In cities across America, a new form of local economy is emerging. Many call this growing movement “Community Wealth Building,” a framework for economic development built on principles of democratizing wealth, broadening ownership over capital, leveraging existing institutional assets to benefit place, and preventing money from leaking out of our communities. The goal is to reinforce core values such as equity, inclusion, local stability, and sustainability. A range of corporate and institutional forms, involving millions of Americans as owners and consumers, are part of this movement, including cooperatives, employee-owned companies, community financial institutions, land trusts, municipal and state ownership, impact investing, and social enterprise.
This movement to build resilient place-based economies can be seen in Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives; Richmond, Virginia’s Office of Community Wealth Building; Chicago Anchors for a Strong Economy; Rochester, New York’s Market-Driven Cooperative Corporation; and New Mexico’s Healthy Neighborhoods Albuquerque.
But no city is better poised to become a national model of community wealth building than Denver. What sets Denver apart (and indeed other communities in Colorado, such as Boulder) is not just the number of wealth building efforts now underway, but the strategic intent among key local leaders to create a robust new economy ecosystem that can ultimately lead to a “new normal” for how business is conducted in the city.
One of the key catalysts in Denver’s wealth building strategy is The Denver Foundation, the largest and oldest of a handful of community foundations in the Denver region. The Denver Foundation got the community wealth ball rolling when it led a delegation of local practitioners on a site visit to Cleveland, Ohio, in January 2013. There they met with their counterpart, the Cleveland Foundation, as well as city officials, nonprofit leaders, and representatives of two of the best-known community wealth building models in the country, the Evergreen Cooperatives and the Greater University Circle Initiative.
Inspired by what they learned on that study visit, members of the delegation began to design their own unique vision of a full-fledged community wealth strategy for Denver. Soon they had organized the nation’s first city-based “Community Wealth Building Network”; by September 2013 one of the members of the Network, the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, had organized a first public conference: “Community Wealth Building: Creating the New Economy.” A second large public event was held a year later, engaging hundreds of participants in discussions on a wide array of new economy issues: building worker coops, linking local food strategies to a wealth building approach, public policy, and organizing large anchor institutions such as hospitals and universities to embrace a community wealth framework.
Today, thanks to the efforts of numerous local nonprofit organizations — including the Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, Mile High Connects, Re:Vision, the Colorado Enterprise Fund, the Urban Land Conservancy, the Rocky Mountain Employee Ownership Center, and the Denver Foundation — the spirit of community wealth building is growing in Denver and beyond. Their work is augmented by many other institutional actors.
Denver’s city government has begun to adopt community wealth strategies by investing loan funds into a neighborhood cooperative that integrates low-income urban food producers with value-added processing and a retail food outlet; the city is also an investor in the Denver Transit-Oriented Development Fund. Add to that the growing public commitment of Denver’s anchor institutions (including the Anschutz Medical Center and a new collaborative of the city’s universities) to reorienting their purchasing, hiring and investment to produce greater local benefit. Add as well inspiring socially responsible business models represented by a range of Colorado employee-owned companies, including New Belgium Beer, Namaste Solar, and the Green City Taxi cooperative. Meanwhile, in nearby Boulder, residents have led an effort to municipalize the local power utility in order to confront climate change by moving to 100% renewable energy; if they succeed, the people of Boulder will own their own power company.
These many developments are facets of the community wealth building paradigm. The challenge ahead for Denver’s Community Wealth Building Network and its many allies in the public and private sectors will be to build out the ecosystem that will be necessary to make sustained systemic changes to Denver’s political economy. As one observer told me not long ago, Denver’s community wealth activity “is like a lot of electrons flying around. How does it cohere? Will it come together to create a truly new system?” Having worked to develop the community wealth movement across the country over the past two decades, I believe Denver can become the first city in America where this new local system is created. But it will take ever greater intention, increased professionalism, strategies to knit together existing efforts and fill in gaps not yet addressed, and a willingness to broaden the network to appeal to new, powerful institutional players. That said, it is an extraordinary reflection of Denver’s values and leadership to date that such a rich community wealth building community has so quickly emerged.
During the Progressive Era of the early 20th century, leaders of the University of Wisconsin created what became known as “the Wisconsin Idea” — the then-radical notion that the research and other resources of the university should be applied to solve social problems and improve the health, quality of life, and environment of the state. This simple but powerful idea served as a model for other states and the federal government for the role public higher education should play in the life of communities and states.
Perhaps, one day, we will speak of “the Denver Idea” — a new and compelling approach to economic development that builds wealth in our communities and creates local new economy systems that produce the kinds of outcomes all of us desire: more inclusion of all our residents in the benefits of the economy, greater equity, more resilient and stable places, and enhanced environmental stability.
The Democracy Collaborative works to carry out a vision of a new economic system where shared ownership and control creates more equitable and inclusive outcomes, fosters ecological sustainability, and promotes flourishing democratic and community life.
Ted Howard is the co-founder and President of The Democracy Collaborative. Previously, he served as the Executive Director of the National Center for Economic Alternatives. Ted lectures frequently about community wealth building at various organizations, regional Federal Reserve Banks and universities.