COLORADO’S WESTERN SLOPE IS MAKING ALL THE RIGHT MOVES

COLORADO’S WESTERN SLOPE IS MAKING ALL THE RIGHT MOVES

Grand Junction, Palisade, Fruita and Gunnison have leveraged their outdoor recreation opportunities to attract more tourists and more business. As a result, they’re becoming stronger, more attractive communities.

By Shauna Farnell  June 7, 2018

PART 1: THE GRAND VALLEY OF MESA COUNTY

Surrounded by stunning land features such as the Grand Mesa, Book Cliffs and Colorado National Monument, the Grand Valley—that is, Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade—has long been a beloved home to and a destination for outdoor lovers. However, it wasn’t until recently that local policyholders, business owners and stakeholders have refocused economic investment on preserving and enhancing the area’s sustainable treasures. It’s starting to pay off.

The Colorado River cuts through the Grand Valley, making it an ideal playground for anyone seeking time in the mountains, on the trails or in the water. (Wikipedia)

A whopping 74 percent of Mesa County is comprised of public lands. Recreational use of those lands, be it hiking, biking, hunting, fishing, whitewater paddling, skiing or four-wheeling, has been the top focus of local leaders over the past five years. After all, the Outdoor Recreation Coalition—a vested interest group of businesses and entities ranging from Colorado Mesa University to Powderhorn Mountain Resort, from welding service providers to biking and Jeep outfitters—recently estimated that outdoor recreation brings in more than $300 million annually for Grand Valley’s economy and provides more than 2,000 local jobs.

 

According to the first-of-its-kind Outdoor Recreation Economy Congressional District reports, Colorado’s 3rd Congressional District is home to at least 241 outdoor companies, and residents in the district spend $2.19 billion annually on outdoor recreation. Download the full district report here.

 

“The most direct way people see that is through tourism,” says Outdoor Recreation Coalition Founder Sarah Walker Shrader, who is also co-founder of Bonsai Design, a Grand Junction-based business that designs adventure courses all over the world.

“We are one of the very few places in Colorado where you can paddle the river, mountain bike and ski in the same weekend. If you’re really ambitious, you can do it all in the same day,” she says. “The Grand Valley is an incredible place to work and play. You’ve got a lot of businesses and industry that relocate here because they want to have this lifestyle.”

 

GRAND JUNCTION

The Shraders—Sarah and her husband, Thaddeus—moved to Grand Junction in 2004 and launched Bonsai Design a year later. After growing from a basement business to a flourishing international enterprise, the couple spent about three seconds considering other places they could live and decided to “double down” on Grand Junction.

“We don’t need to live here. We could have our HQ anywhere in the country. But we love the lifestyle. We love that our kids have direct access to public lands and wild spaces. That’s a pretty hard thing to come by in rural communities,” Sarah says. (Although maybe not for long, according to Christian Science Monitor.)  “Also, we have the infrastructure to help businesses thrive. We manufacture all of our own equipment here. We need welders and fabricators and machinists to do that work. It’s been awesome to have that infrastructure right here.”

Sarah and Thaddeus Shrader atop one of their aerial ropes courses in their hometown of Grand Junction, Colorado.

Bonsai Design spearheaded and is one of the first companies to occupy the forthcoming Los Colonias riverside business park in Grand Junction, a park straddling the Colorado River, which, when completed in 2019, will offer direct access to paddling and swimming in the river, a park and picnic and zipline across the river, exemplifying Bonsai’s unique products.

A rendering of the Los Colonias business park planned for Grand Junction.

The park will add to the improvements and refinements the Grand Valley has made over the past five years to make the area more attractive to every variety of newcomer, tourist and prospective business alike. These include a flourishing fine-dining scene led by farm-to-table restaurants like Bin 707 and 626 on Rood, both of which are perennially packed from happy hour through closing time every night of the week; 23 wineries and tasting rooms throughout Grand Junction and Palisade, the latter of which now features a Fruit & Wine Byway; a series of signed routes through its numerous vineyards and orchards, ideal for navigating by two wheels.

Grand Junction’s Main Street has also undergone a facelift. Dove-tailing off of its 34-year-long Art on the Corner exhibit, which now features more than 100 unique sculptures of various subjects and mediums created by local and regional artists, Main Street is now a bustling cultural hub of shops, theater, performing arts center and ever-growing array of bars and restaurants.

“The thing we find compelling about the activities going on locally is that they’re able to continue that natural-resource-based economy while adding a more intentional focus on outdoor recreation.”
—Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, Outdoor Industry Association State and Local Policy Manager

Click to download the Colorado 3rd District Recreation Economy Report, and share it with your networks and elected officials.

Further investments include the Palisade Plunge trail, a 30-mile mountain bike trail that begins on the Grand Mesa and drops 6,300 feet into the town of Palisade. The timeline for completion of the trail is a question mark, as it is still securing final funding, which recently included a $200,000 grant from the Department of Local Affairs.

