Did Fort Collins grow too big too fast?

The Colorado city’s unwieldy expansion offers a cautionary tale for similar Western locales.


This story is part of The Montana Gap project, produced in partnership with the Solutions Journalism Network.

Linda Stanley doesn’t go downtown anymore.

There’s plenty to do there. Breweries galore, underground bars, old warehouses converted into hipster eateries and yoga studios — College Avenue, what serves as main street in Fort Collins, Colorado, is a long way from what its founders envisioned the area would become when it was nothing more than a tiny military outpost.

But the city’s rejuvenation has brought with it symptoms that will ring familiar to those in Montanas Gallatin Valley: The restaurants are booked, traffic is a nightmare, everything is more expensive than it used to be, parking is a gamble. It’s what Stanley likes to describe as a Yogi Berra paradox, quoting the baseball legend: Nobody goes there anymore. It’s too crowded.

Rush-hour traffic moves steadily along Harmony Road in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Timothy Hurst / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Many people here speak about Fort Collins in the past tense. And for a city that has tripled its population in the last 40 years, that makes sense: Locals are trying to get their heads around what happened. Where did all these people come from? How did a once small city with agricultural roots, nestled between the Wyoming border and the state’s famed Front Range, become a sprawling metropolitan area in the blink of an eye? And, for many the most important question, what next?

Stanley, a researcher at Colorado State University who has been writing and thinking about these issues for at least half her life, seems to fight defeatism when discussing the area’s rampant growth. In many ways, the city has done well — thinking and planning ahead early on, doing its best to create systems where expansion paid its way, and aiming to preserve the character and identity that made Fort Collins a desirable place to begin with.

And yet …

“It’s a lost cause,” Stanley says with a wry smile.

“We won a lot of battles, but we lost the war.”

Aug. 19, 1864. Population: 0

Although Fort Collins hasn’t been Bozeman, Montana’s size in nearly 50 years, it’s still easy today to spot similarities. Both are college towns (Colorado State, like Montana State, is a land-grant university). Both are located in semi-arid valleys near national forests, mountain ranges and along rivers (the Cache La Poudre meanders through the north side of town). Both are the county seat. Both have a history of ag that’s slowly given way to blooming high-tech sectors. Both frequent the “Best Of” lists in publications from Forbes to Time. Fort Collins is slightly more diverse, but both cities are overwhelmingly white. Even the elevations (Fort Collins 5,003, Bozeman 4,820) are similar.

A statue of Colorado State University's mascot, Cam the Ram, sits above the intersection of College Avenue and Prospect Road in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Timothy Hurst / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

More important, both have attracted a steady influx of newcomers that has shaped the respective cities and posed questions about identity, economy and the future.

As far as most people can tell, Fort Collins’ growth spurt began somewhere around the 1960s. There was no single catalyst. Some cite sociological shifts that made it more acceptable for young people to leave their hometowns. Others point to the expansion of nearby Denver or the romanticization of the outdoors and, by extension, the West. Still others credit Hewlett-Packard’s fateful decision in 1978 to open a facility in the city.

Whatever the reason, roughly a century after it was founded, what had been a sleepy-if-politically-active college town began to swell noticeably.

Even then, though, residents and local officials were thinking about and planning for expansion. In 1970, the city’s mayor created a committee that would look ahead to the year 2000. The committee, Designing Tomorrow Today, reported projections for everything from housing and transportation needs to education, utilities and social services. A few years later, task forces related to the committee created a bullet point list of specific needs, among them constructing a new library, community center, river trail and park systems, as well as the less sexy but still necessary items such as new sewer lines and a land use plan.

Locals were not standing by, either. About the same time, a trio of concerned citizens created a petition to create bicycle paths — a response to increasingly congested roads.

An economist by training, Stanley didn’t move to Fort Collins until the 1980s, but she stresses that everyone in the city has been planning for the growth, in one way or another, for going on half a century now.

“It has always been on everybody’s mind,” she says. “There have been very few years where people haven’t been talking about it, you haven’t been seeing articles in the newspaper about it and the general public hasn’t been complaining about it.”

Stanley, who has roots in Montana (born in Billings, her parents grew up on a 40-acre homestead near the Beartooth Mountains), knows Bozeman well. Describing the wedge that growth debates have driven between those in the Gallatin Valley, she says the same has happened in Fort Collins.

“That’s the thing about growth, you get two camps,” she says. “The people who benefit from growth want to label the regular citizens who do not benefit from growth as ‘no-growthers’ — as in they don’t want jobs. They want to label you as the bad person. But when we look at who wins and who loses, the regular citizens oftentimes lose.”

