Diverse post-coal future framed for Delta County
PAONIA — On the corner of Paonia Town Park sits a memorial to coal miners who lost their lives harvesting hard black gold from the rugged mountains. When the community dedicated the North Fork Miners Memorial in 1983, 62 names were added to the plaque, and they budgeted one-quarter of the memorial for future casualties.
It would be nearly a decade before two more names were added to the plaque, and four more after that. For now, the remainder of the monument remains blank, in macabre anticipation of the next name destined to join.
Though working in the mines has become exponentially safer since a 43-year-old Finnish miner named Joonas Batki died in 1906 in a rockfall accident and became the first name on the memorial, there are also fewer opportunities these days to be added to this list.
A town that once bet on coal for its economy is now faced with the reality that only one mine remains operating, and a fraction of the workers have been called back to earn wages and support their families. The mining that built this community and gave it a sense of identity and purpose looks on its way out to many.
There are now more government workers than miners in Delta County. The communities are in transition, coping with the fallout from the loss of jobs and tax income to support schools and other public services. Diversification is the mantra for the North Fork now, in a place where most people realize the mines are not coming back, even as they mourn the loss of more than 1,000 jobs in the past three years.
It’s possible that in the not-too-distant future, the only miner left in Paonia will be the memorial’s bronze statue standing sentinel over this community, staring toward the mountains, wearing his headlamp and wielding his pickax.
QUAINT PLACES QUIETLY CHANGING
The towns of the North Fork Valley, named for the tributary of the Gunnison River running through it, exude a quaint, pastoral quality that makes visitors feel like they’re worlds away from everywhere else, not just less than an hour from Delta, the big town with Walmart and more than one grocery store.
Some of that characteristic has been retained on purpose by locals, and some of it is a byproduct of the economic situation. The median income for a Delta County household is roughly $42,000, and agriculture is still a mainstay, though the top dollars come from cattle and field crops, not the niche organic farms or orchards the area is famous for.
But things here are changing, and the people who have lived here a long time can feel it and see it.
Some are big things — like dwindling classroom enrollment for schools. Others are little signs — like a Pilates studio on the main street of Hotchkiss, a conservative farming town known for its annual sheepdog trials.
It’s not the same as when the bust happened in the mid-1980s, when the largest mine in the area shut down, housing prices tanked and foreclosures soared. This time is different. Though school enrollment has decreased by 200 students in Paonia and Hotchkiss in the past decade, others are moving into the area and buying property.
The number of real-estate transactions has soared 268 percent in the past five years in Paonia, while the median sales price has increased more than 12 percent. In Hotchkiss, the number of sales has fallen by half since 2012, but the median prices have jumped more than 20 percent.
Thomas Wills, a resident of Hotchkiss since 1990, sees an opportunity for the communities to plan ahead, to be proactive and decide what they want to be. He’s seen a lot of changes here since he bought his house for $17,000 and locals accused him of driving the prices up at the time. He’s been the publisher of the North Fork Merchant Herald since 1996 and owns Wills Gallery and Used Books. He currently serves on the Hotchkiss Board of Trustees, helped found the Hotchkiss planning committee and is co-leader of the town’s downtown improvement committee. Delta County is currently writing a new master plan, its first since 1992, and the transitional period is ripe for asking what everyone wants the communities to look like in the future.
“We do need to be reinvigorated,” Wills said. “But we have all kinds of problems, and the main problem is we don’t have enough retail.”
He sees a need for more mom-and-pop shops and retail stores that have been lost over time through attrition, in a town that used to be known for its many antique stores.
In the near future, he sees an influx of people moving from more expensive, crowded cities who want to get out of the rat race. He predicts more high-dollar homes, small ranchettes for affluent horse owners and the like, smattered across the mesas with organic farms.
“That’s what people want, a version of Hobbiton,” he said, referring to the mythical town in “Lord of the Rings.” “We will see more affluent people moving in. I don’t really like that future, but things are going that way.”
He sees signs of it even in rural, agricultural Hotchkiss, in the occasional BMW and Maserati parked in the town, which now has five gyms, including yoga and Pilates studios.
