In Santa Fe We Wish We Had The Boulder Problems!

There has been a lot of recent noise in Boulder about growth, challenges, and the impact of the tech community on the city. I stirred the pot a little more with my post The Endless Struggle That Boulder Has With Itself. It generated some private emails, including non-constructive troll-like ones such as “Get the fuck out of town, you and people like you are ruining everything” at one end of the extreme to “It’s so frustrating that the all growth is bad crowd is framing the public debate right now and portraying so-called overpaid tech employees as a major cause of all that is wrong in Boulder.”

Andy Alsop, an entrepreneur in Santa Fe who has spent a lot of time in Colorado, sent me a note with some thoughts about his view and experience from working as an entrepreneur in Santa Fe. I asked if he’d write a longer post from his perspective and he took me up on it. Following is a guest post from Andy that I think adds nicely to the discussion.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Santa Fe and I love New Mexico. This is where my kids were born, where three out of the six kids in my family own property and where I have lived for the past 20 years. This is my perspective on why the Boulder City Council should be grateful for the gift it has been given.

I have chosen Colorado as the place where I want to focus the next chapter of my startup life because of its similarities to New Mexico but with the benefit of a rich and diverse tech economy. Since approximately July of 2014 I have been spending half of my time getting to know people in Colorado and half of my time in New Mexico where I work and where my family is currently based. This has allowed me to spend time in Boulder with some exciting startups and some interesting and successful business leaders.

To give you some background, I moved to Santa Fe, NM from the East Coast in 1995 to start a company with my older brother. Prior to making the decision to move out West I asked myself, “Is Santa Fe the right kind of place for me as a technology entrepreneur?” I thought about it for a while before making the move and decided that I was in love with the beautiful outdoors, the endless blue skies, the culture, the great food and the interesting people so with bravado I said to myself “Hell, I’m smart and hardworking and this whole ‘Internet’ thing is everywhere. It doesn’t matter where I live.” As a result, I founded two startups, one of them a spinout from Los Alamos National Laboratory and have been a part of three other startups all of them based on technology.

I find the debate around Boulder’s “dilemma” to be very interesting because Boulder and Santa Fe share a lot of the same characteristics. Both are similar in size, both have educated populations, both are a short drive from a larger city, both are absolutely stunning in terms of the landscape and the outdoors, both are set in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains restricting their ability to grow in all but one direction and both have a high cost of living and a high cost of housing.

In contrast to Boulder, Santa Fe has a stunted economy because it doesn’t share some of the key characteristics of Boulder – including several of the four elements of the “Boulder Thesis” that Brad outlined in his book “Startup Communities.” Santa Fe’s anemic economy is due in large part because Santa Fe has an older population made up primarily of retirees in addition to federal, state and local government workers and service-based workers. We have one “larger” company based in Santa Fe: Thornburg Investment Management which thankfully provides 250 high wage jobs. There are a handful of other smaller companies in Santa Fe but the majority of our businesses are tourism and services based – restaurants, art galleries, hotels, B&B’s, etc. This makes it difficult to make a living in Santa Fe (see Santa Fe’s Living Wage). You will frequently hear people joke about the fact that to make a million dollars in Santa Fe you need to come with two and to live in Santa Fe you must have two to three jobs just to survive. “Young people” come to Santa Fe based on their attraction to the beautiful outdoors and leave when they realize it is difficult to make a living. Santa Fe ends up being a turnstile for young professionals.

Having attempted to recruit experienced knowledge workers to Santa Fe I would always get the same questions from the candidates – “Where are my kids going to go to school?” (While improving, Santa Fe and NM have some of the worst public schools in the country) and “Where am I going to work if your startup doesn’t make it?” Boulder on the other hand has a great school system and a diverse tech economy so that when knowledge workers are recruited to Boulder the recruiter can say “We have great schools and if this position doesn’t work out there are plenty of other places to work.” That means recruits are willing to uproot their families and bring them to Boulder.

So, when I hear members of the Boulder City Council saying “…locals say they don’t like the tech folks…” and the startup economy is attracting “highly paid white men to the city, and they were pricing out families and others” I can’t help but think – Are you crazy? Having a robust tech economy is what many communities like Santa Fe WISH they had. Our civic leaders have to deal with the higher cost of housing from wealthy out of state housing buyers yet the local workers are trying to survive on minimum wage jobs and the government on an insufficient tax base. As a result I have seen NM increasingly tax everything not because it is greedy but because we have to take care of a far poorer population. For instance, the “gross receipts tax” (NM’s version of a sales tax but it is levied on both goods AND services) in Santa Fe has steadily risen from just under 6% 20 years ago to over 8% now and it continues to climb.

