I’ve talked a lot on this blog about the great things about the Boulder entrepreneurial ecosystem. Over the past five years it’s been awesome to see things really blossom. But there are always problems of some sort. And we have a few here in Boulder which – in the spirit of helping understand how entrepreneur ecosystems work over time – are worth pointing out and talking about.
The most visible problem her is that Boulder’s booming businesses are running out of room. Downtown Boulder is not large – maybe 10 blocks by 5 blocks – and very few of the buildings are more than three stories tall. Once you get outside the downtown Boulder core, you get some larger buildings and some office parks, but you are no longer in the core of downtown. If you get in your car and drive to the next towns over, such as Broomfield and Westminster, there is plenty of office space and some larger buildings.
But many companies that start in downtown Boulder want to stay in downtown Boulder. The companies build their culture around being downtown, benefit from the extremely high entrepreneurial density of Boulder, and the dynamics of being in a downtown core rather than in a suburban office park.
Ironically, the Boulder politicians have always seemed to have a bias against “business in Boulder.” I’ve heard about it for the 16 years I’ve been here and experience it periodically. The zoning here is extremely restrictive and the decisions around zoning seem arbitrary. The division between retail, tourism, business, and residential seems in continual conflict. A few real estate developers own and control much of the existing office buildings in town and as a result end up having a zero sum approach to leasing space – specifically they jack rents up as high as possible when the market is tight, only to have them collapse when the market loosens up.
As I’ve watched local Boulder companies grow to be in the 100 to 300 employee range, I’ve watched them struggle with office space. If the trajectory of several of the local companies continues, this struggle will get more severe over the next 24 months. Inevitably, several of the larger companies will have to move outside of Boulder, even though they don’t want to. When this happens, our real estate owner friends will once again have a lot of empty space on their hands which will fill up more slowly with smaller firms as they grow into what’s available.
I’m not sure if this is a solvable problem given all of the different constituents involved. The contraints on Boulder’s growth have many advantages and are part of what makes Boulder as great as it is. But it’s also a weakness – one that is front and center right now as a number of companies who look like they could be long term, self-sustaining anchors of the Boulder entrepreneurial community have to figure out where to house 300 people going on 1,000.