“That’s the canary in the coal mine,” he said. “People are paying for that.”
While no large-scale manufacturers have been attracted to the area, some international companies have relocated there — including Shade Scapes, which moved to Hotchkiss in 2015, into an old mercantile store next to the library. The company produces commercial umbrellas and other furnishings for outdoor spaces and distributes worldwide. Paonia has recently attracted companies like Optibike, a high-performance electric bike company that sells models costing as much as $12,000.
LAID-OFF MINERS “DOING WHAT THEY CAN’
It’s not that coal isn’t still a part of the economy here, but its role has significantly diminished. The Oxbow mine closed, the Bowie mine is idle with a skeleton crew, and the West Elk Mine had significant layoffs in June and took back just a fraction of its workers six months later. The remaining miners in the valley are surviving on half a mine compared to three mines open in 2013.
A select few have returned to work in the West Elk Mine. Scott Morley is one of those miners, and he considers himself lucky to be back, though he feels awful for the guys who don’t have the same chance.
Morley, a coal miner for 38 years, knows more than 80 others who have been laid off and didn’t get called back. He survived the layoff last June by getting a lower-paying construction job with Telluride Gravel, which meant a two-and-a-half hour commute each way.
The week of Thanksgiving, he found out they were calling people back to the mine. Morley had just finished a 17-hour shift in Basalt, working in freezing conditions in a trench with water up to his waist, when his son-in-law, a fellow miner, called to tell him they were taking applications. Morley was hired back to be a fire boss, a position charged with inspecting areas before miners enter them, checking for gas or unsafe overhead surfaces as well as other dangers. It’s a job he takes seriously, one he decided to learn how to do after he lost 27 friends while working at the Wilberg Mine in 1984, in the worst mine fire in Utah’s history.
Morley and his family moved here for work eight years after that happened. Now, he’s close to retirement and grateful for the overtime, averaging 55 hours of work, including swing shifts and graveyards.
He’s a bishop in the Mormon church, and he knows six other men in his ward who were laid off with him six months ago. Morley was the only one of them called back to work. Though part of his position in the church is to counsel other members, it makes it hard for him to broach the subject with them because he’s troubled about their livelihoods, but thankful he has a good-paying job for at least a little while longer.
“Their unemployment is running out, times are getting tough and they’re taking jobs that normally they wouldn’t take,” Morley said. “It’s kind of the last straw and they’re doing what they can to keep going.”
Some have gone to work installing high-speed fiber internet or solar power. Others have gone back to farming, or taken one of the few retail jobs available. Others have embarked on new ventures as hunting outfitters.
The Morleys have also kept themselves going by operating A Simpler Time Bed & Breakfast in their family home, now that their kids are grown and they don’t need the bedrooms anymore. Mostly, he just hopes they can keep going long enough to be able to afford to retire, because he doesn’t want to start over again. He never intended to spend his career underground, and thinks back to that one winter 38 years ago, when he took a mining job to avoid the harsh winter as a masonry contractor. He never meant for it to last a lifetime.
One of the last conversations Morley had with his 101-year-old mother before she died five years ago was about mining.
“She said, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’” he recalled. “This is it. This is all my résumé says now.”
REPLACING COAL AS A LIFELINE
While some like Morley are just trying to hang on for a few more years to reach retirement, others are looking for ways to bring in jobs to boost the economy and help the community and those who didn’t leave for other mining jobs.
Securing Delta County’s future means pursuing a variety of opportunities that don’t involve a finite resource subject to the whims of the marketplace and environmental regulations. They’re hoping to replace the lifelines that the seams of anthracite coal provided to the community.
Delta County Administrator Robbie LeValley doesn’t see the diversification of the economy as a question of choosing other opportunities over mining or ranching.
While she acknowledges that the mainstays have traditionally been agriculture and energy, she sees those transforming, not declining, into markets including alternative energy, such as the training provided through Solar Energy International, an international nonprofit headquartered in Paonia, and value-added agricultural products, like Big B’s cider and juices in Hotchkiss.
