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6½ lessons the Twin Cities can learn from Denver

“The outdoor lifestyle and livable qualities here are a big attraction” to Denver, says Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation executive Tom Clark.

The nation’s leader in attracting educated young people, the Mile High City thrives as a result of urban assets such as a strong downtown and extensive light-rail network. This article is part 1 of three pieces exploring what a trio of other cities can teach Minneapolis-St. Paul. It is adapted from a new McKnight Foundation report, “A Tale of Three Cities.”

The history of Minneapolis-St. Paul (MSP) has not been one of steady growth and prosperity. We peaked in the Census rankings of largest U.S. urban centers in 1890 at No. 9, ahead of Washington, Detroit and Los Angeles. 

The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 diminished our influence as a gateway to the Pacific Coast. Amid the social unrest of the 1930s, Fortune magazine warned, “The revolution may come from the Minneapolis gateway district” and went on to pronounce St. Paul “cramped, hilly and stagnant. … Its slums are among the worst in the land. … [if] the entire city slid into the Mississippi and disappeared, it would hardly make a ripple in the economic life of the United States.”  

Over the past 70 years, however, we have enjoyed unprecedented stability and a national reputation as a progressive, prosperous, pleasant place to live. But we won’t maintain this enviable position by continuing to do things as we always have. It’s more important than ever to pay attention to what’s going well here and what needs attention and action.

One good way to make sure we keep up is to look at “peer cities,” for innovative ideas to borrow. That’s why I recently visited Seattle, Denver and Toronto for a McKnight Foundation report, which will be excerpted in MinnPost starting with Denver today.

Like Minneapolis-St. Paul, Denver is a landlocked city in a remote location that thrives thanks to its surprising urban sophistication and nearby outdoor opportunities. While there are no easy, off-the-shelf solutions to our problems, Denver offers inspiration and practical examples to help us make sure MSP will be a good place for everyone to live, work and raise a family.

Top region for educated young people

Denver is not the first place we expect to find fresh ideas for making sure the Minneapolis-St. Paul region continues to thrive. Many of us tend to think of it as the place we claim our luggage and rent a car before skiing or hiking in the mountains. Well, not anymore. The Mile-High City boasts many enviable assets that we ignore at our peril. It’s the top region in the country for attracting educated people aged 25-34, according to a Brookings Institution study, which ranked MSP 36th.

“The outdoor lifestyle and livable qualities here are a big attraction — similar to Minnesota,” says Tom Clark, executive of the Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation. He ought to know, since he grew up in Canby, Minnesota, and attended college in Moorhead before embarking on a career promoting Denver as a great place to do business. Two years ago, the Denver Post named Clark “Business Person of the Year,” citing his role in attracting to town a new U.S. Patent Office, the relocation of several corporate headquarters, the addition of direct flights to Tokyo, and hundreds of new jobs at Hitachi Data Systems and the Kaiser Permanente health care organization.

This is quite a turnaround from the 1980s, when a crash in the energy business threatened to turn Denver into a ghost of its former self. The downtown office vacancy rate was 31 percent. The city of Denver’s population dropped almost 10 percent between 1970 and 1990.

But since then it’s grown by 32 percent. What happened?

Denver climbed back by shaking off the dust of its frontier past, and creating a strong, proud urban identity. A forest of cranes constructing new lofts and high-rise apartment buildings can be seen all around the downtown area. The city is strikingly diverse, with 48 percent of residents being people of color and 23 percent speaking Spanish at home. The Denver area is attracting clusters of companies in well-paying industries like biosciences, aerospace and wind power.

“Denver’s attracting people by being the best urban place we can be,” explains Thomas Gougeon, president of the local Gates Family Foundation and a former city official and developer. “That’s not a luxury, it’s how you find your role in the world. Even the suburbs now want downtowns; they want transit, they want density, they want public spaces, they want diversity, they want culture.”

Here are some pillars of Denver’s success:

1. Invest heavily downtown

A local point of pride, repeated to me several times during my visit, is that Denver’s downtown is 10th largest in the country even though the metro area ranks 21st in population.

It’s Tami Door’s job to keep things lively. As president of the Denver Downtown Partnership (DDP) she’s in charge of everything from throwing a New Year’s Eve party for 75,000 to organizing 150 events drawing 5,500 people and 650 companies during Denver StartUp Week, a celebration of entrepreneurism. 

