Fort Collins ranks high in economic growth, aims for affordability

Samantha Ye

Ice cream shop
Walrus Ice Cream is a local favorite in Old Town Fort Collins. Local shops like this are a major part of Fort Collins’s thriving economy. (Alyse Oxenford | Collegian)

Population growth in Fort Collins may draw a lot of opinions, but as a small business owner, Lisa Paugh certainly doesn’t mind the increase in customers.

She has run her store, Walrus Ice Cream, since early 2014 and has seen year after year of sales growth, despite only making money four months out of the year. And with its buy-local mantra and friendly atmosphere, the shop is a nice reminder of the types of businesses behind a physically and economically growing city.

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For the third year running, Fort Collins placed in the top 10 2018 Best Performing Cities report done by the Milken Institute, an independent economic think tank.

The ranking takes into account job growth, wage growth, high-tech gross domestic product growth and the number of industries concentrated in the area.

Colorado State University and the growing tech startup industry were cited as the city’s most notable assets while the “scarce and overvalued” housing is the main liability. And while the Choice City’s overall placing dropped from fifth in 2017 to ninth in the 2018 ranking, Fort Collins remains the top Colorado city with continuing growth in most areas.

“There’s a perception that we go out and we attract business, and our role has really been about how do we keep the jobs in this community and how do we help strengthen that?” City Economic Health Manager SeonAh Kendall said of the City’s goals. “The future is really going to be focused on the talent and the people.”

In an email to The Collegian, Fort Collins Area Chamber of Commerce President David May wrote that employers’ demand for labor in the area exceeds the available workforce.

“If you’re a student or a recent graduate, you can find a job here,” May wrote.

May also wrote that remaining relevant to the technology sector matters, since Fort Collins has served as a “workbench” for Silicon Valley, and being a university town is a “big, big plus” in that area.

Twice cited in Milken reports as the city’s main weakness, Fort Collins’ tech scene has now been strengthened from software development and clean tech, Kendall said. Deliberate growth in collaboration between CSU and businesses has also been a valuable boon.

“With a student population, we’re always an evergreen city,” Mayor Wade Troxell said. “Just the normal activity in our city is vibrant because of the student population.”

That vibrancy in culture and economy has helped fuel the city’s population growth which has, in turn, contributed to rising housing prices and general affordability issues, Troxell said. And it’s not all bad.

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“Generally speaking, population growth is good for business,” May wrote. “It means more workers and talent, more customers and more disposable income in the market.”

However, May, Kendall and Troxell all acknowledge how increased demand creates affordability problems, even if the area is still relatively less expensive than other metro areas.

“You’re starting to see an out-migration where (people) might be living in the neighboring communities and commuting in,” Kendall said.

That is impacting companies’ ability to draw in new employees, Kendall said.

The City is working to develop better housing policy and nearby cities to better leverage Northern Colorado commuting patterns.

May pointed to overly-restrictive government policies such as U+2, an ordinance preventing more than three unrelated people from living together, which limits supply and has been found to increase costs.

Troxell said he supported “right-sizing” the occupancy ordinance so that housing built for four people can house four people, referencing the Me+3 movement, as well as increasing supply of housing.

“Being a desirable place to live, that will always be a pressure of some kind or another,” Troxell said.

Nevertheless, having seen his hometown population multiply by eight times just in his lifetime, Troxell remains certain Fort Collins is an even better place today through that growth.

“Everybody is a co-creator in our community to make it a better place,” Troxell said. “People are engaging, we’re very philanthropic and we’ve been able to maintain those values that make Fort Collins a special place.”

At Walrus Ice Cream, Paugh would probably agree.

“I think that’s part of being a local business. You support the community that supports you.”-Lisa Paugh, owner of Walrus Ice Cream

“This is one of the very few communities where you can walk into almost any one of these downtown stores and the owners are going to be in there working,” Paugh said.

Good community engagement and service have made Walrus a fixture of downtown. Paugh purchases local ingredients whenever she can, incorporates customer ideas into her store (like using activated charcoal in a black licorice ice cream) and hires high school and college students to whom she teaches good work habits.

She doesn’t even advertise—instead, the store donates ice cream to local groups who ask for it.

“I think that’s part of being a local business,” Paugh said. “You support the community that supports you.”

FORT COLLINS RANKINGS: Milken Reports

2016

2017

2018

Overall ranking

8

5

9

Change from previous year ranking

+6

+3

-4

Job Growth (1 year)

21

17

19

Job Growth (5 years)

16

17

19

Wage Growth (1 year)

19

15

15

Wage Growth (5 years)

5

26

29

12-month Job Growth

34

2

22

High Tech GDP Growth (1 year)

123

73

87

High Tech GDP Growth (5 years)

72

40

64

High Tech GDP Concentration

29

24

27

Number of Industries with Location Quotients > 1

21

20

15

Samantha Ye can be reached at news@collegian.com or on Twitter @samxye4.