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A Focus on Regional Collaboration at the Rocky Mountain CitySummit

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock speaks at the third Rocky Mountain West Urban Leadership Symposium.

Jennifer Bradley (right) and Bruce Katz, co-authors of The Metropolitan Revolution.

Governor John Hickenlooper spoke at the Rocky Mountain West Urban Leadership Symposium in 2013.

The FasTracks light-rail expansion is a standout example of regional collaboration.

Mayor Michael Hancock speaking at last year's Rocky Mountain CitySummit.

The fourth annual Rocky Mountain CitySummit is slated to take place in Denver next week. The event is all about connecting, educating and inspiring urban leaders in their city-building efforts in Colorado and beyond.
The pervasive theme at the sold-out, invitation-only event -- formerly known as the Rocky Mountain West Urban Leadership Symposium -- is regional collaboration. The buzz-phrase encompasses not only Denver cooperating with its municipal neighbors, but also the city working with urban centers in other states.

To this end, the CitySummit brings together a mix of elected officials and business leaders from Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Idaho and Utah "to start a dialogue about city building in the West," says Brittany Morris Saunders, Vice President of Public Affairs for the Downtown Denver Partnership (DDP), the host organization for the event.

"We have a great mix of public and private [sector attendees]," says Saunders. "We have representatives from all of the major city centers in the region." About 550 attendees are expected at the 2014 CitySummit, up from 250 at the inaugural event in 2010.

Over the course of the four years of its existence, the CitySummit has seen a who's who of urban experts take the stage. "We bring in world-class city-building experts to speak to this group," says Saunders.

For 2014, the speaking roster includes Richard Florida, Benjamin Barber, Kimbal Musk and other big names. Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, Albuquerque Mayor Richard Berry and Cheyenne Mayor Richard Kaysen are slated to appear on a mayor's panel.

Every CitySummit to date has featured a speaker from the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank focused on urban issues. The 2014 Brookings speaker is Jennifer Bradley, Fellow at the Brookings Metropolitan Program and co-author of The Metropolitan Revolution. An entire chapter of the 2013 book by Bradley and Brookings VP Bruce Katz is dedicated to metro Denver, with a focus on regional collaboration culminating in the ongoing FasTracks light-rail expansion.

"Regional cooperation is the great change agent after the Great Recession," says the DDP's Saunders. "That's why we're doing so well as a city and a region in today's economy."

Bradley echoes Saunders' sentiment. The Metropolitan Revolution is about "what we see unfolding in cities and metropolitan areas across the country," she explains. In response to federal gridlock on issues ranging from transportation to immigration, "Cities and metro areas are having to do all of this work themselves. They know they can't wait for Washington."

Seeds and fruit of regional collaborationThe FasTracks light-rail expansion is a standout example of regional collaboration.

The chapter in The Metropolitan Revolution titled "Denver: The Four Votes" profiles the collaboration behind FasTracks, Denver International Airport and the Scientific Facilities and Cultural District, voted into existence in 1988 and now providing about $45 million in annual funding to museums and arts organizations. (Read a condensed version of the chapter here.)

After a Denver "annexation push" in the 1960s and 1970s, the city and its suburbs were at odds with one another, says Bradley, but the animosity largely ended after the oil bust of the early 1980s soured the economy metro-wide. "There was a real sense in the 1980s, after the energy economy fell apart, that they had to do something different," explains Bradley.

This mindset led to a "robust culture of collaboration," she continues, and it's paid serious dividends.

"Over and over again, you've seen people going out and doing things that create a regional consciousness," says Bradley. "People buy into that and want to be a part of it. It's very different than the attitude I see [elsewhere] in the country."

The regional approach is exemplified by the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. As Bradley and Katz explain in the book, about 40 local economic-development groups that once competed "came together and signed an agreement that they would no longer compete with each other but against Dallas, Salt Lake, Hong Kong, and other cities. Given the local dependence on unshared property and sales taxes, this was (and remains) a radically different approach to attracting jobs and businesses."

Bradley says the key is "government/philanthropic/civic/business partnerships," and that's likewise the key takeaway from metro Denver's collaborative mindset. "We find these collaborations tend to be more robust when it's not just one sector collaborating and it's not necessarily being led by the government and political class," she advises. "Often people are waiting for politicians jumping in and taking the first step, but often they're more comfortable taking the next one."

Building cities with big data -- and the barriers

Jennifer Newcomer, Director of Research at the Denver-based Piton Foundation, is on the panel for the CitySummit's "Smart Cities and Big Data" roundtable.

To further the foundation's mission of helping low-income children, Newcomer helped develop the open-source Colorado Data Engine as the back end for a number of data-driven "storytelling" websites like the Denver Regional Equity Atlas, a project done in conjunction with Mile High Connects and the Denver Regional Council of Governments.

Newcomer describes the Equity Atlas as a lens "to see how the region is transforming as we build out FasTracks," noting, "The Equity Atlas looks specifically at the nuances of what's happening in a neighborhood and how it's impacted by access to transportation."

Regional collaboration is the trick behind leveraging data-driven applications, she adds, but due to the fiefdoms and silos that fragment "the sea of data" generated by local governments, standardization is a necessary next step. 

"A lot of times, local data...is not standardized in such a way a developer could build a tool and scale it very easily," she explains. "The Data Engine is our pitch of looking at a unified and standardized structure to serve the data."

"There are so many great applications and ideas being formulated," adds Newcomer. "If the data is only uniquely structured and has standards to itself, it's really hard to scale. It might work in Denver, but can it have impact elsewhere? The second you cross that invisible jurisdictional boundary, all bets are off."

Vegas looks to Denver, Denver looks to VegasJennifer Bradley (right) and Bruce Katz, co-authors of The Metropolitan Revolution.

The DDP's Saunders says the CitySummit has helped catalyze a dialogue between Denver and Las Vegas, by way of Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh's Downtown Project, a $350 million campaign to revitalize downtown Las Vegas.

Numerous Zappos officials have spoken at previous editions of the event, as has Harvard economist Edward Glaeser, who wrote Triumph of the City, a book that inspired Hsieh.

The Downtown Project includes a $200 million investment in real estate, with another $150 million earmarked for small businesses, education and investments in tech startups.

Now Denver can look to Las Vegas for inspiration for its own revitalization plans, says Saunders. "We can take the example of Zappos as we start to plan the redevelopment of Arapahoe Square. It's the largest redevelopment opportunity in downtown Denver."

The Downtown Project "is part of the dialogue as we move into the implementation of the area plan," she adds.

Of course, an entrepreneur with pockets as deep as Hsieh's -- who sold Zappos to Amazon for $1.2 billion in 2009 but remains CEO -- doesn't hurt, so the question remains: Who could fill the shoe tycoon's shoes in Denver and build a Container Park in the heart of Arapahoe Square?

Read more articles by Eric Peterson.

Eric is a Denver-based tech writer and guidebook wiz. Contact him here.
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