Traditionally a Republican stronghold, states in the west could play the role of 'king-maker'.
Success lies in the 'new heartland'
DENVER // John Hickenlooper, the microbrewer-turned-mayor of Denver, may embody the kind of pioneering spirit transforming the American West. Raised back east in Pennsylvania, he moved to Denver in 1981 to work as a geologist for an oil firm. When the collapse of the oil industry cost him his job, he used his severance pay to open Colorado's first brewpub in a historic warehouse he rented for US$1 (Dh3.67) per square foot per year. Before long, his Wynkoop Brewing Co comprised eight bars and restaurants, and his original warehouse pub helped spark the revitalisation of Denver's lower downtown into an ultra-hip zone full of lofts and nightlife. In 2003, having never run for office, Mr Hickenlooper mounted a successful campaign for mayor, getting re-elected four years later after he balanced the city budget, reformed the police and launched efforts to make the Mile High City greener. "Change challenges us to do our very best," said Mr Hickenlooper, who like millions of other immigrants to the US intermountain west is redefining a region that has long been home to cowboys, pioneers and adventurers. Its five states in the region - Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah - have experienced rapid population growth and demographic shifts into urban areas. That has sparked economic growth and attracted investment, shifting the region's economy away from farming and mining. With new investment in real estate, hi-tech, health care and alternative energy, five metropolitan regions - including Arizona's Sun Corridor, greater Las Vegas and Colorado's Front Range - have captured 13 per cent of the growth in the United States so far this decade. A recent study by the Brookings Institution described the region as a "new American heartland", wielding fresh clout on the national stage. "This region is growing up, flexing its muscles, and distancing itself from California, which historically has had an outsize impact on the west's development," said Bruce Katz, a Brookings vice president. "We believe that the economy of this region, its people and its politics are becoming more central to the nation." That has never been clearer than during the 2008 race for US president, when such swing states as Colorado and Nevada could play a "king-making" role traditionally held by the Midwest. The five mountain states all voted for George W Bush in 2004. But this time around, polls show the Democratic hopeful, Barack Obama, ahead in Colorado, Nevada and New Mexico, where increasingly urban populations are turning traditionally red strongholds blue. The shifting demographics are driven by rising birth rates, migration from other parts of the country and immigration from abroad. And there is no sign it will slow down. Five urban regions, dubbed the Mountain Megas by Brookings, are projected to add more than 12 million new residents over the next 30 years. Such explosive expansion - urban Denver and Salt Lake City, Utah now have population densities as high as Chicago - has brought growing pains. Las Vegas battles gang violence. Denver struggles to reform its schools. And the region as a whole lacks transportation choices common between other major US cities. The Brookings study called for the region as a whole to lobby Washington for more federal resources for infrastructure. "The west has always figured large in America's popular image, now its demographic weight may soon equal that image," said Robert Lang, a primary author of the Brookings report. But the new West's pioneers say they will cope with the challenges the same way they always have - as one Las Vegas businessman, Steven Hill, put it: "putting your head down, figuring out what you need to do and figuring out how to get it done". An Ohio native, Mr Hill arrived in Las Vegas 21 years ago in a pickup truck with plans to start a cement supply business. Six weeks later, he won the contract for the new Mirage Casino - a 3,000-room extravaganza that set the standard for luxury and launched a construction boom on the Las Vegas strip. Two decades later, Mr Hill's firm does more than $100 million in sales annually and he is a leading member of the city's chamber of commerce. His adopted city has grown in population to two million from 470,000. Mr Hill argues that innovation helped city leaders navigate challenges, including severe water shortages and road congestion. "Twelve years ago we were on pace to run us out of water, so we formed the Southern Nevada Water Authority, developed a regional approach, and came up with a management plan," Mr Hill said. "Over the last five years, even though our population continues to grow, our water use has decreased." When the city needed a ring road to ease traffic, officials realised the timetable for federal funding was not fast enough. "So we figured out how to pay for it locally," Mr Hill said. Some analysts predict that spirit of independence - the old trademark of the Wild West - could help the region emerge more quickly than other parts of the country from the current economic turmoil. "Our population continues to grow despite the economic downturn," Mr Hill said. "It's hard to improve a place when there is no growth. What is so attractive here is that you can shape the change and be a part of it." Mr Hickenlooper wants the region to work together more closely, using its growing muscle to take the West's transformation to the next level. "Working together as a region will enable us to continue to weather our challenges, solve our problems and create new opportunities," the Denver mayor said. "We are building a uniquely western brand of prosperity that is sustainable, productive and inclusive." firstname.lastname@example.org