He stepped out of his car and declared Red Cliff “the coolest place in Colorado I’ve never been,” and with that Sen. Michael Bennet strolled up the street — unaccompanied and grinning.
In less than one block, he met both sides of Red Cliff’s body politic, a third generation miner and an artist. Both were happy see him, smiled, shook hand and asked him for nothing. They just welcomed him to their town.
Bennet is the first U.S. senator to visit Red Cliff. He and his staff helped Red Cliff’s town staff negotiate the federal minefield to refinance the bonds that paid for the town’s new water treatment plant. Bennet stopped by to see how it was all working.
Swimmingly, said Red Cliff Mayor Scott Burgess.
Burgess is relentlessly positive about his town and especially its water. He did have one request, not specifically for Bennet, but for valley residents in general.
“I want people to stop asking how Red Cliff’s water is. We have the best water in the valley,” Burgess said proudly.
Red Cliff had $2,000 in the bank when Burgess took office, so when Bennet and his staff helped them refinance those bonds it was a big deal for the small town — about 350 people, more or less. The town is saving $20,000 a year on its propane bill, money it was spending to keep the water from freezing in the water plant’s storage tank.
Red Cliff is the water’s first stop as it rolls down the mountain, so you know it’s pure mostly. Until the town built its new water treatment plant — 10 years ago — residents were subject to the occasional boil order because the water wasn’t safe to drink. They’ve had two in the last several years, but both were due to operator error, not their water plant.
Bennet smiled, looked around and said, “We’re glad to help.”
Rich past, bright future
Red Cliff is Eagle County’s oldest town, settled in the 1800s with the mines. Burgess and Mango’s owner Tim Parks led Bennet, his wife and a couple staffers to the roof of Mango’s, the best view in town.
They pointed out the land at the edge of town that Union Pacific railroad abandoned 130 years ago, that the town really could use.
They pointed out the former bordello and the former sheriff’s house — it was the same house — but not at the same time.
Red Cliff’s past is rich and colorful, but Burgess, Parks and others are trying to create a brighter future. For that they need fiber-optic cables and high-speed Internet connectivity, Burgess told the senator.
“It’s like rural electrification,” Parks said.
Bennet helped push fiber optic cable into Silverton, above Ouray, but it took five years.
“If you can solve Red Cliff, you can solve anything,” Burgess said to Bennet.
Bennet rolled through Red Cliff as part of his statewide tour, “Infrastructure Colorado: Planes, Trains, Automobiles and More.”
Bennet listened more than he spoke in Red Cliff, but he had a few choice words for his congressional colleagues.
“Across the country, we don’t even have the decency to maintain the assets that our parents and grandparents graciously built for us, let alone build a better future for the next generation,” Bennet said. “Fortunately, Coloradans have found innovative, collaborative ways to finance critical, forward-thinking projects.”
This week, Congress passed another short-term fix — this time for the Highway Trust Fund. Earlier this year he sponsored the Partnership to Build America Act, with Republican Sen. Roy Blunt, of Missouri. The Bennet-Blunt proposal establishes a $50 billion infrastructure fund that can potentially support hundreds of billions in loan guarantees and financing authority for state and local governments.
Bennet said it’s not a replacement for keeping the Highway Trust Fund solvent, but it will help finance transportation, energy, communications, water and education infrastructure projects.
“Congress continues to live up to its reputation as the ‘Land of Flickering Lights,’ where keeping the lights on from month-to-month is considered success. Instead of finding a long-term solution for the Highway Trust Fund, we have another short-term extension that kicks the can down the road,” Bennet said.