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Bright Lights, Big Cities

Urban renewal spurs a return to city living nationwide.

For two decades, David and Suzanne Miles adored their suburban home in southeast Denver and all that came with it: a sprawling yard, a safe neighborhood and an ideal setting for raising their three children. But over time, the couple began to yearn for a different kind of lifestyle. One where they could walk to top-notch eateries, take in a play and attend the finest cultural and sporting events around. One which only city life truly affords. So, in July 1997, the Mileses left the 'burbs behind and moved their family into a three-story historic building in the heart of Denver's lower downtown (LODO) district.

Now that they've moved, the couple can take advantage of all the perks bustling downtown Denver has to offer: 24-hour access to entertainment; close proximity to a college for Suzanne, 48, to take classes; and a hip, urban environment. "This area offers all the high energy and excitement we were looking for," confirms David, 49.

The Mileses are just one example of a growing number of empty-nesters, retirees and professionals shunning suburbia in favor of city living. By moving into loft condominiums in converted downtown warehouses and buildings, they're changing the face of many downtown areas from sparse industrial centers to friendly neighborhoods, which offers strong implications for small business.

A recent study by The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy and the Fannie Mae Foundation, both in Washington, DC, surveyed 24 cities nationwide and found that all expect their downtown populations to grow by 2010. Houston expects its downtown population to nearly quadruple; Memphis, Tennessee, and Seattle anticipate twice as many downtown residents in the next 11 years. Even cities that had been losing residents for decades--Chicago, Detroit and Philadelphia, to name a few--expect the number of downtown residents to rise.

"Market, cultural and demographic shifts are all resulting in the dramatic growth of downtown living," explains Bruce Katz, director of The Brookings Institution Center on Urban and Metropolitan Policy.

For many cities, these changes have been a long time coming. "All the major public-private investments and the refurbishment of warehouses into lofts and restaurants are beginning to have a multiplier effect," Katz says. "Some of these changes started in the 1970s, and we're just now beginning to reap the whirlwind of benefits."

Experts say more people gravitating downtown is good news for small business, particularly in the retail sector. A denser downtown population brings increased foot traffic to existing storefronts and new business opportunities. Denver's LODO area, for one, has given rise to a slew of successful coffeehouses, restaurants, breweries and bagel shops. "With more residents with disposable income and more people walking by our stores, retail businesses [in LODO] are doing very well," acknowledges Jennifer Moulton, director of planning and development for the city and county of Denver.

Service businesses catering to the influx of new residents also hold real promise, from health-care services for older residents to dry-cleaning establishments. "[Older and young professionals] will continue to dominate downtown living in the future," Katz says.

Relocating a small business downtown has its benefits, too. David Miles didn't just move his family downtown--he also moved his business, Miles Advertising, from a business park near his suburban home into downtown Denver. His advertising agency, started in 1986, now takes up the bottom and middle floors of his building, while his home is situated in the huge, open loft upstairs. The company's downtown digs have also cut employee commute times, updated the agency's image and provided just the location his young, creative employees wanted.

Of course, downtown businesses have their share of problems. National chains could move in and knock out their smaller competition (see "Chain Reactions," October 1998), and parking and transportation problems typically plague high-growth cities.

Still, the drive to dwell downtown is expected to positively impact cities, businesses and residents alike. "The way downtown living is proceeding, it's an enhancing phenomenon that's both well-planned and governed," Katz says. "It's smart growth."

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This article was originally published in the March 1999 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Bright Lights, Big Cities.

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