Long known as temporary lodging for ski bums and others with wanderlust, the mountain states lately have become the permanent home to growing numbers of singles and young families.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, between 1990 and 2000 Colorado's population grew 23.1%, to 4 million from 3.3 million; Utah's population grew 23.6%, to 2.2 million from 1.7 million; and Idaho's population grew 24.3%, to 1.2 million from 1 million.

Despite the attractive demographics, observers in all three states echo Jake Boyer, a project manager with Salt Lake City-based office and retail developer Boyer Co. who continues to fight misconceptions about the western states.

“Once national retailers really study the market and look closely at the demographics,” Boyer says, “they're trying to figure out why they weren't here a little earlier.”

Colorado

The affluent high-tech corridor between Denver and Boulder has blossomed as a retail destination, and developers are now shifting their gazes to the Denver market's southern fringe.

Newport, Calif.-based Koll Development Co. is in the early stages of planning a neighborhood center on 18 acres in Littleton, says Greg Mickelson, vice president of retail properties for Koll's western division. “Littleton is a growing area,” Mickelson says, “and there's business growth that's coming, as well.”

A venture between Cleveland-based Developers Diversified Realty and Memphis, Tenn.-based Poag & McEwen is developing a 244,000-sq.-ft. lifestyle center in Littleton with an anticipated opening in 2002.

In all, the Denver market has nearly 2 million sq. ft. of retail construction underway, according to a fall report by CB Richard Ellis. Dean Insalaco, director of retail services for the firm's Denver office, sees nothing short of a recession freezing the growth.

“Everybody seems to be making money right now,” Insalaco says. “We've also been under-retailed, and we're quickly catching up to the demand, perhaps, but we're not over-retailed yet.”

Utah

Being under-retailed generally isn't much of a problem in the Salt Lake City area — when it comes to certain tenants, that is. But the Boyer Co. set out to change that a couple of years ago when it began developing The Gateway, a $375 million mixed-use project on the west side of downtown that includes some 700,000 sq. ft. of shops and entertainment and cultural venues scheduled to open this November.

“People were getting on a plane and going to Scottsdale (Ariz.) or Denver or anywhere where the shopping experience was better,” Boyer says. “Our intent was to go after the best of the best that had never before contemplated entering the market.”

So far, the company has fulfilled its intent, bringing in first-timers such as Galyan's, J.Crew, Fleming's Prime Steakhouse and California Pizza Kitchen.

In nearby Murray, The Rouse Co. of Columbia, Md., is planning a $125 million renovation of Fashion Place, a mall it acquired in 1998 from Toronto-based TrizecHahn Corp. Rouse wants to add a four-level Meier & Frank department store and expand Nordstrom and Dillard's. The mall would nearly double in size to 1.1 million sq. ft.

In addition to those projects, a deluge of development by The Home Depot, Lowe's, Costco, and Wal-Mart, which is bringing its Supercenter concept to the state, will add about 2 million sq. ft. to the market in 2001, according to Colliers Commerce CRG of Salt Lake City. All this activity is refreshing to Rich Robins, a broker with the company.

“We're glad to see it, because if the new stores like it here, it could create more opportunities,” Robins says. “I can sell myself silly and retailers will never come to Utah until they hear somebody's doing well.”

Idaho

Convincing retailers to move into Idaho poses an even greater challenge to brokers. But that also may be changing. Developers Diversified opened the first 500,000 sq. ft. of Meridian Crossroads in 1999 and should have the remaining 200,000 sq. ft. finished next year. Meridian, a community within the Boise metropolitan area, has seen its population grow to 57,000 from 9,500 since 1990 and the average household income within five miles is nearly $70,000.

“It has come online faster than we expected, frankly,” says Craig Trottier, development director for Developers Diversified. “There's no question that initially we faced a challenge.”

First-time retailers the center has introduced to the area include Shepler's, Sportsman's Warehouse and Bed Bath & Beyond.

“For a number of years, this was a one-store town,” says Brook Blakeslee, a retail broker with Colliers International in Boise. “But we've got a nice base of white collar jobs, and national tenants are starting to look at doing their second and third stores in the area.”

Joe Gose is a Kansas City-based writer.