With its new restaurants and stores, Denver's recently reopened Union Station is bustling now. But five years ago, it would have been empty.
"If you would have come down here on a Saturday, there would have been no one in here," says Walter Isenberg, who runs Sage Hospitality, one of the main architects of Union Station's resurgence. "It would have been this vacant, desolate hall. Ceilings were peeling, kind of in some major disrepair."
Now, Josh Murphy, 24, who works a few blocks from the station, is sipping on a locally brewed beer in the station's Great Hall. He says this is exactly what his generation is looking for.
"You can hang out or you can get a drink or some food," he says. "It's also useful. The bus is coming and going, the light rail is coming and going, so this is a good place to be."
Across the country, cities like St. Paul, Minn., and Kansas City, Mo., have revitalized their once-dilapidated train stations in ways that are spurring development. Denver officials hope their station's revamp — complete with a luxury hotel and adjacent public transportation hub — will help drive new downtown development as well.
For more than 100 years, Denver's Union Station was the city's front door. During the golden age of train travel, scores of trains passed through every day. That era may be long over, but the city is banking on the station's $54 million makeover.
"Millennials are really driving this great inversion from the suburbs back to the city, but also baby boomers," says Jeremy Nemeth, chairman of the planning and design department at the University of Colorado, Denver.
"People are graduating from college and saying, 'Where do I want to move?' They move there, then they look for the job. So cities are really taking note of that and creating these wonderful places that will attract those types of individuals they want to attract," he says.
And Nemeth says those millennials and baby boomers are gravitating toward a new way of living.
"I think both are really looking for more choice, and are really tired of taking care of large houses in the suburbs and commuting long distances, and having to drive to just meet up with someone for a cup of coffee or a drink," he says.
Nemeth says cities that provide multiple transit options, access to bike and walking paths and renovated public spaces like union stations are growing very appealing to the younger and older generations.
Rafael Ortega, county commissioner in Ramsey County, Minn., says this sea change was one of the reasons St. Paul revamped its train station in 2012.
Within six months "of Union Depot being open, we had several vacant buildings around it being purchased, old parking lots for housing," he says.
But simply renovating a station isn't a magic formula for instant growth, says George Guastello, president of the Union Station in Kansas City, Mo. You can't just fix one up and expect it to be sustainable, he says. His city learned that lesson when its station was restored in 1999 as a science museum.
"If they're going to build it as a memory and a museum for a golden age gone by, and try to tie that to an economic strategy, I think they're doomed for failure," Guastello says. "But if you take that building and it stood for something, and you make it mean something to the community and make it right, then it will work."
Guastello says Kansas City's Union Station had to evolve. It expanded public exhibition areas and created office space for businesses. A new downtown street car will soon stop there. The city is even planning to celebrate the building with a major 100th-anniversary bash next month.
At Denver's Union Station, Michael Borcherding and a friend sip drinks in the middle of the Great Hall. Borcherding, 34, lives three blocks from the station and says it's the perfect location for him.
"We can take our mass transit into work, we get off the bus, we come here, we have a couple drinks, we have dinner, we go home, we see our lady friends, our wives, and it's a good time," Borcherding says.