“Nothing you see in downtown Denver is an accident,” she says. “There isn’t a tree or public space that wasn’t thought about methodically.”

The Downtown Partnership focuses on keeping people happy with programs to expand park facilities for better gathering places, to ease the way for starting new businesses, to improve walking for better connections around town, and to build protected bike lanes for safer, smoother cycling.

2. Collaborate. Collaborate. Collaborate.

Clark, who is in charge of boosting business throughout the Denver area, says “the urban center is the shop window for the whole region — even people in the suburbs see the advantage of making it strong.”  That’s just one sign of a carefully cultivated collaborative culture that grew out of the 1980s economic bust. “Things were desperate then,” he says. Cities and suburbs knew they couldn’t keep squabbling among themselves.

There are now two rules that govern business and civic leaders here, Clark outlines: “You can’t steal from other communities, and you can’t speak ill of your neighbors.”

3. Think big about rail

Gougeon credits a coalition of regional mayors for the 122 miles of light rail and commuter rail lines now running or under construction throughout the Denver area. The Metro Mayors Caucus championed a $4.7 billion transit initiative based on a 0.4 percent hike in property taxes, which was approved by Denver region voters in 2004 despite strenuous objections from then-Gov. Bill Owens. There are now six light-rail lines converging downtown with a new one slated for 2016, plus three commuter rail routes expected to serve the newly remodeled downtown Union Station by 2016, with another coming in 2018. Together this marks the most ambitious new transit system built in America since the Washington subway in the 1970s.

The Denver area now features 122 miles of light rail and commuter rail.

“The 20- to 35-year-olds, they’re not big on cars,” Tom Clark points out. “They want to ride trains to work and entertainment. From an economic point of view, if you can offer them a number ways to get around you’ve got a great advantage.”

4. Welcome newcomers

Besides its urban amenities and 300+ days of sunshine a year, Denver has become a magnet for newcomers because it makes them feel at home. Michael Leccese, director of the Urban Land Institute-Colorado moved here from Washington, D.C., and remembers how different it felt. 

“You could go into someone’s office and say, ‘This is who I am and here’s what I do.’ It’s a really friendly place.”

Tami Door, originally from Detroit, concurs, “The sense of community is great at all levels.  If you have an idea, somebody will listen and take you seriously.”

5. Create city districts from scratch

Denver has become a national leader in the movement to create new places from the ground up that embody the qualities we cherish in traditional neighborhoods. 

The most promising project I saw is Belmar, built on the site of what was the Villa Italia mall in suburban Lakewood.  It bustles with the energy of a downtown thanks to walkable streets filled with diversions such as public art, a pub, a town commons, cinemas and a bowling alley as well as upscale shops. Parking is accommodated in a series of small lots and ramps, which for the most part do not detract from the ambiance. Nearby housing and office space provide the key ingredient for an urban experience — a mix of uses within walking distance. The most important takeaway from Belmar is that it’s possible to transform an auto-dominated suburban landscape to a place where people matter as much as cars.

5½ Boost public education (although there are no easy answers)

A possible downside to all the talented people moving to Denver, wonders Gougeon (who moved here from Philadelphia), is whether it contributes to the achievement gap because well-educated newcomers scoop up the best jobs — which is good for the economy but not for the region’s disadvantaged residents.  MSP is not alone in facing a stark racial disparity in economic and educational outcomes.

Reducing the achievement gap throughout Colorado is one mission of the Gates Family Foundation that Gougeon heads.

“We’re closing the gap in Denver schools,” he explains, “but at a pace that will take decades to catch up. About half of all poor kids will not graduate from high school, and only one in 10 will graduate from a four-year college.”

City schools are seeing a jump in test scores, and in a period when public-school enrollment is shrinking in many cities Denver is showing the biggest gains of any big city district in the country. Both trends are explained in part by a switch to neighborhood schools within the context of a citywide choice system, as well as by the city’s growing middle-class population. However it should be noted that Myron Orfield, who charts education trends across the country at the University of Minnesota Law School’s Institute on Metropolitan Opportunity, says Denver is one of the most rapidly re-segregating school districts in the country.