Imagine the problems Boulder would have if it were in the same shoes as Santa Fe and didn’t have a thriving tech economy to rely on?  Be Bolder Boulder and embrace the gifts that have been bestowed upon you. Work with the tech community rather than making divisive statements and see the members of your thriving tech economy as your friend and not your enemy.

  • Lisa

    Brad I think you are a very smart person in many respects. I grew up in Brooklyn and went to college in Chicago and SUNY. I never made it to MIT. I did learn from life putting experience ahead of money. I follow dreams rather than a plan. Mined gold in Fairbanks, built solar in Manitou Springs, I had my own electrical company doing controls for greenhouses and did setback controls while living in Broomfield. Energy audit type work around Nashville and was on several EPRI boards. Ended up transferring technology from the university to industry, such as the Pulp and Paper Institute at Georgia Tech. Helped start the Furniture Institute at MSU.

    Retired in comfort but here in Mississippi we are just about last in everything because of the culture and lack of political will to change to a changing environment. One thing our political and business leaders ignore is continued growth in population and using resources is not sustainable. Technology helps but falls way short of the problems it also creates.

    I see you support diversity and all sorts of different cultures but you also have no time for dummies and people that waste your time. I think the self starters have some social obligation to help those that have been short changed but this perk does not stop people that can not afford the time, cost or have the abilities to raise children from being parents. Throwing money through social welfare programs does not provide the people at the bottom with the skills to be productive members of society.

    Boulder has its perks and problems and some may be the lack of time for workers to smell the roses. Tupelo and Santa Fe has a lack of will to change the culture. Starting at grassroots it is almost impossible to gather enough momentum against the steadfast political structure. I see some rumblings for example, Initiative # 48 legal cannabis but the average MS voter might not even know what the word cannabis is but they smoke it all the time.

    Growth is a problem when people do not know the changes in their lives are going to be or understand the limits or a quality life.

    Thanks Lisa

    • http://www.pointsandfigures.com/ pointsnfigures

      Although DeSoto County in MIssissippi is extremely fast growing due to the distribution companies that set up there. My daughter goes to Ole Miss and I have spent some time near Tupelo (Houston). Mississippi can build a startup community, but the resources can’t be fragmented. They have to be focused. They also need to invest in things they are good at. Ag, furniture, distribution are three good industries to start in. You are correct though-when you want to build a startup community, it’s often really hard to get people to think differently. We have problems with that in Chicago.

      • Lisa

        DeSoto is a suburb of Memphis and my daughter lives there in the medical industry. Furniture is going downhill due to loss of textiles and cheap labor to China. It would take a new automated technology to bring it back. Ag is a good bet as wood pulp and if they make hemp fiber legal would be big plus. The auto industry is cashing in on cheap labor and no unions but is that ethical?

        • http://www.pointsandfigures.com/ pointsnfigures

          “No unions” is ethical. Unions actually create unemployment by restricting flows of labor. Furniture can make a comeback-energy is cheap, and there is nothing wrong with automation.

          • Rick

            “…and there is nothing wrong with automation.”
            .
            Except that people say automation will bring abundance. But it will not. The fact is, more and more, we’re getting garbage in exchange for high quality hand crafted one of a kind items.
            .
            It takes intelligence and character to create quality of life. Not made by the millions items.

          • http://www.pointsandfigures.com/ pointsnfigures

            Yup. I hate ATMs

          • Rick

            lol

          • Sarah

            WHY?! IT’S HOW YOU GET MONEY YA KNOW!

          • Sarah

            YEAH IT WILL YA MORON! EXPLAIN WHY ATM MACHINES WERE INVENTED?! HOW ELSE ARE WE GUNNA GET CASH?! BY ROBBIN A BANK?! PFFFT…. YEAH RIGHT!

      • Lisa

        Energy causes environmental issues. Unemployment creates social issues. Automation is good if you have a place for the loss of human dignity of contributing to humanity. Many people are not equipped to stand up for themselves. They simply do not have the ability and skills. Most come from single parent homes who do not have the ability to raise children. The social problems are a huge part of the crime and other reasons that destroy quality of life.
        Government does not represent the helpless so some other form of protection is needed such as unions or other. Life is not all about being efficient.