“As a mountain biker, [I think the Plunge] would be huge,” says Outdoor Industry Association State and Local Policy Manager Cailin O’Brien-Feeney, likening it to destination trails like Moab’s Whole Enchilada and Salida’s Monarch Crest. O’Brien Feeney adds that the Grand Valley’s effort to ramp up its economy is unique in that the outdoor community is working with and not against the area’s legacy money maker—the oil and gas trade.

“The thing we find compelling about the activities going on locally is that they’re able to continue that natural-resource-based economy while adding a more intentional focus on outdoor recreation,” O’Brien-Feeney says. “Over time, oil and gas goes through these ebbs and flows, and a local economy that is mostly based on that type of activity is on the whim of it. Outdoor recreation is becoming more accepted as a financial resource on the Western Slope. It’s not a case of one thing taking the place of another.”

When the oil and gas industry is down, Shrader says much of the community’s spirit falls with it. There is a wave of palpable depression that washes over the Grand Valley. While the industry is certainly not disappearing any time soon, she says that local stakeholders have gotten on board with plans to augment the local economy by enhancing outdoor recreation opportunities.

“The oil and gas industry just wrote a letter of support for the Palisade Plunge. The more we work together, the more we’ll have success in our community.”
—Sarah Shrader, owner of Bonsai Design in Grand Junction, Colorado

“The extraction industry has been a legacy powerhouse here. Let’s face it, we all need oil and gas to survive,” Shrader says. “When there is a bust in this community, it is devastating. It creates a lot of hopelessness in our community. That cyclical nature of the extraction industry is out of anyone’s control.”

Since she’s been in Grand Junction, Shrader has witnessed the oil and gas industry undergo a boom and bust cycle. During this period, not only did Bonsai Design employ numerous oil and gas industry professionals directly, but the company has provided contracts for small businesses and contractors who had previously gleaned most of their business from oil and gas.

“We are a manufacturer looking for skilled workers with construction and design experience who don’t mind travel. They have a lot of the skills we need. Honestly it’s one of the reasons we stay here. The other piece of that infrastructure is there are a lot of welders, fabricators, engineering firms used by oil and gas and now we’re using them,” Shrader says. “I would say this community in general is making a transition to realizing we have an abundance of natural assets that we are now promoting. They weren’t thinking of it as much until facing hard times when commodity pricing falls.”

One of the key ingredients to Grand Junction’s success integrating outdoor recreation as an economic driver is the community’s collaborative spirit.

“I want the extraction industry to do well,” Shrader says. “One of the great things about this community is we have a lot of collaboration. The oil and gas industry just wrote a letter of support for the Palisade Plunge. The more we work together, the more we’ll have success in our community.”

 

FRUITA

Palisade Plunge would add to the Grand Valley’s bounty of more than 1,500 miles of mountain bike trails, most of which are located in Fruita. The town of Fruita, a long-standing hot spot for fat tire fanatics, has also made significant investments in its outdoor recreation offerings, including the current $4.3 million project to extend the iconic Kokopelli Trail.

Of that $4.3 million, the town only used $10,000 in conservation funds and secured the bulk of the funds in grants. The ribbon cutting for the new section of trail takes place in July.

The North Fruita desert recreation area includes over 250 miles of designated recreation routes. With close proximity to Fruita and Grand Junction, this area is popular for mountain bikers as it provides a close to home riding opportunities.
(Photo by Leslie Kehmeier, Mapping Manager, International Mountain Bicycling Association)

“You’ll be able to get breakfast at Camilla’s, go in and out of the trails and not touch your car for two or three days,” says Fruita Mayor Lori Buck, a Fruita native who can personally attest to the enormous growth and appeal that outdoor recreation investment has afforded her community.

“I can sum it up with something my 12-year-old daughter said,” Buck says. “We were driving down Aspen Street—our Main Street. I always like to see how many bikes are on the backs of cars and generally what’s going on down there. [My daughter] looked at me and said, ‘I love living here.’ I would have never said that when I was 12.”

Thanks to tourism attracted by the region’s outdoor recreation infrastructure, last summer was the first time Buck can recall in Fruita’s history that local sales tax didn’t dip. She expects this summer might be at least equally as successful.

Buck points out that when she was growing up, Fruita was simply a bedroom community to Grand Junction.

“You drove home and closed your garage door. There weren’t a lot of options for goods or services,” she says. “All of the outdoor stuff was there. The BLM hasn’t changed, but the value of it has changed. It’s now the high seasons of spring and fall that carry businesses through.”

Thanks to tourism attracted by the region’s outdoor recreation infrastructure, last summer was the first time Buck can recall in Fruita’s history that local sales tax didn’t dip. She expects this summer might be at least equally as successful.

