July 4, Independence Day in the United States, is behind us. Yet, with my Bastille Day birthday ahead and recognizing that others celebrate their own freedom during the month of July … I want to take a moment to reflect on the role that independence plays in providing us a firm foundation for the economic fortunes and quality of life we enjoy today in Boulder. In that context, it’s also important to consider the appropriate balance between the freedom to innovate, that is so ingrained in our community DNA, with the necessary restraints that address other collective needs.
Boulder’s earliest settlers were driven by an independent mindset that brought fortune-seekers to the foot of the Rockies and the Boulder Valley. They arrived with visions of gold in their heads, while others seized the opportunity to provide farmed goods and other basic provisions to these early pioneers. (Importantly, we must remember that the arrival of European settlers also spelled the horrible decline of an independent Native American population.) Thus, the economy and community of Boulder was born.
It was a similar independent streak that carried Boulder’s economy and culture forward, in everything from an intellectual curiosity that inspired our early leaders to fight for the state university through to our precedent-setting foray into purchasing public open-space lands. The motivation wasn’t always economic. However, each step represented sometimes disruptive change in pursuing exciting avenues for generating both wealth and well-being. Most residents and business leaders, for example, recognize that the thousands of open-space acres that surround our city are generating economic benefits while also creating the foundation for a spirit-lifting attachment to nature.
We celebrate the modern equivalent of the early pioneers in the entrepreneurs and innovators that fuel today’s economic vitality. At its core, entrepreneurship is the drive to discover new paths for resolving life’s challenges and/or meeting needs that previously went unrecognized. It’s the freedom to pursue independent thought and take risks that gives Boulder’s entrepreneurs the space to follow their dreams. It also takes a culture that celebrates and nurtures that independent spirit. All of us, whether actually toiling at the helm of a new business enterprise or serving in a supportive service role, play a critical role in propelling our local innovators down the path toward achieving their creative vision.
As a corollary to Boulder’s independent streak is the ironic twist that we find ourselves moving toward an era of constraint on our freedoms in the name of collective benefit. The same forces that inspired open-space protection, along with other well-intended environmental policies, now lead some to limit future sustainable development opportunities. There is no question that we are achieving many positive outcomes through thoughtful environmental and land-use regulation. However, it also is important to acknowledge that regulation and new prescriptions for improving our collective condition can also limit productive independent action, contrary to the historic freedom that inspires a culture of creativity and innovation. I often hear, for example, that the architectural character of new buildings is limited in ways that are contrary to public desires due to development constraints. Similarly, we hear that certain local regulations are frustrating innovation across industries as diverse as natural beverages and cannabis.
July typically is a period of calm for Boulder politics and municipal activity that affords a brief period of reflection on the direction our community is taking with respect to the pull between these contradictory forces of freedom and restraint. At the Boulder Chamber, we understand that a careful balance between these forces has been the recipe for enjoying a high quality of life and a strong economy. At times, though, we risk losing that balance in the name of protecting against some perceived threat to our character or welfare. Sometimes it’s right to hold the line on certain changes or avoid unfavorable conditions, but we must acknowledge what it means for all of us: With every new regulation or dictate, we limit the very independence that helped to shape the community we love today.
During this month when we celebrate our national independence and well before we experience the full heat of our local election debates, I urge all of us to consider what mix of leadership and policies will reflect the appropriate balance between freedom and restraint that best positions our community for future success. Independence has been very good for our country and our community … Let’s celebrate it and protect it, daily!
John Tayer is president and CEO of the Boulder Chamber.