The Boulder Economic Summit was held on May 22 and the focus was on the workforce of the future. The Boulder Economic Council rightly identified this as a key to Boulder County’s continued vitality and prosperity. There were vibrant discussions about the growing importance of skills to both employers and employees, shifting employment patterns, how businesses can embrace Millennials, and more.
From a real estate perspective, the most thought provoking session was the roundtable discussion on “Addressing Housing and Transportation,” in which participants were asked to discuss what their businesses are experiencing in terms of housing and mobility needs, what they are doing to address them, and what possible solutions they see. From this discussion, it became evident that the majority of many businesses’ employees live outside the city, that many of those employees would like to live in Boulder, and that there are myriad housing and transportation challenges facing businesses and employees.
Many of the proposed solutions will sound familiar: some additional housing, including ADUs (“granny flats”) throughout the city and multi-family housing in the light industrial areas along the east Arapahoe corridor; adding additional lanes to some of the major arteries to/from Boulder, especially along Arapahoe/Highway 7 and the Diagonal; more and “better placed” park-n-ride lots; more parking spaces throughout the city; more and better alternative transportation options, and possibly some shared shuttle services among Boulder businesses.
While owning a building seems like something every successful business should do, that’s not always the case. For many companies, it makes more sense to continue leasing space, freeing up time and capital that can be better utilized in other ways.
Many participants expressed the opinion that they believe some of these solutions are viable, but they acknowledged that most of them would require the willingness and coordination of city and county governments. The scope of these issues is supported by the estimated 50,000 — 60,000 people who commute into Boulder for work each day, half of whom purportedly want to live in the city, and the fact that currently there are no single family homes in Boulder on the market for less than $575,000 (and that only gets you 966 square feet).
The bottom line takeaway from this discussion was that if Boulder cannot find better ways to address its housing and transportation issues, it risks losing its economic vigor as more and more businesses will choose to relocate to more hospitable areas. More than one employer at the roundtable lamented that if they cannot solve some of these issues, they will likely have to move their business elsewhere.
Let’s face it, Boulder does not make it easy on businesses or their employees. Among other things, businesses in Boulder have to contend with sky-high affordable housing linkage fees on commercial development (which will ultimately be borne by tenants and consumers), complex and changing zoning and use regulations, rapidly growing commercial property taxes, and a dearth of parking spaces. Employees face a severe lack of affordable housing to purchase, expensive rent or long — and increasingly frustrating — commutes, and difficulty finding parking (and not enough public and alternative transportation options).
There is always room for hope in Boulder, one of the brainiest (and best) cities in America, and an excellent example is the city council’s recent openness to allowing additional ADUs. It’s not a panacea, but it’s a start.
Envisioning our workforce of the future is a great and useful undertaking, but if Boulder cannot (or will not) address its mounting housing and transportation issues, the workforce of the future will be happily employed… elsewhere.
Jay Kalinski is broker/owner of Re/Max of Boulder.