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Jobs picture not so bleak in rural Colorado

Allison Sherry
The Denver Post

Looking for a place to work in Colorado?

Head to Eads, where the Kiowa County Press recently included “help wanted” ads for heavy-equipment operators and a short-order cook. Or La Plata County, where there are plenty of restaurant and ski-resort jobs to go around ” a good thing since you’ll need to hold down a few jobs at a time to pay rent in Durango.

Recent unemployment numbers show that the economic malaise spreading through Colorado is affecting Broomfield more than Baca County, and Adams County more than Alamosa.



In other words, it’s not a dust bowl out there. In the current economic downturn, the worst stories are in the cities, while, so far, it’s business as usual in many of Colorado’s smaller, rural counties.

“Tell them to come on out; we even have land that’s pretty cheap,” said Dennis Pearson, head of the Kiowa County Chamber of Commerce. “We just wouldn’t want them all to come out and then go on welfare.”



Numbers for December, not seasonally adjusted, show unemployment rates for less-populated counties across the state ” from Jackson to Garfield to San Miguel ” are much lower than the state average. And those rates are considerably lower than in Denver, Adams and El Paso counties.

In Kiowa County, for example, December’s unadjusted unemployment rate was 3.7 percent. In Denver, the number was 7 percent.

On the surface, the rural-employment story is easy to figure out: Commodity prices for food, particularly products grown in Colorado, are holding steady. Foreclosures have battered exurbs such as Brighton and unincorporated Adams County harder than places such as Walden and Salida.



Rural areas rely on farming and service industries, including the Wal-Mart in Lamar and the J.C. Penney in Sterling, but they are also boosted by jobs that don’t go away very easily ” hospitals, nursing homes, schools and local government.

And government and small businesses are used to operating thinly.

Pearson, who is also the director of social services in Kiowa County, said five people work in his office.

“There is no way that one of them could go,” he said. “We couldn’t operate the federal programs that we need to operate.”

From a different landscape and a career perspective, Stacey Gollobith agreed.

“We don’t have anywhere to cut fat; we’re in bare bones in the wintertime anyway,” said Gollobith, manager of the Antlers Inn and the River Rock Cafe in Walden, situated in north Jackson County. “You have to have four cooks, two housekeepers and six waitresses. That’s it.”

Rural areas also have a few attributes that cities do not: seasonal labor and hearty farmers accustomed to weathering downturns, so to speak.

Philip Maes, director of human services in Chaffee County, sees people flee the Salida area at the end of every summer, when rafting and mountain recreation slow down.

“They can’t afford to just live here if they don’t have a job,” Maes said.

But many rural folks insist they are not impervious to this recession ” they may simply feel the effects of it a little later than those living in Denver.

While the rural unemployment rates are lower than in metro-area counties, they are still higher than they were a year ago.

Food-stamp applications are up in many rural counties, including Chaffee and La Plata. Maes said a lot of people have jobs in the Salida area ” they just aren’t getting enough hours to put dinner on the table.

Pastor James Nash at Trinity Lutheran Church in Sterling said he has heard of a few congregants getting laid off at banks in Logan County. The church, which anticipates a decrease in tithings in six months, is looking at ways to cut nonessential services.

And at Walden’s River Rock Cafe, Gollobith said business had been steady throughout the winter ” until a week ago Monday.

“It was really weird,” he said. “It was like we had been doing very well and then, all of the sudden, someone just closed the door.”

Allison Sherry: 303-954-1377 or asherry@denverpost.com

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