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Jon Talton

Analysis and commentary on economic news, trends and issues, with an emphasis on Seattle and the Northwest.

January 28, 2014 at 11:38 AM

Seattle vs. Denver: The Economy Bowl

Enough of this Super Bowl hype. Our time would be better spent examining a peer city against which we compete for talent and capital. Let’s pick…randomly…Denver, where I once lived and wrote for the late, great Rocky Mountain News.

1. Seattle and Denver both went by the nickname of “Queen City” before they picked fancier brands. An 1869 promotional pamphlet called us “the future Queen City of the Pacific,” although this was scaled back to just Queen City until the Emerald City change in 1982. Denver was known for decades as the Queen City of the Plains before going Mile High.

2. Both came out of economies built on extraction industries and railroads. Denver was the closest city to the rich Colorado mining districts in the 19th century. Both are now highly livable cities with great neighborhoods and vibrant cores that attract young talent.

3. Each became the major city of its region: The Pacific Northwest and the Intermountain West. Denver has retained this crown even though Phoenix is now much more populous.

4. Seattle tops Denver in education. Nearly 58 percent of Seattle residents aged 25 and older had bachelor degrees in 2012 compared with nearly 45 percent in Denver. Both cities beat out the national average of 29.1 percent.

5. Seattle is richer than Denver, with a median household income of $64,473 vs. $50,488. The national median in 2012 was $50,371. It helps that Seattle is an international technology and aerospace hub and scores well nationally as a biomedical cluster. Denver reinvented itself with telecom, cable and other tech, but not on the same level.

6. Denver outscores Seattle on transit, with 47 miles of light rail and an ambitious program to run heavy commuter rail from a hub at the magnificent, refurbished Union Station. Light rail, heavy rail and buses are all under one agency.

7. Seattle remains a metro with major corporate headquarters. Denver has lost all of its once-substantial number of major headquarters (the last to go was Qwest). Seventeenth Street in downtown Denver, once known as the “Wall Street of the West,” lost all of its locally based brokerages in the 1980s and early 1990s. Denver has the largest concentration of civilian U.S. government employees outside of D.C. at its Federal Center in suburban Lakewood. But it is a cautionary tale about what happens when a major city becomes a back office, instead of the place where decisions are made and capital allocated.

8. Seattle is much more of a global city. The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area ranked No. 5 nationally in merchandise exports in 2012. Denver wasn’t in the top 50. To be fair, our metro has ports and Boeing; it is larger than metro Denver. But other metros ranking in the top don’t have either of those assets. Denver remains a robust player on domestic trade thanks to railroads, massive Denver International Airport and its central location.

9. Coming out of the recession… As of the third quarter, Denver ranked 33rd overall among 100 metros by performance in the recovery, ranked by the Brookings Institution. Seattle was 15th.

10. Seattle wins on civic stewards, as in the super-rich that reinvest in the community and play an outsized role in making it better. Phil Anschutz is Denver’s top toff on the Forbes 400 (at 34, $7 billion), but one would rarely know the notoriously shy billionaire was there — especially after he bought the locally headquartered and iconic Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad only to eventually sell it to Union Pacific. The exception: He endowed a suburban medical campus for the University of Colorado. But Denver has nothing like Bill Gates and that guy who owns the Seahawks.

Now, back to football.


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