Losing Jobs In Colorado’s Coal Country, What’s Next?

Sep 5, 2017
Originally published on September 6, 2017 10:53 am

Colorado is a resilient state. The unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation and the population along the Front Range is booming. It’s easy to see the impact of a strong economy in Denver. Construction cranes are up all over the city and it’s harder than ever to find affordable housing.

But it’s a different story in many parts of western Colorado.

Many rural communities on Colorado’s Western Slope are struggling to survive. The loss of coal jobs is forcing many there to make tough choices.

“I mean we go to Walmart and we’re filling up three carts and they’re like, ‘What are you shopping for?’ and I’m like, ‘We live in Nucla.’ People in our county don’t know what Nucla is,” said resident Peggy Case.

Nucla is in Montrose Co., It’s halfway between Telluride and Moab, Utah, but it feels worlds away from those tourist meccas. Just over 700 people live there. There are no stoplights and the nearest supermarket is two hours away.

But Case, her husband and three children have called it home for almost 20 years.

“This is our village, and if my kid does something I usually know that they did it before they even know that they did it,” she said. “So it’s kind of nice to live in a close small community. Everybody is looking out for each other’s kids.”

Ron Kittelson retired to Nucla and said there’s a lot going for the small town.

“I just like the people over here. They accepted me and I just kind of fit in, and it’s just a very comfortable place,” said Kittelson. “Rural areas are typically overlooked. People drive through and they don’t know what’s available and they don’t see anything immediately so they just don’t assume there’s anything more interesting to do.”

Five minutes up the road is the town of Naturita -- “little nature” in Spanish. The quietness surrounds you as you drive through the expansive vistas leading to these small towns.

School superintendent Mike Epright remembers when he was younger and Naturita was bustling.

“When it was a uranium boom town and lots happening,” he said, “and back in those days we had about 1,000 students in our school district.”

Now there are only 300 students. This year’s graduating class had just 12 seniors. Over the years the district has cut drama and music programs.

The shrinking started in the mid-1980s, when most of the uranium jobs went away. More recently, the New Horizon coal mine closed earlier this year, and the Tri-State Power Plant is set to shut down by 2022 at the latest. When that happens, Epright expects to lose another 100 students. It could also mean the loss of 70 percent of the area’s tax base.

“It’s definitely one of those important things of trying to find something to stabilize our community,” he said.

Case is also looking for stability. She works as a substitute teacher and her husband is a mechanic. But they expect his job to end next year and substitute teaching doesn’t pay well.

“They can keep me busy, but you to raise a family, you can’t raise a family as a substitute teacher,” she said. “Everybody’s depressed. They know what’s going to happen but we don’t know exactly when, and I try not to think about it because I’ll  just sit down and cry.”

While Case has some time to figure things out, many other don’t. Changing industries in coal counties like Montrose and Delta have left a ticking timer behind.

Some are looking at tourism and agriculture as possible ways to attract and keep people in the Western Slope. But will that be enough?  

Stability through job training

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.”

Reinvention, but the internet is required

“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.”

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Fifteen public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

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