We're #1: Proud and Imperfect

“It’s a funny town,” a colleague said to me the other day. He was referencing the challenge of doing redevelopment work in Boulder. This person wasn’t necessarily complaining, as he recognizes that the care Boulder takes in its development planning has served us well over the years in preserving important elements of Boulder’s character. At the same time, he was clear that certain code regulations make no sense and the development approval and permitting process is unreasonably slow, causing unnecessary expense.

That conversation made me reflect on the responses I’ve witnessed to the US News and World Report designation of Boulder as the #1 Best Place to Live. Wow, #1! For most communities, this would be the mic drop moment and a chance to beat their chests, unfurl banners and, pre-COVID-19, throw a big community celebration.

Not in Boulder . . . The first response to the Boulder Chamber’s social media announcement of the #1 Best Place to Live designation: “Oh no; please don’t post this … with press like this we’re all going to have to leave.”

That wasn’t surprising, of course. Nor were the subsequent expressions of concern about rising housing prices and comparisons to Aspen. It’s all part of the “funny” Boulder character. We love this place, we want to protect what we love about this place, and it seems everyone has a different opinion regarding perceived threats to what’s lovable about this place.

I have my own concerns. In BizWest’s coverage of the US News designation, I had this to offer as praise for those who helped shape the Boulder of today: “The recognition is a wonderful testament to the return on investments our community made over a number of years that both support a strong economy and a high quality of life.” What didn’t make the cut for this story was the follow-on point in my written statement: “No city is perfect and Boulder has challenges it must address to make sure our full community enjoys the benefits that form the basis of the US News and World Report ranking.”

I live here, and I strive every day with my Boulder Chamber colleagues to, in what we call the “why” for our mission, “Build Community Through Business.” That means we see the same issues everyone else observes. Boulder is an attractive place to live and work. That is something to celebrate. At the same time, what makes Boulder desirable also leads to challenges, like higher housing costs and commercial rents, economic and cultural inequities, and (absent COVID-19) traffic.

My proposed approach to addressing these issues might be completely different from those voiced by folks who commented on our social media post celebrating the #1 status. For example, the Boulder Chamber advocates for modest infill redevelopment that supports lower cost housing for a wider diversity of our workforce. Others want to close the gates, be it to people, businesses or both. There’s a gulf between those positions and, yet, plenty of common ground to be found.

Which gets me to another special thing about this town that I offered in my closing remarks for the BizWest story I previously referenced: “One unique strength of Boulder, though, is our willingness to recognize those challenges and to work collaboratively toward positive advancements.” That collaboration may begin with tense public debate and heated City Council meetings, even fierce election battles, but typically it concludes with a product that makes us all proud. I’m reminded of previous controversies over everything from construction of the Dushanbe Tea House to certain affordable housing developments.

I’m thankful, therefore, for all who argue strenuously over different approaches to Boulder’s evolution. I also note that we’re nearing the close of an exceptionally intense election season. Like many, I’m anxious about the outcome and the implications for the future of our country and planet. Yet, as I write this piece, I’m watching the sun rise on our beautiful Boulder Flatirons. It reminds me that, every once and awhile, it’s worth taking a deep breath and appreciating all we’ve collectively had a hand in creating and acknowledging, yes, we’re fortunate to live and work in a special place.

So, with the humility to recognize there are still challenges to address in this “funny town,” let’s say it together: It’s good to be #1!

-John Tayer, President and CEO of the Boulder Chamber

This article originally appeared in BizWest

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