Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Making It Work: Part 3 Diversity proves profitable for community

Finding work in the Gunnison Valley isn’t always easy, but find someone with one job and you’re likely to find someone with two. As economist Paul Holden points out in a 2009 report on The Economy of Gunnison County, low wages and a high cost of living often make multiple sources of income necessary. This week we’ll look at a few people who have managed to make it here by dividing their time without losing sight of what’s important.
It’s almost four o’clock on a Monday and Nicky O’Connor is leaving the News office, heading to a shift at Lil’s Sushi Bar and Grill where she works whenever she can land a shift. After an evening shift, it’s not uncommon to find her “making sawdust” in the garage-turned-woodshop,  building barnwood frames for her small business OC Frames or possibly sewing, knitting, or painting for a client.
“Usually I’m coming [to the News] after a late night working on projects, and some nights needing to rush out of here to get to the restaurant by four,” she says. “Then, whenever I get cut at Lil’s, I go home and get into the woodshop, sometimes until the wee hours.” To fill in any empty hours, she babysits.
When she wanted to put down roots in Crested Butte, she took on a Mutual Self-Help Build project that required she work on her house 30 hours a week, while keeping two jobs.
Often you don’t have to look beyond your own office in Crested Butte to find people working more than just one job.
In the hour before the Teocalli Tamale opened on a recent Saturday morning, Liz Ewing was holding her own behind the counter among an all-male crew. It’s a good job, and not her only one.
She also works on Crested Butte Ski Patrol, at Alpine Orthopedic Clinic during the day as an EMT, and sometimes picks up shifts at the Lobar.
But her work prepping and rolling burritos at Teo is special, since it doesn’t really feel like work at all. “Coming in here, it’s fun so I forget that it’s work,” she says.
When Liz came to the valley with her husband, Mark, to join the Crested Butte Ski Patrol six years ago, like a lot of people in town, they both found themselves working more than just the job that brought them here.
Mark, who’s also a ski patroller and bike patrol foreman in the summer, held onto work as a corporate headhunter, nurtured an aerial photography business and started Crested Butte Computers, where he continues to hone skills he gained getting a degree in business information systems.
In the summers Liz started guiding trail rides for Fantasy Ranch and working for Dr. Lynch in the Urgent Care Clinic.
Over time she found herself picking up shifts at the Bacchanale and shoveling out stalls at Lacy’s and landscaping in the summers. “I can’t work just inside, I’ve found out. So I’ve always got my inside medical job with something else going on, which is big for me,” she says. “Working a lot and working a lot of different things breaks up the monotony of going to work at one job. Doing five days a week in one place kind of wears on me a little.” So she works 50 to 70 hours a week at three jobs.
For the Ewings, getting to Crested Butte was a chance to escape the congestion of the Front Range and the grind of a desk-bound existence.
“We got fed up with that world and sitting at a desk watching webcams and reading snow reports wishing we were skiing,” Mark said. “My corporate boss asked if I wanted to keep a salary and do what I had been doing, just do it from home.” It was a good deal, then the economy slowed and so did the headhunting. “That big snow year in 2007-08 made me want to cut off major ties with corporate world.”
Since then Mark has been able to work with the Ski Patrol full-time (“I’m getting paid to be up here skiing and throwing bombs,” he says), lead the bike program in the summer and use the shoulder seasons to build Crested Butte Computers. His role in the aerial photography business, called Foresight Photography, is pretty much that of an administrator these days, unless he wins a contract for a flight on the Western Slope.
“It’s all necessary to make it work and to survive and travel and do the things we want to do. We’re all aware of how far we are from absolutely everything up here and I think it’s necessary to live in a tiny little town like this,” Mark says, that’s so far from everything. “You’ve got to have a number of irons in the fire and not be reliant on one source of income.”
Liz, who got a degree in psychology, isn’t sure she’ll ever cut back to just one job and she’s not sure she would want to. She’s looking at going back to school to be a physician’s assistant, but being outside in the elements, or at least being aware of them, is what makes life in the mountains so unique.
“I don’t know if I would want to do [just one job],” she says. “I’ve thought about that if I could find some nice PA job to do three or four days a week and then Patrol if we came back here. I think that would be fun eventually to not be doing just one thing.”
And while being busy at work seven days a week might push recreational pursuits out of the schedule for some people, for Liz skiing is a priority she can work around.
Judging from the length of the East River lift line on Sunday, with the backdrop of a report prepared by economist Dr. Paul Holden, a lot of people in the Gunnison Valley are finding time to ski while keeping a full work schedule.
Although the number has gone up in recent years, only about one in 20 Americans work more than one job. Around the Gunnison Valley the number of people juggling shifts, sometimes around a full-time job, seems to be significantly higher.
In his 2009 report The Economy of Gunnison County, economist Holden says, “Within Gunnison County, however, many people appear to be working more than one job in order to make ends meet.”
Phil Hamerly is one of those, now in his second year at the resort. He’s quick with a smile and happy to talk about how a lifty makes it work in Crested Butte, as soon as he’s done with his ski break. Skiing is what he loves to do. It trumped school, even though he was studying ski area management, and now making milky turns every day has taken priority over whatever else might have been.
“I’m from Stillwater [Minnesota] and my next door neighbor there just raved about this place. He had done the ski bum thing here in the ‘80s,” Hamerly says. “I was in Salida one night and I couldn’t sleep in my Audi so I thought I’d come check out Crested Butte. I got here, got a beer and met some locals and decided I had to live here. I haven’t looked back since.”
He says he felt welcomed when he came to town, unlike the last mountain town he lived in. He’s living that dream with three roommates in a two-bedroom condo at Three Seasons (“It’s the cheapest way to live,” he says) and picking up shifts at django’s when they’re offered.
“It’s working,” he says. “I’m broke but I do what I love every day, so that’s what matters.”
Next week we’ll wrap this series up with some facts and figures to show how people are making it work and ways the community can help.

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