Denver Relocation: The Search for Higher Ground

Denvers LoDo District 1.jpg

In 2003 our family relocated to Folsom, California from Carson City, Nevada, after my father-in-law was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, to help with his care. In many ways the transition felt like an immersion into what Joel Kotkin calls the “city of aspiration.” Folsom, a Sacramento region suburb of 50,000, was notable for its robust economy, impressive K-12 schools, world-class bike paths, and low crime. It offered a favorable environment for families and upwardly mobile professionals.

Seven years later, the landscape has certainly changed. My father-in-law has passed on, and California's high cost of living continues to have a profound impact on our personal finances. This scenario, coupled with the currently dire economic picture, gave my wife and I pause to again rethink our future path. After many long nights of thoughtful dialogue, we came to the realization that it was time to break ties with the Golden State. In early summer, Denver will become our next home.

This pending relocation offers our family an opportunity to embrace what I call “the geography of place”— the merging of what one wants to do with where one wants to live. As a process, it embodies a deep exploration into our values and upbringing, hopes and fears, past and future. And while a move of any distance can be daunting, it’s this deeper journey of self that makes the experience rich and meaningful.

Our plans come at a time of decline in nationwide domestic relocation. Prominent demographer William Frey, in conjunction with the Brookings Institution, led a recent study on migration trends. He found that in 2007-08, the overall U.S. migration rate reached its lowest point since World War II, particularly for long-distance moves and renters. His study also indicated that migrations to exurban and newer suburban counties dropped substantially, simultaneously bringing unanticipated population “windfalls” to many large urban centers. The overall rate of decline is largely attributed to the economic slowdown crippling many parts of the nation, leading to job and income loss as well as upside down mortgages.

Deciding where to settle down during these uncertain times required a well-thought-out process grounded in a clear set of criteria. After much discussion, we developed the five-C approach to classify our optimum home locale:

1. Culture: Our ideal environment should have a rich, culturally diverse set of demographics. As a biracial family, social acceptance in our community is paramount.

2. Charm: Our perfect residential picture is a neighborhood that represents a hybrid of walkable urbanism, housing affordability, safety, and community, which are often found in more suburban environs.

3. Community: We both enjoy opportunities for civic connection. Proximity to hubs of social connection – such as coffee houses and universities – is a must.

4. Convenience: By choice we are a one-car household, which makes bicycle, light-rail and walkable accessibility to centers of city activity and conveniences key.

5. Climate: As a native Midwesterner married to a Southern Californian, we found common ground in a locale offering a change of seasons with generally moderate temperature.

The upshot of our vetting process had some correspondence with a recent Best Cities for a Fresh Start list compiled by Topping that list is Austin, Texas, an impressive city that I recently visited as a part of my urban research study tour. The Dallas/Ft. Worth area came in second, followed by Charlotte, North Carolina. Denver was fourth, with Columbus, Ohio (my hometown) and Indianapolis tying for fifth on the list.

Our personal list yielded five locations:

Portland, Oregon: This Pacific Northwest jewel has received much media attention for its progressive urban practices. And for good reason. It boasts strong community and civic vibes, great neighborhoods, a transportation system ranked among the best in the nation, and a hip, urbane population base. In the end, though, the overcast, rainy climate was too much to overcome in a transition from ever-sunny California.

Ft. Worth, Texas: For economic vibrancy Ft. Worth, with its sister-city, Dallas, tops the list. It also has good reputation for housing options, schools, civic pride, and decent weather. On the downside, property taxes are a bit high (we estimate 6 to 10 times higher than Denver). And as a bi-racial couple we had some reservations since, as one area resident put it, “Texas is still the South.”

Boise, Idaho: Despite concerns about Boise's diversity, the area has extremely low housing costs. Its strong university presence (Boise State) and vibrant downtown were also appealing. On the downside, the airport would have posed some travel limitations. Moreover, the area lacks the depth of social and cultural options common in more urbanized settings.

Indianapolis, Indiana: Having lived in the Indianapolis area in the early ‘90s, this state capital has always held a special place in my heart, with its strong African-American communities, myriad array of spectator sports, and low cost of living. While I'll always be a Hoosier at heart, the advantages of this Midwestern city were outweighed by its bleak winter climate. My wife’s need for sunshine booted it out of contention.

And then there was Denver.

Denver, our city of choice, impressed us with its myriad quality-of-life intangibles. While not on the order of California, it is culturally diverse with a strong sense of civic vibrancy. The area offers a wealth of housing options that fit our parameters: semi-urban, walkable, affordable, and safe.

Culturally, the city has a young, active vibe to it. People are involved in varied outdoor activities and events, which underscore the recognition of Denver as one of the most physically fit cities in the U.S. Many have also described it as unpretentious. It has a progressive political structure, as well as a strong economic development platform for the future.

With a population of nearly 600,000, Denver is the 24th most populous city in the U.S. and the 16th most populous metropolitan area in the nation. Geographically, it's located in the center of the U.S., nestled in a mountain range that makes harsh cold weather and winds a rarity. While the city gets its fair share of snow, the winter months are rarely bleak. In fact, a draw for many residents is the 300-plus days of sunshine the city receives each year.

We stand to gain immeasurably moving from über-expensive California. And in terms of intangibles, several are prominent. We're looking to capitalize on Denver's new urbanist-influenced walkability. The city has lots of options, from the hip and trendy Lo Do District to the established community of Capitol Hill. A key requirement of our ultimate housing choice will be a quality school district, along with proximity to transportation, coffee houses, grocery stores, fine dining venues, and even co-working sites. In our current residence in Folsom, California, it's a challenge to stroll by foot to area amenities.

