Rural communities on Colorado’s Western Slope are struggling to thrive. On Monday morning, we told you how the loss of coal jobs in the towns of Nucla and Naturita in Montrose County are forcing many there to make tough choices. Should they stay and pursue new careers – or pack up and move away? Today, Bente Birkeland visits another county that’s beginning to turn the corner after its recent coal downturn.
By all counts 52-year-old Noel Wichmann is a success story. He was a manager at both of Colorado’s major molybdenum mines – Henderson and Climax – for about nine years. He liked what he was doing – but knew it wasn’t going to last forever.
“The writing was on the wall. Everything was slowing down, there was a lot of turmoil,” said Wichmann.
That’s when he knew it was time for he and his wife Julia to make a life change.
“I was retiring from the Air National Guard, so we took the opportunity to pick the place we were going to stay when I fully retired,” he said.
The couple ultimately settled in Hotchkiss in the North Fork Valley of Delta Co. three years ago. About 1,000 people live in the scenic valley that’s scattered with farms and orchards.
The Wichmann’s have a small ranch house on four acres just off the main road. Noel is semi-retired. He used his GI bill to learn a new skill – installing solar panels.
Julia is a first-time farmer. She sells her produce at the Crested Butte Farmers Market each week. It’s a three-hour round-trip drive over Kebler pass.
“We were kind of like, ‘We can do this,’” said Julia.
It’s something the valley is trying to cultivate more of. People are growing sweet corn, peaches, melons, beans, onions – and raising beef cattle and sheep.
The state has pumped $400,000 into the Solar Energy Institute in Paonia where Noel received his training.
But the loss of mining has left a deep scar that agriculture and retraining may not be able to heal.
Wendell Koontz worked at the West Elk mine – the county’s last open mine -- for nearly 20 years. He’s now the mayor of Hotchkiss. He said most of the mining families have left.
“People I worked with at the mines were doers -- resourceful, smart, skilled. It’s sad to see so many have left us, or just retired the business,” Koontz said. “That’s a skill set that’s hard to acquire.”
From his perch at City Hall, Koontz points out a new stand-up paddle board shop that just opened next to the coffee shop. A new medical clinic is opening soon.
“One of the things we need in the North Fork is to not just limit ourselves to agri-tourism or hemp production, but to be open to more resource extraction wisely,” he said. “And don’t forget what built the valley.”
But what built the valley has largely left.
“We have lost over one-thousand coal jobs,” said Delta Co. administrator Robbie leValley.
On the county level, leValley said the region is finishing a broadband project to bring high speed internet to residents. They’re also updating plans to boost outdoor recreation – including hunting and fishing.
“All of that becomes a cumulative effect. No, we’re not out of the woods yet. You don’t replace those jobs,” said leValley. “We’re building capacity and infrastructure. If we can build jobs five at a time then we’re on the right path.”
But attracting people to fill those jobs isn’t easy.
29-year-old Emma Stopher-Griffen and her husband opened a small business in Hotchkiss in 2014. They pick up and deliver food from local farmers to restaurants and grocery stores. Their goal is to have a storefront shop by next year.
“The amount of workforce here, scaling up to a certain size is hard because there’s just not a lot of labor here to pull from,” said Stopher-Griffen. “We could have easily hired a couple more people this year, but we just haven’t been able to find the right person to work hard as we do.”
Back at city hall, Mayor Koontz said Hotchkiss is running a deficit budget this year because of the loss of coal jobs and tax revenue. He is somewhat encouraged that members of the state's Office of Economic Development and International Trade recently met with him for the first time.
“If the state or the feds were actually to come in and offer real re-training, it would be in this end of the valley,” said Koontz “It wouldn’t be limited to fads of the moment, whether it’s solar or whatever, but real retraining, whether it’s mechanics, ag-mechanics, value-added ag-production.”
But some – like Stopher-Griffen -- are happy to call the region home regardless of the uncertainty.
“We’re meeting teachers and more ag-farmers and librarians and video techs and they all live here and they want to be based here because of the lifestyle,” she said. “A lot of this stuff has been here and just some new energy and it seems like things are starting to roll. Even though the economy isn’t great, things are rolling.”