Colorado Economy Sits On Peak of Good Fortune

COLORADO is experiencing one of its biggest booms in the postwar era.

As the rest of the nation climbs out of the recession piton by piton, Colorado and other parts of the Rocky Mountain West are sitting on a summit of good fortune.

Signs of vitality abound. On the edge of downtown Denver, the steel skeleton of a baseball stadium rises amid old brick warehouses. Not far away, construction crews lay track for a light-rail system. In Colorado Springs, at the foot of Pikes Peak, new housing projects are as thick as aspen growth.

Across the state, newcomers are moving in with Range Rovers and laptop computers. About 70,000 more people settled in the state than left last year - the third-highest number in recent history. For now, Colorado and other pockets of the region have replaced California as the new Oz.

``We are really enthusiastic about being out here,'' says Peter MacDonald, whose family moved to Denver from South Carolina.

The chief financial officer for a corporation's aviation division, Mr. MacDonald lost his job in corporate restructuring last year. The family had heard neighbors talk about Denver, so MacDonald decided to visit.

He says he liked the job prospects, schools, and quality of life. Result: The family just moved into a new house in Highlands Ranch, a fast-growing suburb on the edge of Denver, even though he doesn't have a job yet. ``I'm sitting in my office on the second floor of the house, and I have a pretty nice view of the mountains,'' he says.

But not everything here is on a Rocky Mountain high. With the influx of newcomers, housing prices have jumped. Locals grouse about traffic; youth violence is a recurring concern; and even the economy has soft spots.

Then there's that $3.2 billion white knight - or white elephant, as some see it - known as the Denver International Airport.

Though boosters insist it will eventually provide a huge lift to the region, the latest delay in the airport's opening, due to a baggage-handling problem, has proven embarrassing and expensive to civic leaders. ``It has created unfortunate damage from an image standpoint,'' says William Lysaught, a city economic-development official. ``But I think long term, people will be pleased.''

A mile-high list of public works projects has contributed to the area's current boom. In addition to the $141 million new stadium for the Colorado Rockies and the light-rail system, the Denver Public Library is being expanded. At peak construction, the new airport employed more than 11,000, although the work force has now dropped below 1,200.

The vibrancy has extended beyond the construction trades. Telecommunications, manufacturing, high-tech, and service industries have all done well over the past couple of years. ``Job growth has been all over the place,'' says Tucker Hart Adams, chief economist for Colorado National Bank.

Colorado's dynamism mirrors that of its neighbors. Economic growth in the six states along the rumpled spine of the Rockies has far outpaced the national average for several years.

The region harbored 5 of the 6 states having the highest personal income growth in 1993, led by Idaho, Nevada, and Montana. All have become a magnet for companies and individuals looking to relocate, with the largest number of transplants coming from beleagered California. The states' allure, like Colorado's, is rooted in short unemployment lines, long vistas, back-country values, and a good work force.

The Corporation for Enterprise Development, a research group in Washington, recently ranked Colorado No. 1 in the nation in economic strength and growth potential. The state's unemployment rate is an enviable 5.4 percent. It recently dipped to 4.9 percent in the Colorado Springs area, the lowest level in 20 years.

In a region notorious for booms and busts, the inevitable question is: When will the bottom fall out? It may not. Though most economists say they expect growth here to slow - and it already has somewhat - they say they do not expect a trough like that of the 1980s.

For one thing, the current boom, though less intense than the energy-driven one of 15 years ago, is more diverse. Nor are Coloradans, at this time, engaging in the kind of speculative building that led to an office and housing glut in the 1980s.

Still, the economic ride won't last forever. There's anxiety over what will happen when more of Denver's public construction jobs wind down. Defense layoffs are an omen - at least 14,000 jobs will be lost when a training center at Lowry Air Force Base in Denver closes mid-decade. A bigger blow could come if the Pentagon shutters Fort Carson in Colorado Springs, which accounts for one-third of the local economy.

``By 1995, I think we will be about on par with the rest of the country,'' says Nancy McCallin, chief economist for the Colorado legislature.

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