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Editorial: What’s Denver got that Albuquerque doesn’t?

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled  the name of District Attorney Raúl Torrez. It has been corrected.

So, what does Denver have on the Duke City?

A booming economy, higher pay, less violent crime, better public schools, a vibrant nightlife and professional sports teams, according to several former Albuquerqueans who relocated to the Mile High City. Even Denver’s downsides – high real estate prices, traffic congestion and much harsher winters – don’t offset the positives enough to bring them back, they say.

Therein lie some important lessons – and not just for those tasked with attracting new residents, new businesses and economic growth. Those folks can only do their best with what they’ve got to work with, and crime, mediocre job prospects and low school quality are hard to spin on any brochure.

The skyline of Denver with new housing in the foreground

The skyline of Denver with new housing in the foreground. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

The former Albuquerque residents turned Denverites featured in last Monday’s Journal ranged in age from 27 to 50. They include accountants, a marketing manager, law enforcement officer, financial analyst, urban planner, job recruiter, software engineer and advertising associate. Most wound up in Denver primarily in search of a good job with good pay – although much of the higher average pay in Denver gets eaten up by the higher cost of living and commuting.

Robert Rhatigan, associate director of the University of New Mexico’s Geospatial and Population Studies department, has some interesting statistics on N.M.’s population trend. Between 2010 and 2016, nearly 40,000 more people left New Mexico than moved in and, factoring in births and deaths, the state population grew only 1 percent. During that same period, Colorado’s population grew by 10 percent.

New Mexico added 19,300 jobs in June compared to a year ago; Colorado added 54,900. A bright spot is the fact that Albuquerque’s recent year-over-year job growth percentages have outpaced such cities as Tucson and Oklahoma City, and its June numbers surpassed the national average.

Still, New Mexico’s unemployment rate was 6.4 percent in June, among the highest in the nation; Colorado’s was 2.3 percent, tying North Dakota for the lowest in the nation. The average pay for all occupations as of May 2016 was $22.08 in the Albuquerque area; the Denver area’s was $26.88.

Rhatigan also notes the majority of people leaving the state are between the ages of 30 and 59 – when workers are raising families, buying homes and moving up in careers. In brief, the very people New Mexico needs for a strong economy and strong communities.

Surprisingly, New Mexico experienced a gain in residents ages 25 to 29, a phenomena Rhatigan attributes to “the fact that higher education and the military keep those folks coming in as well as out.”

And if things don’t change, the emphasis will remain on “out.”

The stats clearly show the challenges New Mexico faces in broadening its population and expanding its economy.

Some of those challenges are due to the state’s dependence on government jobs, which experienced deep cuts during the recession, and on the oil and gas industry, which saw prices dive the past two years. Now, business and state leaders agree diversification of the state’s economy is imperative, and there are signs of recovery.

And a lot of professionals haven’t been sitting on their hands.

Innovate ABQ, a 71,000-square-foot, public/private research and development hub in Downtown Albuquerque, is nearing completion and should help new and expanding businesses. The state’s colleges and universities recently held a summit to discuss ways of becoming more entrepreneurial, more efficient and more relevant as the demographics and needs of students change. The state’s public education department is continuing reforms that promise to improve student performance, and the state’s largest school district now sounds open to implementing them.

Officials hope the Albuquerque Rapid Transit bus system along Central will transform that part of the city by providing efficient mass transportation and attracting new development.

The mayor and chief of police, working with business leaders and others, have developed a plan to address crime by initially concentrating on the Downtown area. District Attorney Raúl Torrez is pushing hard to get changes in the way the criminal justice system works in Bernalillo County – a system unique to this district and one that puts too many repeat offenders on the street. Judges, prosecutors, attorneys and others need to hammer out ways to keep those career criminals behind bars and lesser criminals on a better path.

All are important efforts and need to be considered at a macro level as pieces of a puzzle New Mexico has to put together to not only thrive, but survive. Stemming the exodus of talented professionals and their families from the Land of Enchantment is important.

Because Denver is a nice place to visit, but you should want to live here.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.

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