All across America, rural towns are in crisis. From Appalachia to western Oregon, they are struggling to keep schools open and businesses running. Industries that have employed workers for generations are closing up shop, leaving communities to deal with high unemployment and substantial losses in tax revenue.
The West End of Montrose County, comprised of five communities — Paradox, Nucla, Naturita, Bedrock and Redvale — is no stranger to this story. The area’s economy has long been based on resource extraction, an industry that first shook the region in 1984 when the uranium mine closed, and the town of Uravan along with it.
“It was very devastating for the community,” said Jane Thompson, secretary for the Nucla-Naturita Area Chamber of Commerce and a former resident of Uravan. “That’s 1,000 people gone. That took down the school’s population, and the tax base.”
In some ways the area never recovered. As of 2014, it is estimated that 19.6 percent of the population in the West End School District was living below the poverty level, according to data provided by the National Center for Education Statistics. The unemployment rate for the area was at 15 percent in 2014 — more than triple the national rate.
When the area’s largest employer, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, announced in September of 2016 that it would be closing its Nucla power plant and the New Horizon Mine, “there was a heaviness over the community,” Aimee Tooker, president of the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC), said. “It felt like the world threw down on top of us.”
WEEDC, which was established in 2013 with the mission of diversifying the local economy, now faces a five-year deadline — the plant will close in 2022 — to help the region realign its economic resources. Roughly 80 jobs are scheduled to disappear with the plant’s closure, along with 67 percent of the area’s tax base. (Tooker said these projections don’t take into account the revenue losses local restaurants and businesses are likely to sustain as a result of the plant’s closing.)
Five years may seem like a long time from now, but in fact, transforming a local economy isn’t something that can be accomplished quickly — and in the West End, where adversity is a constant, no one is waiting for change to come. Instead, local groups are making it happen, and not a moment too soon. Here are a few of the most important ways the region is looking to re-invent itself.
Situated mere hours from mountain-biking hotspots Moab and Grand Junction — and boasting, in many cases, a similar topography and climate — the West End intends to tap into the tourism industry.
The first step has been getting on the map, literally as well as figuratively. With support from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs and Region 10, a nonprofit that provides programs and services to six western Colorado counties, the West End is developing a new image with DHM Design, a landscape architecture and land-planning firm with offices in Colorado and Montana. The firm will help the region create and place new signage to direct visitors, and passersby, to local recreation and tourism opportunities.
As part of the branding, community members completed surveys distributed by WEEDC to help gauge how they felt about certain slogans; in March, “Pioneers Redefined” was chosen as the new tagline.
“We have the pioneers that came here back in the 1800s, (we) had to pioneer with the uranium mill and mine, and pioneer with the coal.
“We have been pioneers of different things, so it fits us,” Tooker explained. She sees re-branding as a logical next step. “We have to constantly redefine who we are as people in our area,” she said. “We’re constantly changing.”
Now, West End residents will be channeling their pioneering spirit by creating and promoting more-modern moneymakers: recreation and heritage tourism.
Nucla resident Paul Koski, the president of the West End Trails Alliance — an organization that promotes “soft” recreation — saw a need to provide information for mountain bikers passing through the area. “If you sit down in Naturita at the visitor’s center during the summer/spring months when tourist traffic is running a little heavier, every third or fourth car has bikes strapped on it. They’re usually on their way to Moab or Grand Junction,” he said.
Koski thinks Nucla can reel almost everybody in. “We just want to share this with people and let them know: If you are tired of the crowds in Moab, or the high-altitude weather (in Telluride), our climate is so much better down here during the winter months.” Not to mention that there’s a seemingly endless supply of places to explore, courtesy of the old mining days.
“Un-groomed wilderness, is what it is,” he said. “We literally have hundreds of miles of old two-track exploration roads.”
Along with WETA member Tony Adkins, Koski is working on creating paper maps that visitors can use to access trails for mountain biking and hiking in the area. The area “can be pretty intimidating to people who are unfamiliar with it,” he said. Therefore, the mapping initiative will feature a large topographical plat marked with easy-to-navigate, brightly-color-coded routes.
“My goal is to expand people’s interest in the West End. Get out here and start exploring, spend an extra day out here and see what we have,” he said. “You might just like what you see.”
The organization recently became an official chapter of the Colorado Plateau Mountain Biking Association and is an umbrella organization of the nonprofit Montrose West Recreation.
Another project underway that will bring tourism to the area is the 17-mile reroute of the Paradox Trail, a 110-mile stretch linking the region to the Tabeguache Trail in the east and the Kokopelli Trail to the west.
Montrose West Recreation initiated the project several years ago and has been working with WETA to complete it. According to Koski, the reroute will bring the trail to within one-quarter of a mile from Nucla, and will include both a kiosk and parking area.
A FOCUS ON HISTORY
Along with recreation comes the need for a breather, and Thompson’s vision of three historical museums in the area is designed to provide the perfect respite from hiking, biking or four-wheeling.
“I have people look at us and think we are out of our minds,” Thompson said about the prospect of three historical centers. “But we really do truly believe that this community can sustain and run three heritage museums.”
The Rimrockers Historical Society already has one museum; Thompson hopes to relocate it to a vacant building on Naturita’s main street, where visitors are more likely to stop.