        • http://www.pointsandfigures.com/ pointsnfigures

          How do you measure human dignity? Is it quantifiable and standardizable so all people can agree?

          • Rick

            Of course it’s not. That’s what makes it great! All the things that aren’t “quantifiable” and “standardizable” are what makes life great.
            .
            If it becomes quantified and standardized it becomes shit. All the quantified and standardized things are easily comprehended. That’s makes them crap unless a person is of low intelligence. Then, just like crows, anything shiny will provide intrigue and excitement.

  • Ben Wilde

    Really these discussions are just the vanguard of a much wider set of debates that will be seen in every community over the next few years. Given technology progress is accelerating and compounding, and given the likely result is more digitisation, automation etc. the gap between the tech industry employees and the wider community will only grow. Then as automation further displaces certain roles or transforms others, the issues will expand. You’re probably lucky to be ahead of the curve in working through these things and in having a base of technology makers vs. just technology consumers as is the case in many other communities.

  • http://www.pointsandfigures.com/ pointsnfigures

    yup. great post. I don’t think government can micromanage things. They need to keep taxes and regulation low. They need to have good public schools, and keep the streets paved and safe. Andy identifies that and he is right.

  • williamhertling

    I see this, as Brad described in his other post, as a problem of resistance to change as opposed to a problem with tech. Here in Portland, we’ve had an influx of people from out-of-state, combined with urban growth boundary policies that have combined to drive up housing prices and change the characteristics of those neighborhoods where the density has increased the most. And some of the neighborhoods most affected along the way were those that were traditionally ethic. So in terms of impact, the complaints tend to be about the same sort of issues.

    But even though Portland has a growing amount of tech startups, that’s not usually where people cast the blame. They’re more likely to call it a “California problem,” as in those “those people from California come and they don’t care what they pay for a house, because it’s still a third of the price of a California home.”

    Maybe Boulder does have a higher ratio of tech startups, and maybe they are more visible, and that’s why it gets the blame. But even if the startups didn’t exist, there would still be change and growth, and people who didn’t like it would complain.

    • http://www.kineplay.com/ben Ben Milstead

      We have a similar issue here in Southern Oregon, although we don’t currently have a growing number of tech startups and attempts so far have been difficult: Software developers here frequently work for clients/companies elsewhere; there are few good-paying opportunities locally.

  • Rick

    You’re messing up everything Brad. You’re a hooligan!

    • Sarah

      RICK DON’T CALL PEOPLE NAMES?! IT’S RUDE AND DISRESPECTFUL! IF YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING NICE TO SAY THEN DON’T SAY IT! *SLAP* >:(

  • Bill Stearns
  • http://www.aliceloy.com/ Alice Loy

    Andy, great post.

    Sums up some of our challenges here in Santa Fe – misses a few – but when you are 49th in the nation for child poverty, education, and economic recovery a single blog post couldn’t sum it all up, right?

    I agree that we need to move our economy forward – Santa Fe has too long coasted on being at the top of tourists’ lists – at the expense of a necessary startup culture. Sadly, our city’s current economic development office has no idea how to cultivate a startup culture and lets over 500 young professionals graduate and leave our small city every June. (I would argue that Boulder’s best economic asset is its university, centrally located.)

    Funny thing is, I also sort of agree with some of the sentiments of “the locals” who get fed up with more well-to-do people (tech, retirees, financiers, what-have-you) moving into an area and pricing them out. And, I bet most people in Boulder (even techies!) would not like to lose the creative/culture/art scene that gives the place its unique flavor. So, a mix of housing prices is called for.

    Our work with creatives has shown time and again that real estate values increase with an increase of creatives in the area. Artists, designers, young professionals, and hip restaurants can regenerate neighborhoods. (Check out what Creative Startups (www.creative-startups.org) alum Meow Wolf and George RR Martin are doing in Santa Fe. http://tinyurl.com/p53wrqg)

    Part of the answer lies, I believe, in community planning and careful management of building codes and housing development. The rest lies in investing in entrepreneurs.

  • James Mitchell

    If I were mayor of a city, I would do everything I could to attract lots of wealthy/high income people to move to my city. In general, they don’t need much services and I can tax them. Net net, the city makes a profit on them, which the city can use to pay for services for those that are less fortunate.

