Twice in the past week, a Western Slope community has been hit hard with news of job losses.
First it was Craig, which learned last week it has 10 years to brace for the closure of a coal-fired power plant and the loss of nearly 500 jobs directly connected to the operation.
On Wednesday we learned that Montrose will lose roughly 400 jobs when the town’s biggest manufacturer, Russell Stover Chocolates, will cease production in the spring of 2021 after more than 45 years of operation.
Our hearts go out to both communities. For Craig, because it’s fallen victim to a set of circumstances we know all too well, and for Montrose, because of its historic relationship to the Grand Valley.
There was a time that Montrose residents made regular trips to Grand Junction to purchase goods and services they couldn’t find in their town. But Montrose has taken pains to become a self-contained community with impressive retail/restaurant options for a town its size.
And that growth wasn’t tied to Russell Stover’s success. Even as the county’s third-largest employer, after the Montrose County School District and Montrose Memorial Hospital, Russell Stover never dominated the local economy like a steel mill or power plant can do.
It provided stability, though. The Sentinel’s Joe Vaccarelli quoted Montrose County Commissioner Keith Caddy on the factory’s importance as a provider of work to anyone who needed it.
“I wonder how many house payments they’ve saved because someone could get a job there when they were laid off somewhere else,” Caddy said. “They’ve been a great employer in the community. I do hate to see them go.”
Compared to Craig, Montrose will feel economic repercussions more immediately, since the chocolate factory and a connected retail store will close in 15 months. So why does it feel like this is a blip for Montrose rather than a hammer blow?
Because Montrose has focused on improving its quality of life. Because it’s succeeded at growing small manufacturing operations. Because it’s well-situated as a tourist destination near a national park. It has a foundation to lure new business as is.
A closure of this magnitude is never good for a community. But Montrose has done many of the right things to prepare for this day — even if it didn’t see it coming.
Town leaders seem optimistic that they’ll recover from this setback quickly. With a low unemployment rate and strong interest from businesses looking to relocate to the area, the executive director of the Montrose Economic Development Corporation feels there will be job opportunities for the displaced Russell Stover employees who decide to stay. The company has said Montrose employees will have an opportunity to transfer to other production facilities in Texas and Kansas. Those who stay through the shutdown will receive a severance package.
It’s a sad day for Montrose. But residents there should know that they have a cheering section in Grand Junction. Though Montrose is more economically independent than ever, our financial fortunes are still tethered. We’re selling the same thing — stable communities where you can still live a Colorado lifestyle fast disappearing on the Front Range.