Painful lesson stunted our growth and desire to take risks
This is an important year for Grand Junction. It might actually be the most important in our history as we find ourselves at a crossroad created almost 35 years ago.
What started out as a small railroad town in 1882 quickly grew into the largest commercial hub between Salt Lake City and Denver — a title we still hold today. Early on, we built a newspaper, a hospital, a theater, a college and an airport. Our downtown was busy and our ranches shipped their produce all over the state. Our first energy boom — uranium — hit fast and furious and the community had a hard time keeping up with the growth that came with it. The economy was roaring and local businesses were flush. Locals were scrappy, innovative, and independent. They were willing to take risks because they believed in a strong economic future.
In 1962, as more housing was being built, shopping patterns changed and community leaders recognized that urban sprawl would be the death of Main Street. City Manager Joe Lacy, along with leadership from around the community launched the Operation Foresight project, an urban renewal project unlike any other at that time. It was audacious and risky and, despite that, still had the support of 71 percent of the property owners who would finance it. Uranium eventually gave way to oil shale and people continued to flock here for jobs. Businesses grew and new businesses continued to open. The town of Battlement Mesa sprang from nothing to house the influx of workers. The Colorado River Valley was projected to reach 1.5 million people.
And then on May 2, 1982, everything changed. Exxon pulled out of western Colorado and what would become known as Black Sunday is forever ingrained in community memory. Thousands of people lost their jobs, their homes, and left in droves. Schools emptied out. Businesses and banks closed. Everybody lost. I imagine it felt like the end of the world. And I don’t think we’ve ever really recovered.
Sure, we saw some economic recovery from the natural gas industry and we’ve increased our tourism numbers with wine and mountain biking, but we still suffer some sort of PTSD from Black Sunday that has stunted our growth and our ability to plan for a prosperous future. We no longer take risks the way we did with Operation Foresight. We certainly won’t take on any debt and we don’t invest in any public infrastructure outside of public safety. And then we elect people who govern that way.
Our fear of the unknown and our expectation of failure is even laid out in the Community Vision Statement for 2020 written 16 years ago where a recommended strategy for achieving success is to ensure predictability. It states, “Predictability is the ability to anticipate and plan for the future. This strategy is embedded in the consciousness of people of the Grand Valley because the collapse of oil shale in 1982 had such a devastating effect on the people’s and institutions’ abilities to control events. Even recent newcomers have picked up the stories of the collapse and have incorporated its effects into their conversations.”
This event is still present in talk as though it were yesterday. Loss of predictability creates feelings of powerlessness, withdrawal, depression and anger. Black Sunday was 35 years ago and we are still suffering the effects of it today.
And that explains why our schools are falling down, our riverfront is not developed, and our convention center hasn’t been maintained. While surrounding communities have invested in their future and built amenities that attract new business and young families, we’ve remained paralyzed by our fear of the next bust. It’s a slippery slope. We haven’t maintained our community in a way that draws in new people and therefore we don’t have the revenues to put back into needed improvements.
And now it’s all come to a head. The April election includes ballot measure 2A — a sales tax increase that will be used to expand and remodel the convention center into a larger event center that will update the aging facility and hopefully bring in more people for larger events; and ballot measure 2B — which will extend the Riverside Parkway Debt Fund by three years to put toward road improvements in other parts of the city. In November, we’ll most likely see a school bond to go toward our aging infrastructure (the oldest in the state) and a mill levy to go toward programming (least funded in the state) as well as a public safety measure from the county to go toward the district attorney’s office and the sheriff’s department.
And if predictability is what we want as a community, then let’s say no to all of the above. Because we know what we’ll get with that. More of the same — continued decline in city and county revenues, job numbers, new business, young people, families and our infrastructure.
Or, unpredictably, we could be like so many leaders that came before us- Joe Lacy, George Crawford, Walter Walker, Sister Mary Balbina Farrell and William Moyer — legends that were willing to take risks because they believed in a prosperous and healthy future for the Grand Valley.
I choose to say YES to Grand Junction.