Colors of change

It’s Best of the Butte season and as always, some of the random answers were the best. See the results on page 25. While glancing over the submissions, it got me thinking—about the community’s colors.

“The Blue Light Pole.”
That was one suggestion we received in Best of the Butte for Most Important Local Issue. Yessss! Yes it is. That sort of sums up the place. Embodied in that answer is some humor, some underlying conflict and some reflections of tensions that come with every resort town—growth, change and the idea of selling of a soul or just having a good time.
Briefly, the blue light pole was located at Third and Elk for about two weeks. After the Bud Light Whatever event this past September, the Town Council chose to leave that one pole painted blue as a sort of tribute to the weekend event that came in and “took over the town” for a Bud Light promotion. While the lead-up to the event was one of the most divisive things I’ve seen in the community, the actual party weekend was spectacular and the council wanted to leave the pole blue as a totem to the event.
But the earlier divisiveness made it too much to keep a sly reminder of a good party that came with a lot of flaws as the event approached. Some still go ballistic at the word “Whatever.” Others would bring it all back in a heartbeat. Some saw the event as a town literally selling its soul to cheap beer, while the other side saw it as a new way to bring in revenue and have a party. The blue light pole was a symbol of change that some embraced and others reviled.
But that’s what how we sometimes argue here: Over painted light poles. There are worse places to live.

So, while Whatever and its spin-offs were voted heavily as one of the most important local issues, the winner as usual, was Red Lady. Red Lady is the mountain overlooking town to the west. It holds within her womb a stash of molybdenum. Various mining companies have coveted the idea of extracting the high-grade moly over the last many decades. The Crested Butte community has persistently, and in a much more unified manner than Whatever, successfully come together and fought that idea. The thought of an industrial mine mixing with a growing tourism economy doesn’t make sense to most of those at the upper end of the valley.
Currently U.S. Energy holds the rights to the moly and as usual they are quacking about taking the steps to pursue their moly dream. I have been contending for a while that it is a dream—a pipe dream. Here is why: The price of moly is low. It sits at about $9.50 a pound. That really doesn’t make it feasible to open a new molybdenum mine. There is no shortage of the mineral on the market. Moly tends to be found alongside copper and there is plenty of the stuff being extracted all over the world. The cost of just starting a new mine is in the billions of dollars. The infrastructure of roads and electricity and mine equipment is staggering. New mines in the United States have to go through a rigorous permitting process and these types of mines are more likely to open in Indonesia than in Colorado.
Now add to the big picture the fact that U.S. Energy is getting pounded financially. The company shifted gears over the last few years to look less at hard rock mining and more at natural gas and shale oil. While that was a boon to the company originally, its fortunes began to turn when the price of oil started to tank. The stock price of the company touched $5 last April. This week it is closer to $1.40.
All these things add up to an unlikely mine anytime soon, if ever. But it also provides opportunity. While I see very little potential of a mine up there in my lifetime, there is value in getting rid of the dark mining dream that has hovered over the town for decades. So perhaps now is the time to again pursue a deal that ends the uncertainty. U.S. Energy must legally operate the wastewater treatment plant on Red Lady and that comes at a cost of seven figures a year. That has to hurt its bottom line.
The reality is that U.S. Energy has a liability and not an asset and given current financial realities, the company leaders might finally understand that and be willing to give up the mineral rights and leave a trust to operate that wastewater treatment plant to get this liability off its books.

I’m not talking legal pot since that is a whole other editorial. I’m talking money. Another real issue that struck people in Best of the Butte was affordable housing in the valley. People are being priced out of the community. Providing opportunity for affordable housing is important but takes money and/or land. The greenbacks needed to provide a chance for young middle class workers to stay in town are significant. The towns of Crested Butte and Mt. Crested Butte have some projects and some land that help ease some of the pressure, but more is needed. As some of the respondents of Best of the Butte noted, the VRBO (Vacation Rentals By Owner) phenomenon is a factor. Homeowners have discovered they can short-term rent some of their property to make it easier for them to live here instead of renting long-term to seasonal or year-round residents. This pushes people down or out of the valley. This moves the waiters and snow shovelers and volunteers out of town. It makes it more difficult for those who don’t want or need a lot of money to live here. It makes it harder for middle class families to find a home. It changes the community.
Let’s be clear. No one deserves a house in Crested Butte. I really hate the sense of entitlement that some have. But a community should look at its overall make-up and provide opportunities for those who work and contribute to the community to have a chance to live here. That takes focus and, frankly, money. There is an opportunity with the current Crested Butte annexation proposal to provide both focus and money. The council should not be afraid to require both in this affordable housing realm. It seems the developers have an understanding of the need.

And there you have it—all sorts of colors and viewpoints. As usual, Crested Butte is a vibrant place made up of shades of grey as opposed to clear-cut black-and-white (or blue and red and green) answers. Change is constant but it is how we change that is the underlying question and really the foundation of the most important local issue in the coming year.
Happy 2015, everyone.

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