Opinion | Bruce Butler: Planning for the future | SummitDaily.com

Opinion | Bruce Butler: Planning for the future

I recently had the opportunity to attend a seminar presented by Elizabeth Garner, the Colorado state demographer. She presented many interesting factoids, but there were several highlights that really struck me. Colorado’s population growth is slowing down due to fewer births and reduced in migration. The population growth in Colorado is concentrated in the large Front Range counties. Summit County has seen a building boom, and second-home owners certainly have an impact, but our overall permanent resident population has not increased much.

Colorado is seeing more racial and ethnic diversity in its population. However, Colorado’s young adult population is declining. Meanwhile, over the next decade it is forecast that 45 percent of Colorado’s population will be 65-plus.

Interestingly, the peak birth year in the 2000s was 2007, so today’s 15-year-olds are the last near-term spike in future younger workers. According to the demographer, there were 525,000 fewer births in 2020 versus 2010, and Weld County has 45 percent of the under 18 population in Colorado.

Wait! People were shut in their homes for a year, working on Zoom in their pajamas or other states of undress. Surely, there was a COVID baby boom you say? Not so, say the numbers. So, what are the drivers behind these demographic trends and what do they mean for the future?

Population change is fundamentally a snapshot of births, deaths, and net migration. As a simple matter of fact, jobs and housing attract younger people. In recent history, Colorado’s housing supply has not kept up with the number of jobs created. Colorado grew jobs, didn’t grow housing, and therefore hasn’t correspondingly grown its population to meet demand. Hence, the employee shortage and, with a significant portion of Colorado’s population retiring and aging in place, the demand for services is not decreasing, while the number of younger workers available to replace those aging out of the workforce is fundamentally unbalanced.

The demographer suggests the housing market is out of sync with population growth because new housing starts are tied to financing not forecasted population growth. There is some professional bias in that conclusion, but she has a point. If Colorado and the country slide into recession, the reaction will be to stop building housing rather than using the opportunity to catch up to what will hopefully be the post-recession demand. Easier said than done, of course, especially when inflation drives up interest rates, diminishes potential buyers’ borrowing capacity, and all-of-a-sudden homeowners are upside down on their mortgages.

Motivational speaker and sales coach, Zig Ziglar, used to say, “If you aim at nothing, you will hit it every time.” Colorado is in competition with surrounding states and, while we should work together regionally when mutual interests align, Summit County is ultimately in competition with some of our neighboring counties for workers and broader economic diversity. As I was listening to the state demographer, the proposal to add student housing to the Colorado Mountain College campus in Breckenridge kept coming to mind. Recognizing Colorado’s and Summit County’s demographic realities, winning the future necessitates superior strategic planning.

Increasing the residential student population and the four-year degree offerings at Colorado Mountain College Breckenridge is a key to Summit County’s future success for the following reasons:

  1. Bringing more residential students on campus increases the available labor force in Breckenridge/Summit County in the most efficient way, as students look to pick up jobs while they are in college.
  2. Especially in combination with additional four-year degree offerings, it brings more young adults to Summit County, who will hopefully find a long-term home and provide more skilled workforce stability.
  3. It increases opportunities to partner with emerging local industries, like our growing health care industry, to expand internship opportunities and immediately place graduates into good paying jobs. I think there is a similar and compelling need for expanded vocational education and even a trade school in Summit County too.

However, for purposes of this column, I applaud the Breckenridge Town Council for working with Colorado Mountain College to construct student housing, and I implore them to plan for more rather than less.

Now is the time to pursue long-term strategies and enhance symbiotic relationships. Let’s work with Colorado Mountain College to expand student housing opportunities to positively position Summit County for the future.


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