The midnight massacre at a mall in Aurora, Colorado, is the latest blow to the state’s third-largest city, which has battled throughout its 121-year history to find an identity in a region dominated by nearby Denver.
City officials thought they notched wins last year with the announcement of an $824 million Gaylord Entertainment Co. hotel and convention center near Denver International Airport and a $300 million General Electric Co. solar plant -- both later put on hold. Well-publicized killings, including two in a shooting outside a church, preceded the July 20 attack in which 12 died and 58 were wounded at the Century 16 movie theater.
The theater anchors a mall, The Town Center at Aurora, which exemplifies the city’s struggle to become a destination. The mall became the place to be in the 1980s, only to endure a slow decline like many of Aurora’s other business districts.
“I remember when Aurora was the best place,” said Anne Akers, 25, a manager at Lane Bryant and a 13-year city resident. “Everyone wanted to go to the Aurora Mall.”
Akers, who has worked off and on at the mall since 2005, said it’s fallen out of style as customers prefer a plethora of nearby outdoor shopping centers. Now, she said, it’s known as the “ghetto mall,” a place where seniors and teens troll for deals.
Aurora will need to market itself aggressively to persuade businesses and residents that it isn’t defined by violence, said Bob McGowan, a professor of management at the University of Denver’s Daniels College of Business.
“It’s going to be a setback for Aurora, particularly if they’re trying to attract new folks or new businesses,” he said. “Any rational person would say, ‘Well, I just heard what happened, and is that a place I want to move to?’”
State officials agreed with McGowan’s assessment, adding that Aurora still holds an impressive economic development portfolio, including the continued expansion of the University of Colorado-Denver’s Anschutz Medical Campus.
“For people who haven’t had a reason to come here and where their impression is going to be shaped by this horrible instance in the news, it is going to take some effort to reach out and let them know the people who live here are an incredible community and that we have incredible economic opportunities,” said State Senator Morgan Carroll, whose district includes Aurora.
The city remains “one of the lowest crime areas for a city this size,” she added.
Violent crime in Aurora fell 4 percent from 2000 to 2010, even as its population grew by 17.6 percent, according to figures from the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the U.S. Census Bureau. Like suburbs around the country, the city became more diverse over the past two decades, as blue-collar workers were priced out of gentrifying Denver housing districts.
Aurora’s Hispanic population grew 902 percent from 1990 to 2010, Census Bureau figures show. Median household income dropped by 8 percent when adjusted for inflation, compared with a 4.9 percent inflation-adjusted change nationally, according to the Census.
Aurora also grew through aggressive annexation, said Andy Goetz, chairman of the Geography Department at the University of Denver. An increasing number of low- to middle-income residents were attracted to the city because of less expensive housing costs and more abundant multi-family housing, Goetz said.
It’s hard to draw a connection between the city’s changing demographics and the shootings, Goetz said. “Where this happened, it was a typical suburban mall,” Goetz said. “It could have been any mall in the Denver area, it could have been any mall in the country.”
The city’s business setbacks aren’t the only economic bumps it has endured. Aurora watched its vibrant central business district along Colfax Avenue suffer a slow decline after the interstate system came online in the 1950s and 1960s, said Bill Convery, the state historian at History Colorado, a Denver-based organization formerly known as the Colorado Historical Society. Efforts to build a new hub nearby in the 1970s never got off the ground, said Convery, who grew up in Aurora.
“Aurora never really had an identity of its own -- it was always subsumed to Denver,” Convery said. “It’s always been a city in desperate need of a center.”
Covering 154 square miles and resting in three counties, Aurora is home to high-income suburbs in the south and poorer areas in the north. The city ranked among the nation’s fastest growing municipalities in the 1970s and 1980s.
The city claims one of the state’s best school districts, Cherry Creek, in the south. In the north, Paris Elementary School exemplifies the challenges of a burgeoning population, with 93 percent of students on free and reduced-price meals, according to Aurora Public Schools data.
A few miles away from where the theater shooting took place -- near the apartment of the suspect, James Eagan Holmes, 24 -- two men were shot in unrelated incidents July 15, with one dying afterward at a nearby hospital. The shootings, both after dark, took place near a major thoroughfare lined with check-cashing stores, pawn shops, liquor stores and restaurants.
“I really don’t like Aurora,” said Michael Lucero, 55, who was standing near a convenience store selling burritos out of a plastic bag for $1 each. “I’m scared of this town. I’ve got to get back to Denver.”
Lucero said he moved to an apartment behind the pawn shop about a year ago because, lacking steady work, he was priced out of Denver. Businesses in the area say they are not only trying to cope with the effects of the recession, but also with what they perceive to be a rise in crime.
Tina Sharew, who owns a cafe in Aurora’s Martin Luther King Jr. Branch Library, said her business did well when it first opened in that location, then dropped from 2009 to 2011. It is improving somewhat this year, she said.
“When I moved here, I felt peace, especially compared with Washington DC, it was quiet,” Sharew said. “I don’t feel comfortable or secure.”
Editors: Jeffrey Taylor, Mike Millard