6. Vitalize public housing

Disparities in achievement among low-income students cannot be solved solely in the classroom. The home environment exerts a big influence on kids’ success in school and beyond. That’s one reason for the Denver Housing Authority’s Healthy Living Initiative, which promotes fitness, good nutrition and social well being as steps to a better life.

This philosophy is showcased at Mariposa, a new community just south of downtown where 278 dilapidated public housing units are in the process of being replaced by attractive mixed-income apartment buildings (1/3 market rate, 1/3 subsidized housing, 1/3 public housing) that Housing Authority senior developer Kimball Crangles says is designed to help close “the gap in education and job opportunity caused by the cycle of poverty.” 

Education and employment services are available to residents, together with cooking classes and plots in a community garden for healthier eating. Buildings, streets and public spaces around Mariposa are designed to maximize physical activity. Walking for transportation and recreation is encouraged by wider-than-usual sidewalks and traffic-calming devices to prevent motorists from speeding. An innovative project in one of the newest buildings entices residents to take the stairs over the elevator by reinventing the traditional open staircase (to meet modern fire codes) equipped with a whimsical light and music show that begins whenever you climb up or down.

Thursday: What we can learn from Seattle.

Comments (10)

  1. Submitted by Matthew Ng on 06/04/2014 - 11:19 am.

    You can make that 7 or 7 and a half lessons. Minnesota needs to legalize medical marijuana, allow flowers, add more than one distribution site, and let the people decide.

    You don’t think it will work? Colorado has so many millions of dollars, they don’t know what to do with it.

    All of these different changes could be made if we had the money, and that money could definitely come from taxed and regulated marijuana sales. And don’t just say that our inadequate bill already does that… because let’s be honest, it doesn’t and is one of the worst medical marijuana bills in the United States.

  2. Submitted by David Frenkel on 06/04/2014 - 01:12 pm.


    The Rocky Mountains and the oil industry were downplayed in this article. The ski industry alone in CO is a multi-billion dollar business and the outdoors and the mountains is a major draw for Denver both for tourists and residents. There was the oil industry collapse as mentioned in the 1980’s but is back and Denver is in the heart of the inter mountain oil business. While downtown Denver is nice it is not a bustling business and entertainment center. There is a nice urban walking mall downtown and a nice convention center but nothing of world class notoriety. If somebody could figure out how Minneapolis could have Denver winters it would certainly help draw people and business to MN.
    Also Denver did what Minneapolis should have done a long time ago, move the major airport way out of town.

  3. Submitted by Steve Sande on 06/04/2014 - 02:21 pm.

    Downtown Denver’s design hinders retail

    The idea that Denver’s downtown is one of its strengths was a surprise to me. Granted, Denver has made hefty investments in large-scale downtown development. Yet I always think of its downtown as unsuccessful. Why? Because it lacks a critical mass of retail stores:

    “Denver’s successful revitalization projects, including the 16th Street Mall, Larimer Square, Denver Pavilions, Coors Field, Central Platte Valley/Riverfront Park, and the soon to be completed Union Station, have created vital pedestrian activity and elevated downtown’s status as the region’s premier destination for eating, drinking, and entertainment. However, downtown still lacks the diverse set of retail stores found in cities with a core of downtown departments stores. In addition, downtown’s flagship retail destination (REI) is located in an isolated setting at the edge of downtown, limiting the ability to draw customers to other downtown establishments.” (Retail study prepared for City and County of Denver, June 2013)

    Minneapolis is the rare mid-sized city that can still claim two or three mid-sized department stores downtown, along with a smattering of specialty retail. That’s a significant attribute, I think, although the current trend is for cities promote downtown as a places to live, work and be entertained, with shopping taking a backseat. While those other components are important, the prospect of living there would lose appeal for me if downtown were to lose its major retail destinations.

    Minneapolis’ current plans do not inspire confidence about the future of downtown retail. The upsurge in downtown living is a huge plus, of course. But development trends favoring expansion of the office core may have the unintended effect of undercutting Nicollet Mall retail. One planning document a while back even seemed to encourage major retail development on the periphery of downtown, despite the poor results from that approach in Denver. (One factor in the original success of the Nicollet Mall, according to Marisa Koivisto’s historical series, might be its status as “one of the most compact retail districts in the nation:” )

    Revamping the Mall is emphasized, but in some of the (beautiful) Nicollet Mile drawings the superabundance of trees makes retail signage all but invisible. Does downtown Minneapolis have a real retail strategy?

