OUT to LUNCH with John Hickenlooper

John HickenlooperThe influx of people moving to Colorado and the general sentiment that people ‘love living here’ is no secret, but I want to know the driving reasons behind these increasingly common sentiments. In hopes of gaining a better understanding of the factors that have helped shape the cultural identity of Colorado, I can think of no better person to interview than the 42nd and current Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper.

Through the marble corridors of the State Capitol, past the hanging American and Colorado flags, I enter Governor Hickenlooper’s heavily wooded chambers and wait, with my laptop open and ready, to learn from the Governor his perspective on the development of Colorado’s cultural identity. He walks into the room briskly, with a broad smile, no suit, hand extended for mine to shake, and sits down with me at a massive oak conference table.

With sincere interest, he flips through the copy of LIV Magazine that I have brought him as a sample to show where this Out to Lunch edition will be featured. The feeling in the room is casual—a departure from the formal nature of the interview I was anticipating, and instantly I discover what a down-to-earth, laid back, and approachable man the Governor is—much like the State he represents.

The Governor, still scanning LIV Magazine, pausing now and again to turn a page toward me, showing me a property
he recognizes, may be down-to-earth and easygoing, but the no-nonsense policies he has created during his tenure as Governor, which have positioned Colorado as a premier marketplace in which to do business and to live, are anything but.

During his eight years as Mayor of Denver, and now in his second term as Governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper has promoted Colorado as one of the “easiest” states to do business in, and best places to live in the Country, based on a strategy he calls, “bottom-up economic development”, where one improves social and economic wellbeing from a local, incremental, and sometimes, experimental, approach.

“When we came to office in 2011, we went to all 64 counties throughout Colorado, talking with businesses and civic leaders, and discussed the best ways we could work together to improve the State,” said Hickenlooper. Through this process, the Governor and his team identified the core challenges that were impacting Colorado, and began to develop a strategy to mitigate them. “Our team identified six components to act on,” said Hickenlooper. “[As a state], we decided we would be pro-business, and market the State that way.

We would eliminate red tape and bureaucracy for entrepreneurs trying to start or expand a business, we would improve access to capital, enforce workforce training, celebrate information and technology, and finally, we would begin to spend money marketing the State, not just as tourism destination, but as a place to build a business, and to build a life.”

As a former business owner, having co-founded the Wynkoop Brewing Company in Denver, which helped to spur the redevelopment of LoDo, Governor Hickenlooper had firsthand experience with the barriers that previously existed when it came to starting a business in Colorado, and he sought to reduce them by taking a radically different approach than some politicians might regarding implementing new policies; Hickenlooper and his team began to cut the red tape surrounding starting or expanding a business in Colorado.

One of the Governor’s appointees was Joe Neguse, who, at 31 years old, was the youngest cabinet member in the history of Colorado. Neguse was tasked with taking on the Department of Regulatory affairs. “He’s gone over 22,000 rules and regulations [in Colorado] and dramatically simplified or eliminated more than half,” said Hickenlooper. “By eliminating Colorado’s bygone bureaucratic policies—we instantly made the state more attractive to potential business owners.”

Where businesses and start-ups were once either priced out of the market, or faced with bureaucratic hurdles just to get a license to operate a business, after implementation of Governor Hickenlooper’s changes to the regulatory scheme, the barriers to entry into the market were fewer. “We attempted to establish Colorado as the most pro-business state in the country—with the highest ethical and environmental standards,” said Hickenlooper.

To accomplish this goal, the Governor and his cabinet had to not only position the state as a hub for business,
but as a leader in innovation, ethical and environmental standards. He and his team launched the Colorado Innovation Network (COIN) in November 2011, which has contributed directly to Colorado’s pro-business climate. COIN is a catalyst for innovation with the mission of advancing connections in the global innovation ecosystem. Over the last five years, due to the work of COIN, Colorado is #5 among the states for fostering innovation through investments in education, research and business creation, especially highly specialized industries, according to a study by WalletHub.

After establishing Colorado as an innovative state and a friendlier place to do business, the next endeavor became spreading the word that the State was also an excellent place to live. “Even when I was Mayor, we focused on trying to invest in quality of life issues that would benefit our own citizens and make Colorado attractive to others,” said Hickenlooper.

The investments the State of Colorado has made in mobility and music have directly contributed to the success of the State. To date, Colorado currently boasts over ten thousand miles of bike trails, 350+ breweries, and now more live music venues than both Nashville, Tennessee and Austin, Texas. “This wealth of culture—it’s great for the quality of life of people that already live here, but it also makes us attractive to college graduates and others that might want to move and do business here too.”

FasTracks, a progressive multibillion-dollar public transportation expansion plan to build a combined length of 122 miles of new public transit has transformed the mobility of Colorado, making travel throughout the State easier. “When we built FasTracks, the Mayors of every city and town in Colorado supported a sales tax to build the new tract,” said Hickenlooper. “It’s the biggest transit initiative in the United States—and the fact that no [other state] has done it unanimously, is remarkable.”

Since he took State office, Governor Hickenlooper has increased the State’s annual appropriations for the arts and culture. He has signed three bills advancing creative place-making efforts in Colorado, resulting in a strategic community and economic development alliance, and he and his team are currently helping to develop the Colorado Music Strategy to promote music as an integral part of Colorado’s cultural identity.

Part of that initiative, is the Take Note Colorado program, which aims to expand music education programs and access to musical instruments in Colorado’s schools. “Colorado is going to be the first state in America, where if any child wants to learn how to play music, we will make sure they have an instrument and a teacher,” said Hickenlooper. This program is “the first of its kind in America,” stated the Governor.

Arts and cultural development have decidedly led to Colorado’s boom, evidence of which, is the State’s current unemployment rate, which in May, 2017, had declined to just over two percent. “The unemployment rate in Colorado is the lowest in the United States. It’s remarkable, but it’s not just bike trails and beer that’s driving this,” said Hickenlooper. “We must continue to keep looking for the places where we can make Colorado a national leader, and we will.”

As the interview comes to a close, I note that I am curious to hear, “What’s next for Governor Hickenlooper?”. As I wait for his response, the Governor pauses—and instead of rushing out of his office to make way for his next appointment, he pulls out his cell phone to show me a video of himself onstage strumming on the banjo along with the band, Old Crow Medicine Show, belting out the lyrics to the song, Wagon Wheel.

“To get through this”, he says, returning to the conversation, and referencing the 575 days that were left in his time as Governor (as of the date of the interview); although, as he slips his phone back into his pocket, a smile lingering on his face from the memory of performing with the band, I suspect the Governor will also make time to enjoy the State and its cultural identity, that he has worked so hard to define.