As the highest elected official in Colorado’s largest city, incoming Denver Mayor Mike Johnston’s policies will have an impact on the business atmosphere well beyond the borders of his city.
And while the former state senator received a steady stream of endorsements at the end of his campaign from progressives who often have clashed with area business leaders, there is reason to believe his policies will be both moderate and, in some cases, decidedly pro-business.
Johnston, for example, was the only mayor hopeful who floated the idea of the city taking a major role in training workers to close the widening gap between the skills that unemployed or underemployed Denverites possess and those skills that employers need. He has proposed launching a program in which workers can take classes to acquire high-need talents and then pay back the cost of classes in conjunction with their employer and with money raised from philanthropic organizations only after they get a job that pays at least $40,000 a year.
Johnston — who notably named Downtown Denver Partnership President/CEO Kourtny Garrett as one of the chairs of his transition committee on Friday — also has said he will seek to boost the number of child-care centers in the city in order to get women back into the workforce. Specifically, he has proposed making it easier to retrofit buildings, specifically in employment-heavy areas like downtown, in order to open child-care centers more quickly.
Impacts of Denver mayor beyond borders
While civic leaders of all stripes have talked about the need to close gaps in Colorado’s talent-development pipeline and increase childcare, many such efforts remain more in the discussion phase than in the action portion of the plan. If Johnston implements either or both plans as promised, they could serve as a blueprint for how other local governments could team with the business community to bring about similar goals.
To be sure, most of the goals of the new Denver mayor — a former school principal and CEO of Gary Community Ventures, a funding organization focused on kids and families – are more specific to Denver. But as many of them revolve around increasing public safety and affordable housing and decreasing homelessness, their success or failure too can serve as models for other areas seeking similar solutions.
On homelessness, Johnston has said that he will enforce Denver’s sporadically used urban camping ban, but he also said at a Colorado Chamber of Commerce mayoral forum last month that it would not be his priority strategy. Because he fears that enforcement of the ban largely will move crowds of people from one part of the city to another, he wants to ramp up efforts to move them off the street and into service-supported housing — specifically into converted hotels and into 10-12 villages of 40-60 tiny homes.
Homelessness and affordable housing
Observers questioned how Johnston will find 10-12 communities that won’t push back against proposed villages for relocated unhoused residents, and he said at a Cherry Creek Alliance forum in May that he would look to distribute them in industrial and light-commercial areas.
“Yes, I think every neighborhood has a part in seeking to solve the problem,” said Johnston, who vowed repeatedly during the campaign to end chronic homelessness in his first four-year term. “But it does not make sense to locate these in heavily residential neighborhoods.”
Denver continues to suffer as well from high crime levels and from a lack of affordable housing, both of which have helped to bring down its friendliness as a city to launch businesses. Johnston has potentially reproduceable plans to tackle both issues, though he said he also will be an outspoken advocate for trying to bring businesses and their workers back to the urban core as he rolls out those plans.
Increasing police presence
On public safety, he’s proposed adding more officers as Denver has more than 100 openings on its police force. A specific fix he’s offered is cutting down the seven-month period the Denver PD now uses to screen applicants, saying he believes that the city can better compete with other public-safety departments for top recruits if it can get its hiring process down to 60 days.
Johnston believes that he can decrease crime by putting more of those officers into community-policing roles, getting them to walk and drive their neighborhoods so that they can be visible to potential perpetrators and can get to know the people and businesses around them. When asked at the Colorado Chamber forum if a police department under his leadership would respond more quickly to calls from merchants about theft or property damage — calls that some downtown business owners say don’t get them any response — Johnston said he would because police would be in the area more consistently and able to help.
On affordable housing, Johnston has rejected some government-led solutions. He said at the Colorado Chamber forum that even if the Legislature changes course and approves a recently rejected bill to let local governments pass rent-control laws that he would not use such a tactic, despite getting the endorsement of the state representative who sponsored that bill.
Building more housing
But he envisions the city having a larger role in building or converting 25,000 units that would be limited to charging rents of no more than 30% of the occupants’ income in rent through deed restrictions. Johnston has identified $72 million from Proposition 123 — the initiative that he helped to write that will spread about $300 million annually in new state revenue to partner governments for housing — for that aim as well as for the launch of a down-payment assistance program letting renters keep some of their monthly payments and put them into home-buying savings accounts.
In order to get any Prop 123 funding, Denver must fix its broken permitting system that can drag on for more than a year for some applicants, and Johnston said he will address that as well. He would like to add eight to 10 new staffers in the department, put up a public dashboard to track and mandate accountability for response times and cap the permitting period for affordable housing at 90 days, he said at the Colorado Chamber forum.
While other candidates focused heavily on the idea of converting increasingly vacant downtown office buildings to residences, Johnston said he hopes to do that only on a limited basis, preferring to keep downtown as a commercial and office hub. However, for those building owners seeking to make that change soon, he said he would be willing to eliminate their requirement to submit concept and site-development plans in order to speed conversion.
Denver mayor on environment, transportation
The new mayor, who will be sworn in on July 17, backs the ban on natural-gas hookups in new commercial buildings, and he said he would like to expand that requirement to new residential buildings as well. However, he said that he does not support mandating the retrofitting of existing buildings for electric hookups, preferring incentives for energy-efficient conversions.
Saying that the reduction of single-use vehicles is necessary for climate control, Johnston said he hopes to offer incentives too to get people to ride trains and buses, which he in turn believes will make public transit safer and more attractive if crowds can push the criminal element off it. But he understands the need for people to drive cars and said he will push for city policies that make it easier to drive electric vehicles, including working to ensure that airport rental fleets have sufficient infrastructure to support zero-emissions vehicles.
“What’s certainly possible is to build a very different city … where you can feel safe in any different neighborhood,” he said at the Cherry Creek Alliance forum.