I grew up in Colorado in the 70s and 80s. It was a great place to call home. We lived in Lakewood -- near Red Rocks, and I still remember looking out our window at night, and seeing the few twinkly lights of Denver in the distance, as well as the stair-stepped lights of airplanes waiting to land at Stapleton Airport. Besides that, the view contained a lot of empty expanses of black. By day, that blackness translated into a lot of prairie dogs and open space that is now the Tech Center, Highlands Ranch and beyond.
In those days, there was no such thing as traffic in Colorado, at all. One could simply get in the car at 8 a.m., and drive to the ski slopes, have a great day with no lines at the lifts, and then drive back home at 4 p.m., including a quick pizza stop along the way.
Downtown Denver was a Western version of Harlem.
For the past 25 years or so, I have lived elsewhere, and returned to Colorado as a visitor. I always felt a searing sense of homesickness when I would return, loving the chic evolution of "LoDo," coupled with an equally strong revulsion for the forces of change and population growth. After spending a few years in the Bay Area, and 17 years comfortably raising my family on the provincial East Coast, I assumed I would never live here again.
Isn't it funny how life loves to prove us wrong? After moving our family from Connecticut to the rural Western panhandle of Nebraska, we stumbled into the Northern Colorado town of Fort Collins for a weekend respite. In fact, it was the Whole Foods that brought me here to be specific, as I chronicled here. We were searching for a place lively with growth, community, great coffee, restaurants and joie de vivre.
We were captivated, and discovered the sleepy agricultural town I remember now boasted some of the best schools in the state, and is listed as a top place to live in Forbes magazine. Everyone we queried about how they liked living here was so effusive. They didn't say it was OK -- but would wave their arms and say they "looooved" living in Fort Collins. It was sort of weird from our Yankee filers. We had never heard such unadulterated enthusiasm from any other place we have lived by a long shot. In time, we decided to make a nest here for the long haul.
I am not a fan of the "suburban mecca" growth so common out west, yet Fort Collins or "FoCo" as the locals call it, has maintained a highly vibrant and buzzing Old Town that feels like the Colorado I remember, and not a retail blitz -- devoid of all innovation, character or charm. The blend of ranchers, internet moguls, mountain bikers and college students gather constantly at the zillion restaurants and hang outs.
Did I mention the beer? Living on the East Coast, the popular beverages of choice was prosceco and martinis for a typical girl's night out, and California was all about wine; but here, the local, fresh and creative B-E-E-R is beyond. Fort Collins produces 70 percent of Colorado's craft beer and is home to the most micro-breweries per capita in the state. I became an instant convert. After a few months of regular sampling, I started reaching for comfy leggings instead of skinny jeans, (ahem) and filled my trunk with New Belgium, Odell's and other local faves on a trip back East to share as gifts.
The high tech side of Ft. Collins has been widely known with Hewlett Packard and Intel having a strong presence, but what I did not know is the collaborative and "give back" directive that is a huge part of the culture here. Companies here encourage philanthropy, mentor-ship and engagement outside of office hours. The local junior high was adopted by Intel, and boasts 3D printers, flight simulators and a level of experiential engagement typically only found in children's museums.
Colorado State University is one of the top-performing research institutions in the nation, with research spending of about $313 million last year, and most of the innovators staying right in town. Clean energy and biotechnology abound.
This unique combination has not only attracted us, but a huge number of successful startup entrepreneurs who also deliberately chose to move here, and are rapidly putting this place on the map as a burgeoning mecca of innovation. I attended a "Launch NoCo" Meetup, led by California transplants Chris and Brianne Snook of Launch Haus Labs who introduced me to gatherings like 1 Million Cups, incubators like Galvanize, and Rocky Mountain Innosphere, StartUp Colorado's events in Denver and Boulder, and Built in Colorado as vibrant hubs for connection and networking.
I volunteered to join them in organizing the very first Fort Collins StartUp Week, and am so thrilled to be a part of it. May 20-25 promises to be an incredible line up of extraordinary speakers, panels and events around historic Old Town. The founder of Otter Box lives here, and their foundation, Blue Ocean Enterprise Challenge is awarding the biggest business pitch prize in the country: $250,000, and one year of support, as well as a $20,000 prize for college kids.
This combination of a gorgeous, clean and healthy environment, coupled with a literal buzz of collaboration, connection and focus makes me proud to live here. It makes me want to engage, participate...give. Start ME up, Fort Collins. Stay tuned for upcoming posts about these events, as well as other native/transplant observations from Colorful Colorado.