  4. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 06/04/2014 - 04:42 pm.

    Ah, home…

    The body is here, but the spirit is a couple miles west of Belmar, just off the Alameda Parkway in Lakewood (42.5 square miles, pop. 145,000+), where I lived for several of my Colorado years. Walking distance to either express bus or West Corridor light rail rail to downtown, even less walking distance to Lakewood restaurants and services, an hour’s drive from South Park and the heart of the Colorado Rockies, and winters where the sun shines with enough moxie to actually melt snow at the relatively low altitude of Denver (it’s the “Mile High City,” remember), while the ski areas at 10,000 feet have acres of powder to carve, if you’re into that sort of thing.

    The REI store in Denver has more retail space than ALL the REI stores in the metro Twin Cities put together, and while it’s true that it’s on the fringe of downtown proper, that doesn’t keep people from miles around from shopping there, and it’s easily reached by car and bus. I thought the 16th Street pedestrian mall less successful as a retail area than some downtown Denver boosters would have you believe, but it was a very convenient transit corridor (there’s a free shuttle bus) to the state capitol building and Denver city hall, as well as scores of restaurants and shops. It struck me, still strikes me, as more friendly to visitors than the Nicollet Mall here.

    As a Lakewood planning commissioner, I arrived just at the tail end of the Belmar development, and agree with Ms. Harris’ description, for the most part. It’s a little too upscale in tone to suit me, but with lots o’ retail, a genuine movie theater, and plenty of condos for the relatively affluent, it’s nonetheless a worthwhile development – and it’s right across the street from Lakewood’s city hall (aka “Government Center”), with easy access to downtown, the mountains, and areas north and south (most of urban Colorado lives within 25 miles of I-25, which parallels the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies).

    The light rail works fine, as does the bus system, and rush hour gridlock on I-25 is no worse than what we see here on stretches of I-35W and I-94. The aggressive instincts of Colorado drivers are more overt than those of Minnesota drivers, and I found the former easier to deal with because they were more obvious.

    Beyond all that, I had reason to attend quite a few meetings in downtown Denver, as well as across the street from Belmar, in my role as a planning commissioner and member of several associated committees. I found the Denver environs to be much more friendly in terms of climate, navigation, and transit (including automobile use and public transit in several forms) than the Twin Cities. I was comfortable in downtown Denver in ways that I’m not comfortable in downtown Minneapolis.

    I should add that “Dr. COG” (the Denver Regional Council of Governments) plays a role similar to the Met council here, but does so, it seems to me, more effectively, and more publicly. Because the regional municipalities recognize the value of regional planning and development, there seems far less overt resistance to (or, phrased differently, far more collaboration in regard to) plans and policies initiated by DRCOG than I’ve seen here in relation to the Met Council, especially when it comes to light rail.

    Can’t speak to the marijuana issue, since I’m not a user and don’t want to be.

    What the Twin Cities have that Denver does not have is, however, a vital resource, one that will become increasingly so in coming decades. That resource is water. Denver average 10 to 12 inches less precipitation annually than does Minneapolis, though they’re both in Zone 4 for gardening purposes when it comes to temperatures. Denver relies on the South Platte River for water, just as Minneapolis and St. Paul rely on the Mississippi, but the South Platte is very nearly a creek compared to the Mississippi. I expect the availability of water to be the ultimate limitation on Colorado development

    • Submitted by Steve Sande on 06/05/2014 - 07:05 pm.

      Retail islands

      The problem with the REI store in Denver, judging by Mr. Schoch’s informative comment, is not that it does not draw its own customers. It’s that the isolated popular store on the edge of downtown doesn’t help the many other competing centers of that rather sprawly downtown.

      If you add up all the people drawn to the different downtown Denver districts, perhaps there would be enough of them to support a thriving, full service central shopping district. (Once investments have been made elsewhere, however, it’s kind of too late.)

