopping” of it.

The missions and efforts of the Boulder Chamber of Commerce, the Boulder Economic Council and other business advocacy organizations are not in conflict with this evolution. These organizations are championing the best policies for sustainable economic growth, without which Boulder’s highly regarded –and demanded – government programs would struggle for funding.

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 your favorite aspects are of Boulder, our economic vitality almost certainly helps fund them either directly or through providing the vibrant atmosphere for such amenities to thrive. The acknowledgement that the city’s economic vitality is a necessary component to our high quality of life is not some sort of concession; it is, instead, an honest recognition of how our city budget functions, and indeed how our lives are enriched by the collective support thus provided by our pooled community resources.

This isn’t a call for sweeping or massive redevelopment. Boulder’s awareness of long-term impacts, and the very public processes we employ, ensure that change does not occur too quickly. But change will and should occur. Recognizing change as the fuel for our greatest attributes is the healthiest, most positive and empowering way for the city’s leadership to guide Boulder’s journey as one of the greatest cities in the world. Don’t put a fork in Boulder, we’re not done yet . . .

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