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The truth about Denver, revealed by a 25-year-old Denver native

Melody Hahm

Chelsea Ammons, 25, thinks Denver is the greatest city in the world. Born and raised in the suburb of Centennial, she says she always felt compelled to make a homecoming, but didn’t expect to return so soon.

Ammons worked as a counselor for Disney Cruise Lines after graduating from college in Maine, but was ultimately drawn back to Denver while she was applying to graduate programs. She’s currently getting a master’s at the University of Colorado’s Denver campus. Though she applied and got into several of her top choices, she says it was a no-brainer to choose UC Denver because she could get in-state tuition at one of the top programs in the country, and stay close to her family.

As much as Ammons feels a strong connection to the city, she’s not alone. Denver is commonly cited as a top market for young professionals, with ample outdoor activities given its proximity to the Rocky Mountains, new job opportunities and relative affordability compared to large U.S. cities like Los Angeles and New York City. Millennials make up 15.9% of the city’s 2.9 million residents and accounted for 35% of the population growth between 2010 and 2014.

Ammons has always been proud of being a Denver native, but says the hype surrounding the city has reached new heights. In fact, the vast majority of people -- 65.3% -- migrating to Denver actually come from other Colorado counties.

The Denver-Aurora-Lakewood metro area has an unemployment rate of 3.1% -- the fourteenth lowest in the U.S. (two of the 10 cities with the lowest unemployment rate are in Colorado). From 2000 through 2015, the bulk of job growth in Denver was in the oil and gas industries. But more recently, jobs in tech, finance, construction and in bars and breweries are more prevalent in Denver than in the U.S. as a whole, according to Svenja Gudell, chief economist at Zillow.

Part of Denver’s great desirability stems from its burgeoning startup culture. The Mile-High City is home to e-commerce brand Craftsy, publishing platform Bulb and social media analytics company Wayin (run by Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy), among others.

Then, of course, there’s marijuana.

The pot phenomenon
At his State of the State address in January, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper underscored the importance of the legalization of marijuana to the state’s economic strength. "Since July 2014, we’ve secured 9,000 new jobs created by companies relocating to Colorado, and existing businesses expanding here,” he said.

Small business owner Mike Eymer who runs his own pot tourism company Colorado Cannabis Tours is originally from Florida but moved to Colorado in 2009. He had to move from Fort Collins to Greeley to Lakewood before finally settling in downtown Denver. Having a background in tourism and horticulture, Eymer decided he wanted to tap into the marijuana industry.

Since launching his company in January 2014 with an inaugural tour of four people, Eymer says demand is insatiable. His last tour this past weekend had 70 people on two large limo party buses traipsing through Denver, exploring the pot culture.

According to a Colorado Tourism Office survey, 8% of visitors to the state during the first half of 2015 visited a marijuana dispensary. Seven percent of respondents said that the legalization was a primary motivation for their trip, up from 2% the year before.

“My new rule of thumb is that I don’t do anything that doesn’t involve marijuana,” Eymer says. “It’s a successful business on rocket fuel right now. This is my shot and I’m really going big because that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about.”

The dichotomous affordability picture
Now Eymer rents a five-bedroom house in downtown Denver for $5,200 a month -- it’s also where he runs his company from. “It’s not exactly cheap, but it’s got to be more affordable than San Francisco by at least 100%,” he says.

No doubt this influx in interest and capital is putting a damper on affordability. Ammons lives in Centennial with her mother to save money while in grad school. “It’s definitely become a hotspot over the last 10 years. As a young millennial who is drowning in student debt, I don’t have enough income or resources to rent a place downtown,” she says.

Between 1980 and 2000, people in Denver spent around 30% of their income on rent. By the end of 2014, the number rose to 38.3% of their income, as rapid rental appreciation outpaced growth in wages. Meanwhile, homeowners in Denver spent just 23.8% of their income on a mortgage payment for a typical home in 2014, according to Zillow.

“It’s smarter for me to save up for a house that I can eventually buy,” says Ammons. “A lot of my 20-something friends either still live at home or are in apartments that aren’t as nice as they had hoped.”

Gudell says this juxtaposition in perception is precisely what makes Denver so unique. “People from outside of Denver think the city is extremely affordable, whereas locals think it’s really expensive.” She says, however, native and transplant Denverites seem to be addressing the issue and reacting appropriately in trying to increase supply.

It’s not hard for Ammons to articulate what draws her to Denver: “You’re an hour from the mountains, there’s great weather, and on top of all of that, the city is attracting a lot of opportunities which our generation is capitalizing on.”

The only concern is whether she will be able to ever actually live in the city she considers home. “Native Denverites are a dwindling population,” she says. “I would love to stay in Denver but I’m not sure I’ll be able to afford it.”