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Mine reopen stokes Leadville

Christine Ina Casillas

LEADVILLE – News of the reopening of the Climax Molybdenum Mine is bringing back hope to a town that had been desolate, somewhat lost, since the initial closure more than 20 years ago.Phelps Dodge Corp, the Phoenix-based company that owns the mine, announced Wednesday that its board of directors approved restarting the mine.”I’ve got my hard hat on and I’m ready to go back to work,” said Leadville resident and former state Sen. Ken Chlouber, who worked as an underground crusher boss during the last 10 years at the mine. “This is the greatest thing since the 1880s.”Sitting at 11,300 feet near the Continental Divide at Fremont Pass, the Climax Molybdenum Mine has open-pit and an underground mining operation.Back when the mine was open, several thousand miners and support crew worked there.One of those people was Howard Tritz, now the Lake County assessor.Tritz worked as a mill manager for Climax for 30 years and says he can see the benefits of the mine reopening.”We’ve always been a mining town,” Tritz said. “Now we’re going to boom again.”Leadville resident Bob Elder had not worked for the mine since the ’80s, shortly before the mine closed down. And, like many others, Elder suffered the impacts from the mine’s downfall.Crushed overnightMore than 3,000 employees worked at Climax by the time the company started cutting back in the latter part of 1980.”We had some extraordinary people here back in those days,” Tritz said. “Those miners were rough and tough, but they had hearts of gold, too.”Then, overnight, Leadville experienced the highest unemployment rate in the nation.”Everything bad that came with that came to Leadville,” Chlouber said. “All the drug and alcohol abuse.”Men and women made a decent income, “then all of a sudden it was shut off,” Chlouber said.The county experienced a tremendous tax shift, Chlouber said. The mine paid for 80 percent of the property taxes. When it closed, the taxes shifted over to the people with no jobs.The mine officially closed down in 1995. By then, Lake County was focusing on the growing tourism business.Even Chlouber, who left the mine in 1982, focused on tourism. He started the Leadville Trail 100 race, which has grown significantly in recent years and continues to thrive.Tourism has kept Leadville afloat, but many say they are happy to see the mining industry return.”It’ll be a diversification for us,” Elder said. “Tourism has been good for us, but we need something to offset the travel and tourism industry.”The pay scales could attract workers. Officials with the Phelps Dodge board of directors say laborers and truck drivers could make $11 to $15 per hour, and electricians and mechanics might make between $15 and $20 per hour.”It’s time to go after it,” Tritz said.The reopening of the mine will bring quite an influx of people in town, beginning with the contractors working on the equipment and buildings.”The old mine is not up-to-date with their equipment,” Elder said. “So all that’s going to change.”Capital requirements are estimated at $200 million to $250 million for new state-of-the-art concentrator and associated buildings.”Yes, we needed one,” Tritz said. “They were working with an old concentrator from the 1920s there.”Granted, technology is different today. People live in a different era. But whether it’s 1920 or 2006, the quality of life makes or breaks the person.”This is what we’re all here for … quality of life and that quality of life begins with a job,” Chlouber said. “People can get off their lifesaver machines and get back to work.””This will help us grow from a solid economic base,” Chlouber added. “Hard times are in our past.”No jumping for joyHowever, others aren’t so optimistic.”It’s not going to be as wonderful as the old mine,” said former Leadville mayor Chet Gaede. “It’s not a quick jump for joy.”Motels, bars and restaurants might experience a flush in business during the construction phase of the project, which is expected to last until about 2009, but the production of the mine might not bring in the economic tax-base needed to revive the town.The city will not get direct tax benefits from the mine because “technically the mine is not in the city,” Gaede said.”I’m not sure there will be long-term sales benefits to the city,” Gaede said.The reopening of the mine could bring in more than 300 jobs, but Gaede questioned who is going to get those 300 jobs.”If we get 300 new people to work at the mine, how many of them are going to choose to live in Leadville?” Gaede said. “And how many of them would have families?”The new employees might choose to live in surrounding counties and send their children to those schools closer to home, Gaede said.If the former workers at the mine return, no new homes will be built, because the old miners already live in town, Gaede said.”The construction phase might have a bigger impact than the actual mine opening,” Gaede said.”The county will make out wonderfully,” Gaede added. “But … it all depends on the final completion of a feasibility study.”A pre-feasibility studyA pre-feasibility study indicates that the open-pit mine could produce 20 to 30 million pounds of molybdenum annually. Senior supervisor at Climax Gordon Stinnett said the feasibility study needed to be approved before anything takes place.No new jobs would be available for at least a year, Stinnett said.Assuming favorable market conditions and timely receipt of permits, the company intends to have the mine in production by the end of 2009.Sam McGeorge, director of the National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum, said the reopening might benefit the museum, as well.”We’re in the business of preserving the history of the mining industry,” McGeorge said. “And with Climax … It’s part of our history but it’s also part of our future, too.”Chlouber uttered the same sentiment.”It’s part of our past and our future, now it’s part of our past, present and future,” Chlouber said.Christine Ina Casillas can be reached at ccasillas@leadvillechronicle.com.Vail, Colorado


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