The county is still experiencing financial losses from the decline of the mines, and those revenues have not shown signs of rebounding. LeValley considers the financial situation the “new normal.”
Flat sales-tax revenues, property tax declines from the closure of the Bowie Mine and losses from other mine-related revenues are still being felt. In the last three years the county has lost more than $775,000 in federal mineral lease revenue and severance tax dollars, according to LeValley.
For the first time, the county is trying to decide how to monetize its recreational appeal. LeValley said the county received funds from Great Outdoors Colorado for a recreation master plan in February, which it has never pursued before. The county is hoping to piggyback on other recreation destinations within a day’s drive, including mountain bike trails in Fruita and the river park in Montrose, and concentrate on marketing the rivers in the county for recreation.
LeValley sees the installation of fiber internet as a boon for the area. It’s being installed across Delta and Montrose counties by a subsidiary of Delta-Montrose Electric Association, Elevate Fiber, which has already gone live and provided gigabit service in many parts of Paonia as well as Orchard City.
“When we started looking at how do we diversify the economy, broadband was the number one thing Delta County and all the municipalities looked at,” she said.
The goal is to use fiber to serve the existing businesses in the community and attract those that are being priced out of the Front Range, as well as location-neutral workers. Since Elevate launched in June, it has connected more than 500 paying customers and 6,000 have registered for service, according to DMEA spokeswoman Becky Mashburn. Workers have installed service in accordance with demand, and after neighborhoods mapped out by the cooperative have a sufficient number of committed customers, the network in that area becomes available.
Bringing fiber to rural areas is echoing the story of how DMEA formed back in the 1930s, when urban power companies didn’t want to incur the costs of building lines to sparsely populated areas with few paying customers and the grid wasn’t available to them.
“It’s really history repeating itself again,” said Mashburn. “I really think that at the end of the day it’s just about the fact that we’re tired of waiting.”
Solar energy has also experienced a boom recently in the North Fork Valley. Solar Energy International’s program offering training opportunities for displaced workers as well as its program called Solarize Delta County Farms has installed 42 new solar projects in the area since 2015 and has helped create jobs, according to Mary Marshall of SEI. The C-PACE program, a state initiative that allows small businesses including farms to spread their financing for energy-efficient projects over a 20-year period to realize immediate savings on their energy bills, was also adopted by Delta County earlier this year.
STUDENT DECLINE AN INDICATOR OF CHANGE
Fiber is one of the bright spots for valley residents, no matter how they feel about how things have changed. Ron Rowell cites the investment as a smart idea to help bring small businesses and individuals to the area.
Like many longtime residents, he has diversified to make it possible for him to make a living in the North Fork Valley, where he grew up. It’s a place that has always had its ups and downs.
These days, many residents are jacks-of-all-trades, like Rowell. He has experience as the fire chief, the mayor, a school-bus driver and a small-business owner, and he also does snow removal on the side to make ends meet.
“We struggle, there’s no doubt about it,” he said.
Rowell and his wife, Deb, owned Paonia Cleaners & Laundry for 37 years until they sold it recently. His business has been kept alive with wool blankets and down comforters, Sunday-best suits for churchgoers and rugs that can’t be washed at home.
He knows others have had to leave the area, through his school bus routes over the past 31 years. He had 60 kids riding the bus at one time, and now only has 15, though his route length has doubled.
Schools are one of the primary tax-funded services struggling with the exodus of the mines, forcing leaders to seek creative solutions to keep buildings open.
At Paonia and Hotchkiss schools, attendance has declined by about 200 students in the past 10 years, 15 percent of the former population, according to Assistant Superintendent Kurt Clay, who grew up on a farm in Hotchkiss. Most of those students came from mining families.
Officials have discussed closing either Paonia or Hotchkiss high schools and combining the populations to save money. However, “for next year, that’s just a rumor,” Clay said, noting that the schools have different identities and the district values keeping them open because they are “the lifeline of our communities in many ways.” Paonia and Hotchkiss are also well-known sports rivals and traditionally send teams to state competitions every year.
