Boulder’s economic vitality weathers the storms

Much has changed in Boulder’s economy since the Great Recession of 2007-09 – so much so that it’s worth highlighting some of the most notable economic advances in recent years.

The Boulder Economic Council, the economic vitality arm of the Boulder Chamber, has been monitoring trends in Boulder’s economy for nearly two decades. We track key economic indicators throughout the year and over time.  For example, at the end of 2010, Boulder County’s unemployment rate was 7.1 percent; today it’s 2.6 percent. The median price of a single-family home in 2010 was $535,000 and today it’s $735,000. Commercial real estate vacancy rates are half or less than they were in 2010: Office vacancy rates were 10.2 percent five years ago, and today they’re 4.3 percent. Retail vacancy rates were 7 percent then, and today just 1.8 percent. Industrial vacancy was 7.4 percent and now 2.6 percent.

These trends reflect economic activity that makes the Great Recession seem almost like ancient history. Drill a little deeper and the stories about business expansions, acquisitions and investments put a more recognizable face on recent changes in Boulder’s economy. Companies such as the Zayo Group, Rally Software and Nivalis Therapeutics went public through IPOs, raising more than a half billion dollars in equity. Twitter, CA Technologies Hain Celestial and Boulder Brands acquired local startup successes Gnip, Rally Software, Rudi’s Organic Bakery, and EVOL Foods, respectively. Uber purchased Microsoft’s Bing mapping divisions in Boulder and Longmont. After acquiring startup company @Last Software nearly a decade ago, Google recently announced plans to expand significantly its campus in Boulder. In September, AstraZeneca closed on its acquisition of Amgen’s large laboratory facility by the Boulder airport.

Boulder is perhaps best known as a startup capital, and even during the recession, inspired and persevering entrepreneurs kept innovating and starting new companies. In 2011, the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation found that Boulder had the highest density of high-tech startups of any region in the United States – including Silicon Valley.

Our entrepreneurial ecosystem is built on entrepreneurs supporting each other through accelerators and incubators such as Boomtown, Galvanize, MergeLane, Spark Boulder, Techstars and Unreasonable Institute. Other startup resources such as Naturally Boulder, the Colorado Impact Fund, BEN Colorado and CU-Boulder’s Silicon Flatirons and Deming Center for Entrepreneurship play important roles in the ecosystem as well.

Boulder’s startups are fueled by venture capital and benefit from notably high concentrations of investment locally. Startup success stories such as SolidFire, sovrn, SendGrid, TeamSnap, LogRhythm, Nivalis Therapeutics, minuteKEY and many others have closed multimillion-dollar investment rounds in recent years – often led by Boulder venture capital firms. Since 2014, nearly one-half billion dollars has been invested in Boulder startups, accounting for more than one-third of all venture capital invested in Colorado last year and to-date this year.

People often ask: What makes Boulder’s economy so robust? The single most important factor is our talented workforce. Boulder County has the most educated population in the nation, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, and the most innovative according to Richard Florida’s analysis in “The Rise of the Creative Class.” Boulder’s quality of place is inextricably linked to the quality of our workforce. The desirability of Boulder as a place to live, work and play attracts talented people early in their careers, such as millennials, as well as seasoned professionals, technologists, investors, entrepreneurs and others who can choose to live almost anywhere in the world.

Often overlooked in many profiles of Boulder’s economy is the diversity of our industries and businesses. The pillars of our economy are industries such as aerospace, bioscience, cleantech, IT-software, natural products, outdoor recreation, research and tourism. Businesses large and small in these industries drive Boulder County’s $22 billion economy. The breadth and depth of our diversity is unusual for a community as small as Boulder and it is critical to sustaining our economic vitality.

When the next recession arrives – and its arrival is inevitable – Boulder’s economic diversity may be the most important factor in how well we work through the coming contraction.

Clif Harald is executive director of the Boulder Economic Council.