Fruita has an industrial business park—much like Grand Junction’s Los Colonias—of its own in the works and is opening a wake boarding park on one of its lakes this summer. The town also started permitting the popular Horse Thief area of the Colorado River for overnight stays. The number of visitors to Colorado National Monument, which spans Fruita and Grand Junction, has notched record numbers of visitors over the past two years.

“We’re doing some great things,” Buck says, adding that the outdoor recreation investments in Fruita are also not incongruous to the town’s extractive industry.

“We would like [Fruita to] transition out of the natural gas sector, but … we never will. It will always be an important part of what we do … just not the only part,” she says. “This outdoor movement is geared toward building a strong economy. Oil and gas is so volatile. We’re looking for more stable things to add. We’ll always support [extraction], but it’s nice not to depend on it.”

PART 2: AN EMBARRASSMENT OF RICHES IN GUNNISON COUNTY

Down the road from Grand Junction and Fruita, Gunnison County is in the midst of a similar transformation. Like Mesa County, the majority of Gunnison County—a mind-boggling 80 percent—is public land, most of it federal.  Enjoying the land on two wheels, four wheels, by river or on foot is becoming one of the area’s key attractions for prospective new businesses.

“Public land has always been the backbone of our economy,” says Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck, who doubles as an account representative for Acli-Mate, a natural sports drink created by his wife, Crested Butte native and naturopathic doctor Roanne Houck. “We’ve always maintained that being good stewards of wild places is good for our community.”

Local and regional politicians and interest groups, mountain bikers and water conservationists, hunters, anglers, ranchers and wilderness advocate groups, recently created a coalition, the Gunnison Public Lands Initiative, to protect the county’s treasured public lands.

“We’ve taken a formal stance that we will not promote any policy to transfer public [federal] lands to the state. We want public lands to stay in public hands,” Houck says. He adds that this was an opportunity to look at the inventory of existing public land in the area to determine which might need additional protections. Whether it is in the interest of protecting native cutthroat trout or big game or in an effort to sustain local agriculture operations, the group is keen to protect the lands from present or future threats of development and extraction.

“Public land has always been the backbone of our economy. We’ve always maintained that being good stewards of wild places is good for our community.”
— Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck

Gunnison County’s economy is multi-pronged, fueled by tourism, ranching, agriculture, Western State Colorado University and, yes, oil, gas and coal. The area’s ample inventory of public land includes its renowned pinnacle of recreation – Crested Butte – but also the popular Hartman Rocks Recreation Area, the spectacular Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park as well as numerous rivers and lakes. Another local coalition, Sustainable Tourism Outdoor Recreation (STOR), formed last fall to amplify efforts to protect but also enhance the county’s most prized public lands.

“We did a One Valley Prosperity Project—a discussion about pressing issues in our community. Four issues came out of it for the area’s greatest needs: affordable housing, economic development, healthcare provisions, then sustainable tourism and recreation,” Houck says. “As far as public lands, we have some deficiencies in infrastructure [we could fix with] things as simple as better signage and good bathrooms at trailheads.”

 

ONE VALLEY, ONE PROSPERITY: THE STORY OF OVPP

 

 

The Gunnison Public Lands Initiative cited a research study by Headwaters Economics, which discovered western rural communities comprised of more than 30 percent protected federal land increased jobs by 345 percent between 1970 and 2010 as opposed to rural communities with no federal protected lands, which increased jobs only by 83 percent.

“It’s a highly educated community and the public land is one of the great things. I don’t expect a place like Gunnison to support huge business that makes outdoor widgets with a team of 200 people. Companies with 10 to 12 employees, that’s what I’m interested in … those innovative companies looking to connect their product with where they live.”
— Gunnison County Commissioner Jonathan Houck

With enhanced access to those public lands comes enhanced interest in economic development. Like the Grand Valley, Gunnison County is aiming its investments at drawing start-ups and new small businesses into its community. Western State has spearheaded this movement with its Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship (ICE) Lab, a new wing of the campus designed to accommodate start-ups and expanding businesses with work stations, training sessions and consulting services.

“We want to be a hub for entrepreneurial folks,” Houck says. “We want our economic opportunities to be more than service jobs. We need something that makes our community more stable and robust. I see an interesting trend emerging. Your Steamboats and Crested Buttes of the world, that’s where the outdoor industry [has traditionally congregated].”But Houk sees more outdoor companies discovering the Fruitas and the Gunnisons—places that aren’t resort towns but that support industry and offer world-class recreation opportunities. “Gunnison has a zoned industrial area, great water, great schools, one of the larger airports in Western Colorado,” says Houk. “It’s a highly educated community and the public land is one of the great things. I don’t expect a place like Gunnison to support huge business that makes outdoor widgets with a team of 200 people. Companies with 10 to 12 employees, that’s what I’m interested in … those innovative companies looking to connect their product with where they live.”