“Before we would ever combine schools, we would want to exhaust all our options first,” he said.
Next year, budget forecasts for the district estimate that Delta County schools will receive 77 percent of their money from per-pupil funding from the state.
“We are at the mercy of the state,” Clay said. “It’s not a great position at all.”
In an attempt to keep the doors open at schools in both communities and keep opportunities for students, the district plans on consolidating some classes and offering combined schedules for certain classes next year. For example, students at Paonia High School might travel to Hotchkiss High School for certain high-level science classes or electives, or vice-versa, though the details are still being worked out.
Clay said the district is reluctant to pursue more local funding through a mill levy override, because the community’s economy is depressed. But they’re seeking other forms of funding, including a BEST grant to revitalize aging buildings.
FUNDS FUEL DEBATES ABOUT THE FUTURE
As the North Fork transitions, old-timers and newcomers are butting heads over how — or if — tax money should be spent to revitalize the economy.
Rowell has been an involved and outspoken resident, opposed to recreational marijuana and other controversial measures promoted as economic development. The latest of those is an effort to turn the old Paonia Middle School, most recently used for miner training, into affordable housing and a work center for artists through a program called Space to Create, the first state-driven initiative for artists’ affordable housing in the country. Though town trustees originally moved to earmark $35,000 for the project, locals protested the use of taxpayer dollars to subsidize the initiative and the board decided to table the measure.
Elaine Brett, the lead organizer of Space to Create and a member of the North Fork Creative Coalition, sees a lot of potential in transforming a vacant building into a source of revenue for new businesses. She said Space to Create wouldn’t just be for traditional artists — culinary arts and distilleries could also qualify under its broad definition and help add value to local agricultural products.
Brett has lived in the valley for 12 years and moved there from the Washington, D.C., area to retire after falling in love with the area on vacation in 2003. She became involved in the arts and nonprofit communities, using her background in organizational management. In 2010, she participated in a project with the local chamber of commerce in anticipation of the reduction in the energy industry’s contribution to the economy.
“We knew the clock was ticking on the coal mines,” she said. “It wasn’t a death wish on the coal mines by any means, it was just imminent.”
At that time, the group developed Vision 2020, which identified areas to concentrate on for a balanced, diverse economy including the arts. Brett sees Space to Create as an opportunity to move forward with promoting the arts as an economic support for the valley, like the Blue Sage Center for the Arts in Paonia and the Creamery Arts Center in Hotchkiss.
For Rowell, he sees government being involved in subsidized housing for artists as the latest thing brought here by outsiders to make their new home more like where they came from.
Rowell said he felt subsidizing artist housing was not a smart move, especially since the tax base in Paonia doesn’t directly benefit financially from several nonprofits that have stationed themselves downtown in what he considers prime retail locations.
“You cannot have a viable tax base in a community if the majority of your downtown is nonprofits,” he said. “They receive services, fire protection, roads, all that, but they’re not paying into it.”
Though he grew up here in the North Fork Valley, at 67 years old, Rowell feels like an outsider here. This place has transitioned to be somewhere he doesn’t feel like he belongs, a place where he feels outnumbered.
“We just don’t hardly fit in here anymore,” he said, noting that he and his wife will likely leave the area for retirement.
As Morley described, the town has always been known for being “a hippie town full of coal miners,” a melting pot where friction exists and people don’t always agree. Sometimes there are conflicts, like five years ago when the owner of Oxbow Mining Co., a billionaire named Bill Koch, entered his tank in the Fourth of July parade and a sign-wielding hairdresser stepped in front of the tank and halted the parade with a solo confrontation. The area has become a hotbed of protests against fracking for natural gas, and the efforts to strengthen the arts and nonprofit communities haven’t been without controversy.
Despite his worries about the valley and its future, and the fact that he believes the mines may only be open another decade at most, Morley is optimistic about the survival of the communities. But he admits there is conflict about what this valley should transform into, though everyone is hopeful it will recover somehow.
“Everybody’s idea of better is different,” he said.