Diversity proves profitable for the valley
This is the final installment of our series looking at the ways people are making it work in the Gunnison Valley. Some have been here for decades and others are hoping to be here that long. Many have a connection to Western State College. Most made it here from somewhere else. But, as far as we can tell, everyone, in some fashion, relies on a connection between the Gunnison Valley and the outside world, whether it’s a physical connection or a virtual one, especially now. Without them, can people of the Gunnison Valley compete in a 21st century economy? If we don’t compete, can we survive?
Stories of how people make it in the Gunnison Valley could go on and on. As of the last census, 15,324 entrepreneurs and artists, ski bums and shop owners, construction workers and conservationists were etching out a living here in this county. Just about 15,000 dreamers were making it in Paradise.
So how can the people of the Gunnison Valley make sure those stories go on for another 40 or 50 years and that there are enough people decades from now to remember and relate them?
Over a steaming cup of coffee at Rumor’s, Shaun Matusewicz, a Crested Butte town councilman, talks about the juggling act. He’d worked at Artesanos and Slogar in his early years of trying to make it in the valley. “Leaving was one of the more difficult decisions that I’d had to make, but I decided I had to leave and get some job skills,” he says.
On the East Coast, in Boston and then New York, Matusewicz says he felt like a “spy” trying to get all the information and experience he could before stealing it away to Crested Butte.
When he made the move back, Matusewicz left some of the city life behind. He left the expensive suit and the tight schedule. And while you might think he left a lot of what makes an event coordinator successful (like events, vendors and people), he says leaving the hustle of Manhattan for the Gunnison Valley gave him just what he wanted.
“When I first came back, I was seeing things that were here,” he says, purposefully forgetting to mention what wasn’t.
But what wasn’t here wasn’t the point. Matusewicz didn’t move to Crested Butte for what he had in Manhattan and Boston.
He was looking for a different experience and found it. The Internet was fast enough, the phones clear enough and transportation plausible, if not always easy.
Matusewicz completed the cycle economist Dr. Paul Holden sees as being vital to the future success of the Gunnison Valley: Come for college or a ski, leave to gain experience and come back to improve the local economy.
It’s like raising a teenager, Holden says. “You don’t want them to stop school and immediately start working from home. They need to go out into the world.”
At the start of his report on the Economy of Gunnison County, Holden points out that despite a highly educated group of people living in a place that is full of natural and man-made attractions, “the Valley does not have a common vision regarding its future.”
In the five years since completing the report, Holden says that vision isn’t any more clear or common today. He refers to graphs that show the valley made up mostly of the young and the old, absent many middle-aged people at their peak earning potential. To an economist, it largely comes down to how people translate to dollars and cents.
Data he compiled from the State Demographers Office shows that the schools are losing students in the upper grades.
“These facts suggest that once children reach middle school, or high school, their parents are leaving the county,” he says. Next he illustrates how the incomes of Gunnison County residents are “substantially” less than the state and national average: fractional (see chart).
As a 40-year resident of Crested Butte, Wooden Nickel owner Eric Roemer and his wife have raised two children here in the upper valley. In that time he says he’s seen a lot of good people try to raise families here on unstable salaries, but buckled as life became more expensive.
“There have been a lot of people who have packed their bags and left because they couldn’t see another way to make a living and to sustain themselves, especially if they were young families or parents who were finally recognizing that the kids were getting ready for college and there was no way they could do it,” he says. “So they left and it’s a shame.”
But just as Roemer was buying the Wooden Nickel in 1981, workers in Gunnison County saw an increase in earnings. And, adjusted for inflation, they haven’t gotten one since. In his report, Holden points out that “adjusted for inflation, there has been no increase in earnings per job since 1980, which contrasts sharply with earnings in Colorado and the country as a whole. In the comparator counties (Grand, Routt, Montrose and San Miguel counties), earnings rose in all except Routt County.”
The building industry back then was starting to boom, and if people didn’t make enough from nine to five, they could pick up some extra money swinging a hammer on the weekends. When the national economy started what Holden describes as a “period of rapid productivity growth” 25 years ago, second homes started popping up more often.
A report for the U.S. Forest Service titled Second Homes and the Economic Base in Four Counties in West Central Colorado, says by 2006 there were nearly 2,400 second homes in Gunnison County, or about one-third of all houses, and another 1,100 condos. Building and maintaining those homes accounted for about one-fifth of all jobs held in the county, the report says.
Holden thinks those days are gone, as the seed of recovery has fallen on unfertile soil. “First of all, I think the construction boom is over for a long time,” he says. “Second, politicians are busy raising the cost of building … I don’t think construction will come back.”
As an economist, Holden works around the world on “business environment issues,” from Mongolia to Australia and a dozen countries in between. “I want to set up the conditions in which people with drive and innovation can bring their ideas to fruition. They’re sometimes very small and remote [countries], but they don’t have any of the advantages that Gunnison has,” Holden says of the countries he works in. “[Economic development] should be a no-brainer. But the sad thing is you’re starting to see a rash of the same old comments.”
Those comments, Holden says, have mostly been heard before. Roemer participated on one of the last economic development committees, in 2005, and isn’t sure anything ever came of the suggestions the committee came up with. Holden says his report, which was prepared for Gunnison Valley Futures, “landed with a sickening thud.”
Holden is careful not to diminish the importance of Crested Butte Mountain Resort or tourism in the local economy. But he’s also eager to express how important diversity is to the future development of the valley. “The focus is on the wrong thing,” he says. “The traditional economic drivers of this valley are 20th century, not 21st century.”
Diversity, he says, is the glue that holds an economy together when one or more sectors take a hit. “It’s what softens the blow,” he says.
As principal of the media, sales and consulting company Maroon, Chris Tippie sees a lot of industries where office space is being cut in favor of lower overhead, effectively forcing employees to work from home. Any of those employees could settle here, he says.
But being connected is the crux. Tippie often finds himself using technology to connect to his clients and employees and agrees that the Gunnison Valley has huge potential to integrate a 21st century economy into the model that already exists here. And with it will come diversity.
Internet-based Crested Butte Computers is a good complement to Mark Ewing’s work as a ski patroller, and Gabe Martin makes the products at the Colorado FreeSkier available to a worldwide audience through his website and various other websites. Both businesses and owners fill in the downtimes online. The 21st century economy is here.
The infrastructure to support that economy is here and works for a lot of businesses, but Marilyn Laverty, director of the Small Business Development Center at Western State College, says after concerns about financing and market exposure, many of the business owners she talks with want more and better internet access.
That’s something the town of Crested Butte and others are working on through the Colorado Broadband Data and Development Program. But people can’t get here on a wire. So Laverty says what everyone already knows: air service is “vitally important,” especially since so many of the small businesses she hears from work in the tourism industry.
Bringing people to the Gunnison Valley and allowing local businesspeople to get out into the world, whether on a plane or online, is a necessity Holden sees as defining the future of our economy.
“One of the fundamental principals of economics is that trade brings prosperity,” he says. “So we need people from the college not only to start businesses here, but to start businesses that are interacting with businesses outside Gunnison County. That’s where our prosperity will come from.”
And for a county with a population of 15,000, having a highly educated and creative workforce, a college, a hospital and an environment that attracts worldly people of varying backgrounds, the only trick to economic development might just be harnessing the potential.
“One of the main themes of that [report] that I did was that there are elements in the valley that have the potential to transform this into something far more dynamic, without altering the essential characteristics of what we like,” Holden says. “I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t say one activity is going to thrive here and another isn’t. All I can do is say make it so that people with good ideas, vision, energy and drive don’t get discouraged and go away. We want people like that here and we should be encouraging them.”