The society purchased a historic property in Nucla called the Vestal House, which was constructed in 1908. Like many older buildings, this one came with “built-in” challenges — just a week after its purchase, a wall collapsed. Thompson hopes that once renovations are completed, it will serve as “an information center” where people can peruse historical archives and find resources for use in genealogical research.
Rimrockers has also been promised the Umetco shop building, which was built in 1980 during the reclamation of the Uranium mine. Thompson would like this building — which is currently awaiting approval from the Environmental Protection Agency — to feature exhibits that allow visitors to “time travel” to the days of the Utes, the miners, and the ambitious creators of the Hanging Flume (an open water chute built on the canyon wall of the Dolores River in 1880 to facilitate gold mining in the area) and the town of Uravan.
Tooker, of the West End Development Corporation, is not only working on bringing new businesses to the area. She also is investing in a new business herself, and opening a retail store on Nucla’s main street.
Many people have questioned her decision, she said, given the state of the local economy.
“People are saying, ‘Aren’t you worried? Aren’t you worried that the business is not going to make it, and it dies along with Tri-State?” she said. “It’s like, I can’t think like that. As the president of WEEDC,” a group whose very existence is predicated on future development, “I can’t and won’t think like that.”
The storefront Tooker purchased was built in 1914; in earlier iterations, it was a general store, a supply company and a pharmacy. In July, it will be transformed yet again, this time into the Tabeguache Trading Co., a one-stop shop for hunters and recreationists. Tooker is applying for a federal arms license that would allow her to sell both firearms and ammunition, and plans to sell mountain biking equipment, hunting and fishing licenses, and products from local artisans.
Tooker acknowledges that starting a tourism-based business is a gamble, but believes it is important to prepare for a time without Tri-State, and for the possibility of tourism and recreation in the area.
“I’m taking a risk personally,” she said of building a new West End business, “and I want everyone to take that risk with me.”
And they are: A group from Montrose is moving a start-up business, Paradox Ventures, to the West End to work with WEEDC on developing the hemp industry.
WEEDC is currently under negotiations to purchase the old Nucla elementary school, a building slated to become a “hemp incubator,” where hemp products could be tested and processed.
Dianna Reams, president of the Nucla-Naturita Area Chamber of Commerce and a representative of Paradox Ventures, said the business would begin by processing hemp oil and eventually “work its way into fiber production,” she said. “That’s where (the owners) feel the real long-term money is.”
According to Reams, community members are intrigued by the new venture; approximately 80 people attended at a January informational meeting about the hemp industry.
Paradox Ventures is growing a hemp test crop over five acres of land. “We want to mitigate the risk to farmers, so we are going to try it once,” Reams said. “If it works, then we’re brilliant — and if it doesn’t, it was a side deal for most of us, and we’ll figure it out from there.”
Reams said she is thankful to see industries take an interest in the West End.
“We’re struggling down here,” she said. “We’re still very concerned about our future, given the plant closure, but so many good things have come out of it, like Paradox Ventures, as opposed to people trying to sell their houses. We’ve had announcements of nine new businesses starting over the past year and a half.”
Prior to the power plant’s announced closure, WEEDC was already working on bringing new business to the area, including last summer’s opening of The Collective Mine Co-Working Space.
Tooker, WEEDC’s president, said that in addition to providing a workspace, the organization helps businesses navigate regulatory requirements and establish business plans.
WEEDC also looks to educate potential businesses about the advantages of being based in the West End, of which there are several. For one, the area is considered an Enhanced Rural Enterprise Zone; companies that establish themselves here qualify for a number of tax breaks, including tax credits for creating jobs, rehabilitating old buildings, making investments and providing employee health care.
Another benefit is broadband coverage, provided by the Nucla-Naturita telephone company.
Earlier this year, Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper called broadband access a “critical service for communities especially in supporting economic development.” Kathay Rennels, associate vice president for engagement for Colorado State University, who works to create statewide economic development opportunities, said broadband access is a game changer.
If you want to lure smaller businesses — or for that matter, bigger, more-established businesses — to your region, “This is one of the things that companies look for,” she said. “They need that redundancy of broadband.” In this respect, the West End is ahead of the curve: Neither San Miguel nor Ouray County offers consistent, high-quality broadband service to their residents.
WEEDC’s slogan is “Many Towns. One Community,” and if there is one thing the West End has going for it, it is community collaboration.
From hemp to heritage tourism to trail building, each initiative has been a local effort, involving the energy and efforts of many.
According to CSU Economics Professor Stephan Weiler, who has researched Appalachian and rural development, communities under economic stress fare better by coalescing.
“One immediate positive is that they are working with each other,” he said. “That already reduces the amount of isolation. The amount they can get done together is a lot more than what they can get done on their own.”
To help synthesize the efforts of the different initiatives, WEEDC is hiring an economic recovery coordinator. Jane Thompson, the Chamber of Commerce secretary, said that this person will “draw everybody together,” and also help local stakeholders to stay more connected.
“It would be great if we all knew what each other were doing. We all have our own resources, and our connections,” Tooker pointed out. The economic recovery coordinator will help with that, allowing entities to communicate better with each other.
Tooker said this person would also help conduct research, attend industry-specific events and write grants for different programs. “They’re going to have a really big job,” she said.
Rennels, too, expressed the importance of collaboration. “Anytime you are in a rural area, you have to work together collaboratively, you have to have a community partnership that wraps around the region,” she said.
“When you see communities come together to bear some of these great economic impacts,” that is a good thing. “Those are places to celebrate.”