  5. Submitted by Ted Hathaway on 06/04/2014 - 08:37 pm.

    Apples to Oranges

    This is an unfair comparison. Apart from the obvious differences in climate and physical amenities (milder winters, big mountains), Denver is by far the biggest city in the state and is three times the physical area of Minneapolis. Minneapolis has always had to share attention with St. Paul and, for decades now, the much more populous part of Hennepin County, while Denver is both the central city AND its own county!

    Minneapolis is one of the smallest “large” cities in the US by area. On top of that, it was fairly carved up like a roast by the interstates, while in Denver, they mostly go around the city. Mpls lost nearly 10% of its housing stock to the freeways. Minneapolis used to be the big dog in MN, but that role ended decades ago. The f-you attitude much of the Legislature has had for the city for many years reflects this. As by far the biggest city and the capitol of the state, I don’t see that happening to Denver. It will always be the big dog. Expecting Minneapolis to somehow emulate that is unrealistic.

  6. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2014 - 09:32 am.

    Interesting read but…

    I don’t think you can suggest “solutions” in any coherent way without first describing the problem. What “problems” are the Twin Cities trying to solve? Population? Transit? Retail? I don’t see any direct connections between these “solutions” and any clearly identified problem in the Twin Cities?

    MPLS and Denver have very different histories and geographic characteristics so I have to agree with Ted that comparisons can be dodgy.

    As for retail, remember retail isn’t everything. I think the downtowns in MN may have to thread a line between being place people shop, and places people go to and live in. I almost never go to MPLS to shop, and I can’t think of any reason I would. For one thing, I either have to ride my bike, which limits the kinds of stuff I can buy to what I can carry on my bike, or spend an hour or more on the bus just getting in an out of MPLS (and I live on border of MPLS in St. Louis Park), or drive down there and pay to park somewhere. Why would I do that when there’s nothing in MPLS I can’t find elsewhere? Beyond that there are more practical considerations such as: “shop where?” I have no idea what stores can be found within that 8 mile long skyway system and I’m not interested in exploring, it would take more than two hours just walk 8 miles and if I want to walk around for two hours I’m not gonna do in the skyway. Meanwhile developers have destroyed Calhoun Square and St. Anthony Main as shopping destinations, and Uptown proper is no more attractive as a shopping destination than downtown. Basically I think retail in the city is best geared towards serving people who live there, not bringing people in. In the meantime both downtowns have destroyed their streetscapes with skyways and mediocre architecture.

    I do however GO to MPLS on nearly a daily basis. I ride the bike trails, walk my dogs around the lakes, and use the dog parks (We pay extra for non-residen dog t park permits). We also frequent many restaurants.

    • Submitted by Steve Sande on 06/05/2014 - 06:59 pm.

      For your shopping convenience…

      I agree with Mr. Udstrand that inconvenient shopping repels potential customers. Indeed, nobody wants to wander the skyway system from end to end looking for stores. The far nodes of that network are better suited to smaller convenience or service retail establishments serving workers and residents in the immediate area, and I think that’s what’s there, mostly.

      Most “major” shopping trips in downtown Minneapolis were, and to some extent probably still are, accomplished within a few blocks of 7th Street and Nicollet. That’s been the case for many decades. The adjacent dense core of offices is a support to the Nicollet Mall retail district. Diffusion of the office and retail cores can be a hindrance to viable retail, as studies suggest most downtown workers will not walk more than a few blocks to shop. This would especially be the case for those commuters who are accustomed to automobile-centric environments and in-front-of-the-door parking.

      My hunch is that people who specifically choose to live downtown, perhaps because they prefer walkable environments, might walk a bit further to shop than most office workers. If the back-to-the-city movement is a long-term trend, I would hope that means that more people in neighborhoods convenient to downtown will sometimes shop there — especially if there are dependable, high-frequency transit options.

      In any case, if anchor retailers were to spread out across all corners of our expanding downtown, getting to one or more of them would become a hassle for a great many would-be shoppers. Most wouldn’t stay in business long. An assortment of isolated stores is not a critical mass, not a pleasurable shopping experience, and nobody with a long and varied shopping list is going to go there. It’s easier to get in the car and go to a regional mall or power center to get all your shopping done at once. If you don’t have a car, well, too bad your city lacked a viable plan to support its central shopping district. Better either buy a car or get used to spending much of your time getting your shopping done. So strike “convenience” and “sustainability” from the list of benefits derived from downtown living, and possibly add “expensive parking” to the other drawbacks.