As intellectually inclined individuals, it was also exciting to find that Denver holds the distinction of being the most educated city in the U.S. with the highest percentage of high school and college graduates of any U.S. metropolitan area. According to census estimates, 92% of the metro area population has a high school diploma, and 35% has at least a bachelor’s degree, compared to the national average of 81.7% for high school diplomas and 23% with a college degree.

And finally, as a former resident of Indianapolis, a city that fed my obsession for spectator sports, Denver's robust athletics scene certainly raised my heart rate. The hub of professional franchises in football, basketball, baseball, and hockey, it is one of the nation’s top sports meccas. It has certainly sparked a picture in my mind of hanging out at sporting events, beer in hand, enjoying the scene.

In the end, relocating to a new geographical locale is never smooth. It requires a great deal of thoughtfulness, conversation and patience. My family views it as the ultimate “Mile High” climb for higher ground amid the economic unsettledness currently affecting California. If well-orchestrated, the payoff will be significant: a better quality of life and a rich existence. That's our hope; that’s our goal for 2010.

Photo of Denver's Lo Do district by Michael Scott

Michael P. Scott is a Northern California urban journalist, demographic researcher and technical writer. He can be reached at

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Denver == wonderful!

Congrats on the choice and best of luck with the move.

Denver's a great place for beer and wine. If you like complex beers, put the Cheeky Monk on Colfax on your todo list. They've got some Belgian beers on tap there that aren't found in most anyplace else, even places like DC.

Colorado has some wonderful wines. When you visit Estes Park make sure to stop at Snowy Peaks Winery. Heck, if you're lucky enough to live in the rare state that allows adults to have wine delivered to their house go to their web site and order some.

Just be ready for a fairly spread out metro. For example, the area that is covered by RTD's sales tax is larger than the state of Rhode Island.

re: Congrats on Choice

Thanks for the well wishes. And yes, we'll certainly will take advantage of the beer and wine opportunities that Denver is known for.

I'm actually quite impressed with the transportation options available in Denver. While there are aspects of it that are far from perfect it appears to be much further along in terms of accessibility than here in the Sacramento region.

Michael Scott
Visions for Downtown America, Inc.


Why not Austin? It sounds like it has everything you like about Denver, and it doesn't have the cold (although it does have some impressive heat). What prevented it from making your personal list?

re: Austin

It's ironic that you bring this is up because the very same question surfaced for me a couple of weeks ago. Austin is indeed a great town and should have landed on our top places to consider. One factor though in terms of Denver rising to the head of the pack is its distinction as being the only U.S. city with four professional sports franchises (Avalanche in Hockey; Broncos in Football; Rockies in Baseball; Nuggets in Basketball). As a major sports fan that was appealing to me.

It should be noted that that Austin is the only major metropolitan city in the nation without a major league franchise. Nevertheless it is a terrific city with arguably the best music scene in the US.

Michael Scott
Visions for Downtown America, Inc.

What have you learned


I'm curious about what you will tell your new neighbors about what went wrong in California and what they should avoid.

Also, what about your experience in California of it's failed promise changed your perceptions and opinions.



Response to Steve


Great questions.

For starters, I have tried to consciously avoid bashing California in terms of a place to live. It really is a great state in so many ways.

That being said, my wife and I felt that the current economic, social, and political climate here is no longer working for us. We have been disheartened by the unfavorable vibe and tenor that seems to be engulfing the state. In particular, the entrepreneurial, free spirited values that have long made California a model for innovation are in jeopardy amid the recession, government red tape, and high taxes. And we are also concerned about raising our 7 year old in a culture that seems to engender a "me" oriented, self-absorbed type of lifestyle.

If I could pass on one piece of advice to Californians it would be to pay closer attention to how the state's overall economic climate is impacting their personal finances. I think many of us are in serious denial regarding the state's fiscal crisis and its trickle down impact on our daily livelihoods. Moreover I think there is a 50/50 chance that the state will fall into insolvency in the next 18 months unless their is a fundamental restructuring of our statewide fiscal priorities. This obviously would portend major consequences not only for millions of Californians, but for the other 49 states as well.

In terms of my perceptions and opinions regarding the state, yes, they have shifted a bit. Spending time in the Denver area has been a breath of fresh air for it appears that amid their own recessionary struggles, the tenor among area political leaders and citizenry has been generally optimistic and positive. In fact, the Golden State could learn from this for much of what's currently ailing California is attitudinal in nature.

Michael Scott
Visions for Downtown America, Inc.

I wonder if the extreme and

I wonder if the extreme and growing racial/ethnic and cultural diversity has anything to do with its slow-motion decline?

California is the most diverse American state by far -- yet it doesn't seem to be faring well AT ALL these days despite its extreme diversity. That fact seems to contradict J. Kotkin's recent article here as well as his recently released book that America in 2050 (which is slated to resemble very racially diverse California) will experience a newfound "strength in diversity" -

re: I wonder if the extreme..

I'm not sure to what extent the extreme diversity is contributing to the decline in California. It does appear though that California is attempting to recalibrate itself with diversity serving as one of many variables.

Michael Scott
Visions for Downtown America, Inc.

Wrong Choice

"quality school district"
Not in Denver.
The Denver Public Schools suck. Yes, there are few good schools within the system. Few, as in 4.

"its fair share of snow"
Five (5) feet each year!

Dave Barnes