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A mural of Albert Einstein by artist Armando Silva looks on as residents walk down a sidewalk in downtown Greeley, Colorado. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
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What Allowed Greeley to Become One of the Fastest-Growing Metro Areas in the Country?

The population of Weld County swelled 30.1 percent in the past decade, according to new census data. We examined why—and how the expansion has impacted the community.

Talk to anyone who’s lived in Denver for at least the past decade, and chances are they’ll recount how fast the city has ballooned. The traffic! The cost of living! The seemingly endless stream of Texas transplants!

Yet as rapidly as the Mile High City expanded, there’s one pocket of Colorado where growth occurred at a significantly greater rate. And it’s probably not where you think.

Greeley is an agriculture-based community that many people further south associate with the scent of cow manure, which wafts Denver’s direction every time snow is on the way. But the area is much more than a “smelly town,” says Julie Jensen, CEO of the Greeley Area Realtor Association. It’s a growing city that’s attracting droves of new residents from around the state—and country. From 2010 to 2020, the population of the Greeley metropolitan statistical area (MSA) expanded from 252,825 to 328,981. The 30.1 percent increase makes it the fastest-growing metro area in Colorado and the fourth fastest-growing metro area in the country, according to 2020 census data released last month.

The Greeley MSA encompasses the entirety of Weld County, which spans 3,987 miles and is the third largest county in land mass. Colorado’s demographer, Elizabeth Garner, believes the area’s growth, in part, is because it is in “a perfect location.” Greeley, the county seat of Weld, sits 30 miles southeast of Fort Collins, about 53 miles east of Rocky Mountain National Park, and some 55 miles northeast of Denver. “It’s got some great transportation corridors,” says Garner.

A large share of Weld County residents work in the Denver metro area, according to Garner. And she believes that Weld’s proximity to Larimer County, which also has strong job and population growth, has fueled growth as well. Weld and Larimer are “really able to kind of build off of each other,” says Garner.

Greeley Mayor John Gates also wasn’t “terribly surprised” to hear about the population boom. “We knew that we were growing rapidly,” he says.

The biggest factor spurring development, Gates believes, is that Greeley’s median home price is significantly less than in surrounding communities. According to the most recent data from the Colorado Association of Realtors (CAR), the median sales price in July of a single-family home in Weld County was $450,000, compared to $526,500 in Larimer County, $650,000 in Denver County, and $799,500 in Boulder County.

“When you’re buying a home, especially a first-time home, and you can buy one of the same quality for roughly $100,000 less, that is a pretty good marketing tool,” says Gates. Another draw, he adds, is that Greeley has “growth availability,” meaning ample physical space to expand. That’s not the case in other Colorado counties, like Boulder, which has myriad zoning laws and land-use regulations. Or Broomfield, which spans just 33 square miles and is the smallest of Colorado’s 64 counties.

Moreover, many folks seem to view Greeley as a haven from more populated metro areas with heavier traffic, says Gates, who was born and raised in Greeley and has lived there for almost his entire life. Indeed, Jamie Goodvin, chair of the Greeley Area Realtor Association and a realtor with Remax Alliance, says that a number of folks have recently relocated to Greeley from the Denver metro area. These people, she says, are sick of traffic and the “fast-paced lifestyle” and choose Greeley for its small-town vibe.

Greeley is not yet a big city. Its population of about 109,000 is a Goldilocks size: It’s large enough to have city amenities—chain restaurants, a Target, multiple shopping malls—yet small enough to retain a tight-knit feel. “Any place you go to, you will run into somebody,” if not several people you know, says Jensen. “You don’t do that in a city of five million.”

The high number of young Coloradans in Weld County also played a role in its growth, says Garner. In 2020, the average age of residents was 34.1, compared to 36.2 in Denver County, 37.8 in Larimer County, and the statewide average of 37.3, according to data from the state demographer’s office. Because younger adults are more likely than older adults to have children, much of Weld’s growth is due to births, says Garner.

Moreover, Weld County is home to the University of Northern Colorado, which enrolls nearly 11,500 students, as well as large-scale factories for Leprino Foods, the world’s largest mozzarella cheese company, and JBS, one of the world’s largest meat processors. Garner explains that Weld has been a “very pro-growth county” in terms of its zoning policies and efforts to attract and retain businesses.

Also worth noting: Weld County is more racially and ethnically diverse than, for example, Boulder County, says Garner. A large Hispanic population lives in Weld, and statewide, that’s one of the fastest growing racial/ethnic groups, Garner points out. In the past decade, Colorado’s total Hispanic population increased by 21.6 percent, and Weld’s Hispanic population increased by 37.4 percent. Jensen believes that these diverse demographics partially explain Greeley’s growth.

Garner doesn’t expect Weld to grow much in 2021 given the pandemic’s toll on the oil and gas sector, an important industry in the county. But, she adds, this slowed growth is likely “a temporary setback” and not a lasting trend.

Like many places in Colorado, Weld’s available real estate inventory is “down substantially,” says Gates. In July, inventory of Weld County single-family homes for sale dropped 45 percent compared to the previous year, according to CAR data. Yet development—in both single-family and multi-family residences—continues, especially on the west side of Greeley. “You see it when you drive around town,” says Mandy Floreani, communications strategist for the Greeley Area Chamber of Commerce. “There’s new developments that are going up all the time.”

Some residents resent Greeley’s expansion. Nearly every week, Gates hears from someone, either via mail or in person at a coffee shop or restaurant, who believes the area is mushrooming too quickly. “I actually had a guy a couple weeks ago say he wanted to have his neighborhood back,” says Gates. “And I said, ‘that’s not going to happen.’ ”

Residents, Gates says, are concerned about the increased traffic. But while car volume has worsened, Gates insists it is not to the level of gridlock. The average time of his evening commute, for instance, has climbed modestly—from about seven to 11 minutes.

Moreover, the growth has spurred some positive changes. For example, five or 10 years ago, residents would have had to leave town to get a nice meal or go shopping, says Gates. But now, with the influx of restaurants and shopping centers, they can access those things in Greeley.

Looking ahead, Gates sees a need for “responsible and diversified growth” in Greeley. “It’s up to us to see that we have a diversification” of single-family residences, multi-family units, commercial properties, and industrial buildings, he says. He also acknowledges the need for more affordable housing to serve the 16.9 percent of Greeley city residents living in poverty.

Over the next 40 or 50 years, Greeley is preparing to double in size, according to Gates. Is it too much too soon? He doesn’t think so. “We’re not growing so fast we can’t handle it,” he says. “And I don’t think we ever will.”

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