The Fort Collins Anheuser-Busch brewery, located among farm land in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Timothy Hurst / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

1970. Population: 43,337

If Linda Stanley is diplomatic about Fort Collins’ growth history, Kelly Ohlson, as is his nature, likes to be a bit more frank.

“We are not a model for growth management,” the former mayor says. “Don’t use us as a role model, unless you want to be a quarter of a million people overnight. Don’t do as we did.”

Fort Collins city councilman Kelly Ohlson poses for a portrait near the Cache la Poudre River in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Timothy Hurst / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Ohlson, somehow simultaneously fast-talking and thoughtful, moved to Fort Collins in 1973 to attend graduate school at CSU. He was first elected to the seven-seat City Council a decade later and served a stint as mayor a few years after that. Stanley and Ohlson are married, having met at a grassroots meeting (Citizens for a Livable Larimer County), in the early 1990s.

The 1980s were a difficult time for Colorado as a whole — the state experienced two separate recessions, losing almost 50,000 jobs in the process — but Fort Collins, insulated much like Bozeman by its university, not only dodged the worst of the storm, but continued to think about what the city would look like when the clouds cleared.

With developers quickly gobbling up the land around the edges of city limits, sprawl was the topic on everyone’s mind. In response, officials, in partnership with nearby Loveland, created what is now the city’s Growth Management Area — an agreement with the county delineating where Fort Collins expects to grow outside its city limits and specifically how that land will be developed and eventually annexed.

The GMA was a good, and necessary, response — outlining exactly how far the city could grow, while ensuring it would never become a homogeneous mass encompassing nearby Loveland and Timnath.

Then came the open space programs, the first iteration of which passed in 1992 in the form of a .25 percent city sales tax. The program now raises in the neighborhood of $14 million per year and has overseen the conservation of nearly 45,000 acres. The open space effort had the unintended side effect of creating a buffer around the city, acting in tandem with the GMA to effectively inhibit development. 

Father and son fishermen Kevin and Taylor Dunnigan, from Kalispell, Mont., fish for trout on a section of the Cache la Poudre River near the Prospect Ponds Natural Area in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Timothy Hurst / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

But, according to Ohlson, the GMA and the open space program weren’t enough. The city was trying to play an unwinnable game: with one hand encouraging development and economic growth, and with the other attempting to maintain the area’s character while keeping it affordable for locals.

“The strategic plans should always be better, better, better, not bigger, bigger, bigger. But that’s who government officials hear from: the people who want it bigger, bigger, bigger,” Ohlson says. “Building six lanes in both directions, at some point you have the same congestion as you did with two lanes. Now all you have is 12 crowded lanes rather than four.”

The ultimate example — cited by many as a clear statement of the city’s priorities — is industrial manufacturing giant Woodward. In 2016, the company relocated its $200 million headquarters to Fort Collins, bringing with it some 550 jobs, but not before the city coughed up roughly $40 million in tax incentives, fee waivers and tax increment financing, according to a report in the Coloradoan.

As is the case in Bozeman, Ohlson says, when companies like Woodward arrive in a community, its positions aren’t necessarily filled by locals, who often lack the required training or experience.

“It’s not importing jobs,” he says, “it’s importing growth.”

The recently constructed Harmony Technical Park stretches along East Harmony Road in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Timothy Hurst / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

But more than the incentives, Ohlson takes issue with the way local governments in places like Fort Collins and Bozeman continue to sell themselves to the outside world in the face of vocal opposition from their constituents.

“All I’m saying is you go growth-neutral,” he says. “You don’t subsidize, you don’t give incentives to growth, you make sure it pays its fair share in fees, you have good land use planning, you have good sign codes, you have good codes to protect riparian areas and natural habitats, you have a good open space program with proper funding. You do all those things and there are still going to be growth pressures. But you don’t have to throw gasoline on the fires of growth to benefit the few and cost the many.”

1990. Population 87,758

Getting growth to pay for itself, though a popular maxim, is easier said than done.

Fort Collins prides itself on its tough but fair impact fees, and though residents pay less in property taxes than their Bozeman counterparts, the Colorado city has the funding advantage of a 7 percent sales tax, nearly 4 percent of which is collected by the city itself and used for everything from roads to the aforementioned open space program.

Overcast clouds roll in over Fort Collins' indoor/outdoor Foothills Mall.
Timothy Hurst / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

According to Fort Collins Councilmember Ross Cunniff, the first questions Bozeman, or any growing city, should ask itself are who is benefiting from growth and who is paying for it?

