Boulder, Colorado vs Bend, Oregon

When we started preparing to move to the US, we were almost 100% sure we were going to go to Boulder, Colorado.  It’s a nice town, with a lot of things going for it: beautiful places to go outdoors, a good university, and a booming tech scene.  It’s not too big, and not too small for our tastes.  The climate is variable, but not bad.  It’s bike friendly. We already know several people there, to boot.  I’m pretty picky about where I live, and Boulder seems to check off a lot of things on the list that make a town a good place to live.  Having grown up in Oregon, the idea of going to Colorado, with many new places to explore, was also appealing.

With that in mind, I flew there from Italy to start interviewing at companies, check things out, and get started on finding a place to live.  I was pleasantly surprised at just how friendly, enthusiastic, and positive people were.  I like a lot of things about Italy, but people’s attitudes are often anything but positive.  There are a lot of cool people and cool things happening in tech in Boulder!

The only problem with it is that it’s expensive.  Boulder is one of very few places to have really captured something of the Silicon Valley ecosystem: a good university, lots of people in tech, and venture capital.  That’s a very impressive accomplishment, as tons of places try to rebrand themselves Silicon This or Silicon That without really succeeding.  The down side of this is that Boulder also seems to have inherited the house price trends and problems of San Francisco.

One part of the problem is that there is a significant minority of people in Boulder who seem to not want any change at all.  They want it to remain exactly as it was when they moved there 30 or 40 years ago, and the changes that have already taken place disturb these people.  They tend to be older, wealthier, own houses in town and tend to be vocal and politically active.  To understand the practical implications of this attitude, you have to know something about how Boulder is configured, geographically.

To the west are mountains which no one wants to see covered with new buildings.  On the east, Boulder is ringed by open space preserves, in order to avoid sprawling to the horizon, which is something most people are fairly happy with.  However, the anti-growth crowd also eschews density, despite the town being a very typical western US town with extremely low density.  Lots of wide streets, huge unused front yards, and tons of mostly empty parking lots for automobiles; something you’d see in many places in the US.  I’m more partial to slightly higher density cities, so that it’s easier and more convenient to go somewhere on foot or by bicycle (Boulder does have a pretty good bike lane network).  Here in Padova, our house is a 10 minute walk from both our children’s schools, as well as a grocery store, a pizza place, several cafes, and a few other little shops, and a tram stop that we can use to get downtown fairly quickly.  In any event, Boulder is an attractive location to live, and the burgeoning tech scene is causing highly paid workers to move there.

This is an “iron triangle“: you can’t have A) a desirable place to live, B) no housing growth and C) affordable housing.  You have to pick two.  No one wants A to go away, so Boulder has lost C. People like me, who are in tech, can still afford it, but unless they happened to move there and purchase a house years ago, teachers, nurses, firefighters and people like that likely will soon be priced out of the market entirely and be forced to commute in from nearby towns, increasing traffic and pollution.  This does not strike me as a very egalitarian or “progressive” way to go about things.

One suggestion favored by some in the debate about housing there is that “Boulder needs fewer jobs”, as put forth here: http://www.dailycamera.com/guest-opinions/ci_28237442/sally-schneider-how-maintain-boulders-quality-life :

“I went to the East Boulder workshop and couldn’t wait to discuss my ideas about slowing down job growth in Boulder and other ideas for the housing issues.”

Living in Italy, where unemployment is high, and pay low, that kind of attitude absolutely dropped my jaw.  You could sell your expensive Boulder house and live pretty well in many places in Italy if you want to come experience what a bad economy does for people.  It also seems to point to a lack of courage to try new things, and a selfishness very much not in keeping with my own progressive inclinations.

In concrete terms, the high prices for housing mean the average house price is nearing $600,000, and rents for fairly standard 3 bedroom/2 bath family homes are somewhere around $2500 – and that’s in fairly average locations, not the nicest bits of town.

Even so, I liked Boulder a lot, and I figured I’d be eligible to vote and make my own voice heard too, when we got there.  Being there in person confirmed a lot of the good things that I’d read, and I was pretty excited to get going with our move.

As time passed after returning to Italy, things didn’t move quite as quickly as I’d hoped on the job front, and the thought of dropping that much money on rent every month didn’t sit right, and was gnawing at me.  I’m interested in startups of all kinds, but especially the bootstrapped variety, and a place that is so expensive to live in would not be very good for that.  Also, we’d like to set aside some more money for the future.

On a whim, I dropped a note to a company in Bend, Oregon after seeing a “if you are interested in this, you might also consider that” on a job site.  To tell the truth, I hadn’t even thought of Bend.  My recollection of it was, as a child, a very small town that was suffering from the closure of its lumber mills, and then later on as something of a vacation destination and sleepy place to retire.  I didn’t think of it as a place where much was going on in tech or startups were happening.  The people who I spoke with at the company, though, were very enthusiastic, as well as quick and professional in their efforts to put together an offer in short order to compete with the offers in Boulder that had arrived.

I started doing some research on “Bend in 2015” as opposed to the Bend of my memories, and it seems it is starting to acquire the beginnings of a startup ecosystem, as described in this article: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/223997 .  There isn’t as much as in Boulder, it’s still smaller, and only in the next few years will it get a full-fledged 4 year university, if local NIMBY’s do not get their way ( http://www.bendbulletin.com/localstate/3236344-151/state-board-sides-with-osu-cascades-on-campus-appeal ).  Still though, it feels like a place that’s a bit hungrier for success, because it’s still something of an underdog.  Housing isn’t cheap in Bend, as it is a nice place to live, with tons of outdoor activities, but it’s still at levels I’d consider “expensive, but reasonable”, with a range of prices available.  The average price is just over half of what it is in Boulder, to put things in perspective.  Critically, there are also some interesting opportunities in biotech for my wife.

So when the company in question made an offer that was very competitive with those in Boulder, everything clicked: a good place to work, good pay, cheaper housing that we might be able to buy into sooner, and still plenty of outdoor opportunities and a dry climate.

That’s why we’re going to Bend, Oregon rather than Boulder, Colorado.

I have some regrets, as there were a lot of nice things in Boulder, and who knows, maybe we’ll go there one day yet, but Bend seems like the right move for now.