  7. Submitted by Paul Udstrand on 06/05/2014 - 09:48 am.

    Talking about Twin City problems

    If I had to identify some problems with MPLS and St. Paul I’d say:

    1) Transit, THAT’s a lesson we can learn from Denver
    2) Guys like Rybak and the new Mayor seem to think all any city can be about is pro sports. I notice one thing that’s NOT mentioned about Denver is all kinds of new sports stadiums and arenas. MPLS has three, I don’t know what Denver has but obviously the author doesn’t think they play a significant role in the cities “vitality”. The only thing our mayors seem to be able to imagine is new sports related developments and the one thing we know about those is they deliver miniscule bang for the buck in terms of vitality. During the hockey play-offs for instance there were a lot people hanging around the arena but the rest of downtown St. Paul was characteristically dead.
    3) Too few public events that encourage people to come downtown, and I’m don’t mean art fairs. For instance, thousands of people including my wife and I used to go down to St. Anthony Main on New Years Eve for the fire works. MPLS stopped having New Years Eve fireworks? Now they killed the Holidazzle as well, what’s up? Anything that’s not related to pro-sports is being cancelled? They do have nice stuff at the Lake Harriet Band Shell most evenings. I think the Dakota Jazz fest is a good model for Downtown events but one problem is they don’t have a lot of good spaces for such things. Maybe the Mall revamp and that new park by the stadium will help.

  8. Submitted by Kathy Speed on 06/07/2014 - 07:01 pm.

    Denver vs Mpls

    Whenever I neared the Burnsville Parkway on I-35 and could begin to see the downtown Mpls skyline driving back to MN to visit family and friends from Denver, I got a little shiver thinking how nice it was to be back to visit the land of Oz. Minneapolis and Denver are very comparable cities. The current popular item in public planning discussions in Denver is multi modal corridors. Denver has made a huge investment in light rail transit which as it comes on-line over the next few years will be a huge plus not only for the core city but the region. Just how much longer until the Northstar line is fully extended into the City of St. Cloud? It was a crazy decision to stop that at Big Lake.

    Denver should have learned from Mpls and capitalized on the Cherry Creek parkway to become more like the Minnehaha Parkway in Mpls. Denver chopped it up with street closures every few blocks and it is similar to Minnehaha only near the downtown core. What an attraction that would have been for Denver.
    While it is popular for bikers and walkers, it does not offer the same sense of community linking that Minnehaha does.

    I noticed that the article quotes Thomas Gougeon as saying that people want density. Not in Denver they don’t but there is very little choice as the city is hemmed in on all sides with little space to grow so the only way to grow is up. The highest and best use for land is not necessarily what is best for a community and the diversity and access to opportunity it needs. Cherry Creek and Cherry Creek North are two regional draws for retail shopping that are less than 7 minutes from the downtown core. Cherry Creek is a walkable urban location that is undergoing a boom in construction. Although height restrictions are in place they were modified recently which will dramatically change the character of the area. The two largest infill areas of Lowry and Stapleton are successful but at a cost. The last 70 acres called Boulevard One is going in now and the only potentially affordable option for those making $ 75,000/yr or less will be very small condo units. With public policy makers agreeing with developers that dense development is the way to go, it pushes the less affluent citizens to pocket neighborhoods that will have a difficult time of ever improving themselves or their neighborhood housing. This is what we are beginning to see in the schools. George Washington High School has one of the most successful IB programs in the city, but instead of seeking to improve the Advanced Placement/High Honors track of courses, they are changing the IB program to hopefully address the achievement gaps. This economic segregation will ripple through with unintended consequences. Access and availability are cautionary lessons that Mpls should learn from Denver. Mpls needs to be aggressive in looking at the composition of its neighborhoods in rental vs ownership and the age of the housing stock. Henry Ford had the right idea that if his assembly line workers could afford his cars then the company as a whole would prosper. It really is not that different for cities, improve the affordability of neighborhoods across the city and people in public housing have options to grow towards.

    The City of Denver puts all the audits of city agencies on its website and the audit model has received national awards. I would encourage Mpls city government to become as transparent as possible. That transparency combined with Minnesota’s history of active citizen involvement will direct better choices.

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