Coal mining has been a mainstay in many parts of western Colorado. But the jobs are going away. The recent closure of a mine – and a soon to be closed power plant in Montrose County – could cut tax revenue as much as 70 percent. Both local and state groups are laboring to find a replacement economy in a region that’s not used to rapid change.
“Boom and bust” is an all too familiar cycle that follows mining, whether its precious metals, uranium or coal. It’s certainly left a mark on towns like Nucla, Naturita and Hotchkiss. But there are places that have found ways to bounce back from their mining history.
“We had 11,000 people living in Telluride in 1900, and then the mining industry collapsed and we went down to 340 people,” said Paul Major is the president and CEO of the the non-profit Telluride Foundation. “So, we were totally dependent on a rural resource extraction economy.”
Today, Telluride is known for its world class skiing and its many summer celebrations including the annual bluegrass festival. The Foundation helps the region and local non-profits through grants.
Telluride may not be what town leaders in Nucla and Naturita in western Montrose Co. want – or can replicate. Still, Major sees opportunity, especially for outdoor recreation.
“They have a river. They have trophy hunting,” said Major. “ You need to do things immediately and find a replacement industry trying to leverage whatever is endemic to that area.”
There are already bright spots – like Naturita’s Rimrock Hotel.
You can’t miss it. Orange trim punctuates the light brown stucco façade. It’s also the only hotel in the small town. The building dates back to the 1950s.
It was shuttered when Reed Mitchell bought it three years ago. He’s since added a café and restaurant.
“It looked like the whole community was in the doldrums and the one thing a community needs is a good place for people to stay and a good place for people to eat,” said Mitchell. “And I tried to retire here and that didn’t work, so here I am. Twenty hours a day, seven days a week later.”
Mitchell said his 46 rooms are usually booked for most of the year. But the adage “build it and they will come” may not be enough to grow the business long-term without other changes.
“You have almost a responsibility,” said Gov. John Hickenlooper. “It’s like a chain; you’re never stronger than your weakest link.”
He thinks the solution is broadband. About thirty percent of the state doesn’t have access to high speed internet, mostly in rural areas like Nucla and Naturita – and even in places like Telluride.
“We want to make sure that each of these small towns is vibrant and growing and healthy,” said Hickenlooper. “Can you imagine if you drove through the west and all these little towns that used to be boarded up are kind of bustling?”
To that end, the Colorado Department of Local Affairs has already set aside $20 million in energy impact funds to focus on broadband.
“People say oh well, those poor communities; they’re really in bad shape. They’re actually not. They have a lot of challenges don’t get me wrong and they’re big and we’re trying to help them with, but they’re actually great places to live,” said Irv Halter, the department’s head.
Halter said it’s crucial for public safety and education, job creation – and that opens the door for people to move to rural areas that otherwise wouldn’t have considered it.
“There’s people out there now and they may be doing code for Microsoft but they might be doing it from home,” said Halter. “It may be a lifestyle but these are hardworking people but if it’s two in the afternoon and they want to go out on a mountain bike ride they can do that and do some more coding in the evening.”
The state is also streamlining workforce training and economic development programs to make it easier for communities to access help following the loss of mining jobs.
“If you’re a coal miner and the jobs are not as frequent here but say they’re still mining coal in Wyoming or Montana you might decide, ‘I mine coal and that’s what I do. I’m going to move up there’ And that happens and so those folks may not be interested in retraining and that’s a personal choice that they make,” he said. “Our job is to try to see what is it the communities think they could need.”
Since 2015, Colorado has invested more than $9 million into job training programs. Some prepare high school students for careers in the hospitality field while others award grants to entities re-training workers for high skilled jobs or reimburse employers who hire student interns in an innovative industry. Federal money is also going to worker re-training.
It’s cliché, but Halter said only time will tell if it’s going to work.
“Patience is not a great virtue of Americans, and that’s what made us such a great country, but people want an answer and they want it now, and they want us to push a button or do a thing and retrain these people and the economy turns around and sales taxes are up immediately,” said Halter. “That’s not the real world.”