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The Rockies Are on a Roll : Mountain States Join Economic Big Leagues

THE NEW ECONOMIC ORDER. America's Regions Fight for the Competitive Edge. One in an occasional series.


COLORADO SPRINGS — An enduring memory that Susan and John Leavitt have of their years in Anaheim was the night in 1989 that they saw a young man die from gunshot wounds on their block.

Today, the Leavitts are living better on less money in this postcard-pretty city at the base of snow-topped Pikes Peak. Leaving the crime and congestion of Southern California far behind, they are among a burgeoning crowd of Golden State refugees pumping new life into Colorado and the rest of the Rocky Mountain states.

The Rockies are, indeed, on a roll.

With fiber optics and computers bringing the inter-mountain West's vastness and isolation down to manageable size, the region has replaced battered California as a magnet for hopeful companies and individuals eager for fresh starts and new opportunities.

Lured by the region's newfangled sophistication and old-fashioned work ethic, go-getter companies such as Apple Computer and MCI Communications are gravitating from the coasts to Colorado industrial parks. Around Salt Lake City, a burgeoning software mecca is growing to rival California's Silicon Valley and Massachusetts' Route 128.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 14, 1993 Home Edition Business Part D Page 2 Column 6 Financial Desk 1 inches; 32 words Type of Material: Correction
Black Diamond Equipment--A climbing wall at the Black Diamond Equipment complex in Salt Lake City is owned by Rockreation Inc., not Black Diamond Equipment, as indicated in a photo caption in last Sunday's Business section.

Denver is literally entering the big leagues with the Colorado Rockies baseball team and a mammoth new airport that could hold both Chicago's O'Hare and the Dallas-Ft. Worth terminal.

Pay gains in the Rockies have outpaced the national average. And some sleepy western towns--unaccustomed to flourishing--are seeing the kind of home-price appreciation that gave Californians sticker shock in the late 1980s.

Colorado and Utah weighed in last year with enviably low jobless rates of 5.9% and 4.9%, respectively, in contrast to California's 9.1%, among the highest in the nation. An estimated 40% of the 19,000 newcomers to Utah last year were from California.

"New businesses are developing all over the place," said Philip M. Burgess, president of the Center for the New West, a Denver think tank. "A manufacturing boom is going on in the West."

Some in the West lament what others consider progress, of course. In Idaho, an accelerating flood of California baby boomers and Mexican immigrants is changing the state's homogenous, isolated, rural character--perhaps forever.

"The culture of the West is going to disappear," said Paul R. Zelus, director of the Center for Business Research and Services at Idaho State University in Pocatello.

Still, for residents of Colorado and Utah--and to some extent leanly populated Idaho, Montana and Wyoming--who took their lumps in the energy collapse of the mid-1980s, the region's economic revival is a welcome relief.

A decade ago, tens of thousands of laid-off workers headed for greener pastures in California and elsewhere, in some cases leaving the keys of their unsold condos on the kitchen counter. Land speculation left Colorado with a glut of more than 60,000 houses and apartments. At the worst, nearly half the office space in Denver stood vacant.

But much of that is behind them, Westerners say. For now, the Rocky Mountain West is heady with prosperity and has the wide, open spaces to accommodate it. The Big Sky's the limit.

That the onetime Wild West is changing fast becomes obvious on the wind-swept wheat lands and prairie 23 miles northeast of downtown Denver.

There, on a 53-square-mile plot about the size of San Francisco, 6,500 workers are hoisting beams and installing cables at a futuristic airport topped by 34 white fiberglass peaks that, from a DC-10 cockpit, might resemble a giant bowl of whipped cream.

By summer, the work force will swell to 8,000 as construction heads into the stretch for a Dec. 19 opening.

The $3.1-billion Denver International Airport--a pet project of former Denver Mayor Federico Pena, now President Clinton's transportation secretary--is intended to be "the airport for the 21st Century," said Chuck Cannon, a spokesman at Denver's Stapleton International Airport. Stapleton, 17 miles south, will close once the new airport opens.

Many Denverites complain of overkill, saying Pena unnecessarily saddled them with a costly airport when Stapleton would have been adequate for years to come.

But city officials, conscious of the increasingly global economy, craved the nation's premier airport to cement Denver's position as a hub of western trade, tourism and business travel.

The airport will have a 16,000-foot runway to accommodate the super-jumbo jets contemplated by aircraft manufacturers and also be the nation's first to enable three planes to land simultaneously.

Elsewhere in Colorado, other projects have put thousands to work--erecting a baseball stadium for the Colorado Rockies expansion baseball team, building a new prison, relocating an amusement park and constructing highways and a light-rail line. A new public library for Denver is also planned.

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