Battlement Mesa vacancies skyrocketing

Drilling slowdown leaves 30 to 35 percent of town's rentals sitting empty

BATTLEMENT MESA — Brittany Roselle’s apartment complex doesn’t quite bustle with people the way it did a few years ago.

“It’s really a lot emptier,” she said as she shepherded her daughter, Kate, 4, from the parking lot to their home on a rainy Friday morning. “We have a whole corner to ourselves. We’re the only ones.”

It wasn’t so long ago that Battlement Mesa Co. was effectively at 100 percent occupancy for its 1,400 or so rental units, which include apartments, mobile homes, mobile home lots and an RV park.

But then came last year, when a national economic slowdown was followed by a sharp drop in natural gas drilling in western Colorado, and particularly the Parachute/Battlement Mesa area. Today, Battlement Mesa is dealing with about a 30 to 35 percent vacancy rate in rentals.

“There was just a tremendous loss of jobs out there, and because of that I think a lot of people left the valley because there weren’t the jobs to support them,” said Dan Cohen, Battlement Mesa Co.‘s development manager.

The company has responded with incentives that include a one-time, rent-reduction special of about 25 percent through Thanksgiving Day, and a smaller rate reduction from 2009 rents for 2010, particularly for those signing 12-month rather than six-month leases.

Judy Arnold, property manager for Bray & Co. in Rifle, said she is seeing about a 10 percent vacancy rate for the 260 or so units that she manages.

“For somebody who’s an owner with only one property, one vacancy can be a 100 percent vacancy for them, and that can be hurting them quite a bit,” she said.

Arnold’s units are mostly in the Rifle to Glenwood area, which has felt both the energy and resort-area economic slowdowns, including a drop in construction activity.

She said some tenants have left in the last few months because they have been able to take advantage of the homebuyer tax credit. But others have lost jobs or moved back home.

“They’re just leaving the area or moving in with relatives trying to cut their expenses and save money,” Arnold said. “A lot of people have been living on their savings for a while. Some of my tenants are just trying to hang on, hoping that things will recover.”

Arnold fears it could be a rough winter for landlords before things start to turn around in the spring. For now, the sudden glut of rental properties has resulted in two-bedroom, one-and-a-half bath, townhome-style apartments that used to go for around $1,000 in Rifle now being rented for about $700, Arnold said.

Sbe said the Rifle rental market became even more saturated because developers who had built townhomes for sale couldn’t sell them, so they offered them for rent instead.

Roselle said she is happy about the prospect of being able to benefit from Battlement Mesa’s lower rates once her current lease expires. Despite the drilling slowdown, her husband has been able to remain employed as a safety coordinator for construction work related to the energy industry, she said.

Cohen said he has watched energy employees leave Battlement Mesa and head to places such as Louisiana, Wyoming and Texas for work. The local school district started the year with a 13 percent enrollment drop.

Job security has been good lately for Battlement Mesa Co. employee Shelly Sharrar, who does housekeeping as part of a “turnover team” that readies apartments for rent between tenants.

She has seen energy slowdowns before, watching her parents lose their Rulison property during the oil shale bust of the 1980s.

“I was pretty young then. I just went with the flow. It seems like it’s pretty hard right now,” said Sharrar, who added that work has slowed for her husband at his Rifle sheet metal job at a heating and cooling firm.

Inside Battlement Mesa’s rental office, property manager Jane Chapman excused herself to take a phone call from a tenant who was struggling to come up with a payment. Chapman said she also lived through the oil shale bust.

“I don’t think it’s as bad,” she said of the current economic slowdown.

Battlement Mesa has been offering a range of incentives, such as application fee waivers, deposit payment plans, a two-year rent cap guarantee for existing tenants, and $250 credits for tenants who bring the company a new tenant.

Meanwhile, Arnold is banking on Mother Nature to be generous with snow as a way of rousing the local rental business and overall economy out of their doldrums.

“I’m hoping we’ll have a good ski season. I think that will help,” she said.


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