“It’s not legal and not supported by your populace to say, ‘No more growth,’” Cunniff says. “But the people who live here shouldn’t have to pay for the people coming here. If we get 10,000 new people, I want them to pay their fair share of what the rest of us have been paying for decades.”

These quandaries are made all the more difficult by the fact that many of the newcomers, migrating from much more expensive locales such as the Bay Area or New York City, can bear the increases in cost of living. Take, for example, the median sales price for a single-family home in Fort Collins, which jumped 7 percent in 2017 to $375,000.

While there’s not much a city can do to address affordable housing directly, Cunniff says, it can affect the underlying factors, like growth, that cause housing prices to skyrocket in the first place. In his mind, leaving critical planning documents such as the land use code up to human interpretation, rather than creating them to be strictly prescriptive, is where Fort Collins went wrong and represents an area Bozeman could learn from.

Stringent building codes, sign codes, forward-thinking subdivision requirements and transportation plans are all well and good, Cunniff says, but at the end of the day, many of the intricacies are simply extensions of the ongoing tug of war: To grow or not to grow.

“I believe there is a misperception, pervasive in our society, that growth equals good,” Cunniff says. “The sad thing though is if something can’t continue forever; it’s going to stop. So how can we stop in a way that’s sustainable at the end rather than continuing to grow and grow and grow until you hit the crash?”

Rush-hour traffic in one of the more contested intersections, Prospect Road and College Avenue, in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Timothy Hurst / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

So where does that leave Bozeman, a city well along the same path Fort Collins has already tread?

“You shouldn’t be trying to bring people there,” Cunniff says. “Instead, you should be focusing on the quality of your municipal government, of the services offered, of the partnerships with other municipal providers. Work on making the community a good place to live for the people who live there now.”

As in the Gallatin Valley, there are those in Fort Collins who defend the approach the city has taken over the last 40 years. Wade Troxell, a Fort Collins native and the city’s current mayor, counts the area lucky that it has experienced the expansion it has.

Troxell doesn’t deny the drawbacks of growth (though he does dispute the claim that, in his words, the city promotes economic growth by “buying companies”) but chooses to focus on what he sees as its silver linings: the “Best Of” lists, the university’s increasing enrollment numbers and the investment from industry, along with city government accomplishments such as Fort Collins’ recently deployed $80 million bus system, soon-to-be-installed $138 million fiber optic internet service or $10 million kayak park.

“People fixate on numbers,” Troxell says. “I say it’s not a number, it’s understanding and retaining the values that make this community what it is. It’s being intentional about what we are, what we want to be and stay.”

To his point, Fort Collins has grown eight-fold in Troxell’s lifetime, and yet, he says, it’s a better place now than when he was growing up.

“Growth is a false choice,” Troxell says. “There are people who I’m sure arrived in Bozeman five years ago and want to close the door behind them. If you have a desirable place to live, your alternative is to make it more of a dump. And for me, that isn’t a choice.”

Residents cross the street at the intersection of Linden Street and Walnut Avenue in historic Old Town in Fort Collins, Colorado.
Timothy Hurst / Bozeman Daily Chronicle

2010. Population 143,986

In the end, for anyone looking to Fort Collins as an example of how to untangle the growth web, it’s difficult to view the city as anything other than a cautionary tale. Local leaders and residents did a lot right, both in terms of timing and execution, and yet the city still turned out a sprawling hodgepodge that only a few would deem an undeniable success story.

Most recent estimates place the city’s population around 167,000, and in planning documents and long-range projections, officials say they’re accounting for the addition of at least another 85,000 residents.

Bozeman likely won’t follow Fort Collins’ exact trajectory — Montana will likely never have a Denver equivalent, for one — but there are enough parallels to suggest a possible future for the Gallatin Valley.

For Ohlson, it’s as simple as the rule of 70, a formula used to calculate how long it will take a variable, such as population, to double. For Bozeman, conservative estimates put the number at roughly 20 years. More liberal estimates show closer to 15 years, meaning, if growth stays the course, the city’s population could hit 100,000 as soon as 2040.

Ohlson’s frustration with growth, a feeling shared by many who live here, is understandable. But despite everything that’s happened in Fort Collins, in the city he has grown to love, he maintains that it’s still better to do something — anything — than hold up one’s hands and give in to fate.

“It’s spitting in the ocean, but it doesn’t mean you don’t try,” he says. “You’re not going to change that you have a nice climate, you’re not going to change that you’re in a good location, you’re not going to change the demographic shifts. Those factors are hard to go against. But you can still get it right, you can still get a lot of it right before it’s too late.”

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