    For me, my ideal city has most of its buildings combining retail, office and residential, all in one city. The right amount of density if key. Manhattan has too much density while LA has too little. The idea city is one where people can walk, bicycles are prevalent, and the automobile is less important. Boulder could if it wanted to have insisted that Google provide retail space on the first floor.

    Every mayor should ask himself, “Is my city attracting smart young people?” If not, then long-term the city will have a problem. It might take 20 years for the problem to become self-evident, but it will appear.

    • Lisa

      The problem becomes, that those that do not have high incomes and have lived in the city for years and voted for the Mayor get displaced and can no longer afford to compete with the higher rents. Growth is not always a good thing for a community. Life is never that simple. Charities need to be near the poor people and the charities also have to pay rent. Money does not solve all problems.

      • James Mitchell

        Lisa, I see the main problem with gentrification is the rapid increase in rents, and thus I wonder if in some cases rent control makes sense. Overall, if I were Mayor, I would rather have the problem to too many Yuppies moving in than too fee Yuppies.

        Wouldn’t you rather be the Mayor of Boulder than the Mayor of Detroit?

        Growth can be managed intelligently if you are a leader.

      • Jennefer

        Yes, and here in Boulder we, yes, have new high density apartments but the rents asked are high and the money siphons the young hard working entrepreneurs and leaves Boulder straight into coastal pension funds. Or, gets purchased by out of state owners for VRBOs etc. Tough issue.

        Tech is a great industry for Boulder to have, but our planning processes are outta control and the logic has been replaced by greed. see more: http://boulderneighbors.blogspot.com/2015/01/boulder-bureaucrats-could-learn-lot.html

  • http://phiolo.blogspot.com/ Domenic Weber

    I went to St John’s College in Santa Fe, and I now live in Boulder. After selling my first company we were looking at moving to SF and Boulder, we chose Boulder precisely because of all the reasons listed above. Being a part of both of these populations I can attest to everything as spot on that I have read.

    To move SF and NM forward education is critical and attracting smart people is critical.

    Much like Boulder is a bubble in CO, SJC is a bubble in SF. Seth Godin has written a Manifesto called “Stop Stealing Dreams” in which he sites SJC as an example of what education should be like. Some of the most brilliant minds in the country are in Santa Fe when you look at SJC, the Gov’t Labs and the elite think tanks.

    There is basically no communication between the city and it’s super elite school that is leading the world in education. Building a link between these 2 organizations should be a priority and a great starting place to attract more.

    Boulder had 2 main populations to draw and attract a job pool at first. Gov’t facilities and CU. These pools combined to help create a third, tech. Santa Fe has the gov’t facilities and they have a small college population. Couple this with all the other things Boulder and SF have in common and you can see SF as the starting of a Boulder like community.

    As mentioned, some of the most brilliant minds in the US are in Santa Fe, the city needs to take advantage of this. I even see SF as surpassing Boulder b/c it can learn from the mistakes that were made here.

  • Tom Aageson

    Santa Fe has never had leadership that understands the value of building up from entrepreneurs. The original entrepreneurs were the painters who traveled here and were captured by the amazing sky. The next entrepreneurs were gallery owners and they continue being entrepreneurial selling art that is often created elsewhere. The idea of economy base jobs falls on deaf ears. Easier to find the next franchise. We have three higher ed schools that train talented students in film, design, digital media, etc. who leave upon graduation. No plan to foster enterprise ideas amongst the young creatives. The state Economic Development just chases firms to move here, especially call centers.

    On the other hand, ABQ is dynamic and investing in entrepreneurs. There is more venture money. There are 3 accelerators now. Young grads are beginning to stick around. The city has strong entrepreneurial leadership.

    • https://www.linkedin.com/in/andyalsop Andy Alsop

      Hey Tom, nice to “see” you here. I agree with Tom’s assessment of Albuquerque. There are two new and unique ingredients that have recently been added to the Albuquerque entrepreneurial landscape – FatPipe http://fatpipeabq.com/ and AbqID – http://www.abqid.com/ that show a commitment to startups.

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  • ikillRapcareers

    Everyone has to lead under there own circumstances

  • Asim Siddiqui

    Another one.. :(

  • L1ght3ningBugg

    Thank you Andy, your post was very informative. I agree that Boulder needs to be a little bolder in the sense that everything around us is growing, and there is beginning to be a lot of changes going on. Innovative technology is not going to go away.

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