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Moving beyond snow farming

Daily file photo Vail's new whitewater park has attracted world class kayakers.
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Economies change constantly, and among the goals of local leaders is to diversify this area’s tourist-based economy.

Tourism is the horse we rode to this success, and it’s tough to change now. No one’s talking about abandoning our golden goose to chase smokestacks. The area’s remaining manufacturing facility remains the Gypsum wallboard plant, and it’s economically feasible only because the raw material is a few hundred yards away. Given this area’s cost of living and the growing trend toward exporting even more manufacturing jobs overseas, it’s unlikely any economic diversity will come from that sector.

Colorado’s economy historically been has rocked by boom and bust cycles. We experienced those cycles beginning more than two centuries ago with mining. It wasn’t that long ago that Vail was a sheep ranch, and that more livestock was moved through the railroad at Wolcott than almost anywhere else in the country. But ranching was always more romantic than lucrative, and when Vail founder Pete Seibert was cutting trees on land owned by local rancher Chris Jouflas, they sat down on a tree stump and began to discuss the wonders of real estate. Lubricated by a bottle of Ouzo Jouflas always kept close at hand, it wasn’t long before the negotiations began falling Jouflas’s way.



In the 1970s, everyone on the Western Slope was going to get rich mining oil shale. That came crashing down on Black Sunday in 1979 when the oil industry abandoned their plans for a facility in Parachute. It took almost a decade for the area’s economy to recover, and some sectors are still struggling. A few Vail area Realtors boasted in the late 1980s that because of the region’s wealthy clientele, we were recession proof. Those who struggled through Vail’s early days knew what a foolish boast that was.

Mining came and went from Red Cliff and Minturn, agriculture from the central and western end of the valley.



More recently, when the tech bubble burst Eagle County felt the breeze blow cold. Several local tech companies folded their tents and took their high-paying jobs with them. As the national economy struggled following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, tourism struggled.

It didn’t help that it was a poor snow year. Some local business people grew surly, as they came to the harsh realization that the area remains, to a degree, agricultural.

We’re snow farmers and they didn’t like the idea that their crop was failing. Marketing won’t make the snow fall.



Of course, it isn’t all that dire.

The snow does fall, the planes do land and the cars and trucks still roll through, filled with people looking for places to have fun.

Growing lettuce and potatoes is fine, but, as Chris Jouflas learned all those years ago, tourists are much easier to pick.

Celebrate Diversity

A proposed valleywide Economic Development Council is getting mixed reviews. Proponents of the proposed public/private partnership see it as an opportunity for year-round, long-term economic development, and a way to address the current economic slowdown and decreased tax revenues. They say their intent is to pull together a public-private partnership that would provide a “whole valley” approach to business development.

The organization, for example, would provide an information database for new businesses looking to re-locate to the valley. Potential opportunities could include: further enhancement of existing recreational opportunities; recruitment of destination retail businesses; targeting smaller, non-retail businesses that offer well-paying jobs; and attracting high-visibility events.

Recovery on track

It will be at least two years before Colorado’s economy recovers from the recession, economists say, and those two years are likely to be bumpy.

According to the state Legislative Council Chief Economist Tom Dunn, it took 23 months of rising unemployment rates and another 42 months before the 1980s recession rebounded to where it was before the recession began. Currently, the state has experienced 24 months of rising unemployment rates and has yet to hit the bottom of that curve, Dunn said in a Colorado Counties legislative report Monday.

Dunn attributed declining state general fund revenues to reduced capital gains tax revenue, national economic factors and federal tax law changes ” notably to the estate tax.

“It’s severe,” said State Rep. Carl Miller, a Democrat from Leadville who represents Eagle, Lake and Summit counties. “We’re still convinced things are going to work out OK.”

State lawmakers face budget troubles the likes of which Colorado hasn’t seen in two decades. Across-the-board cuts are being felt by every state department, as well as almost every municipality.


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