A group of small Colorado towns in western Montrose County – collectively known as The West End – is poised to reinvent its economy for when the Tri-State Nucla Power Generation and Transmission Station and its nearby coal mine closes in 2022.
The Unaweep-Tabeguache Scenic Byway passes through the communities of Nucla, Norwood, Naturita, Bedrock, and Redvale – a gorgeous, but an economically depressed area that Deana Sheriff, Region 10’s West End economic recovery coordinator, is working to transform into a more vibrant and sustainable economy.
After Tri-State announced it would close its operation, Region 10 League of Economic Assistance and Planning applied to the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA) and the Telluride Foundation for funding to hire Sheriff to develop new economic opportunities in the area.
Sheriff is busy building relationships with community members and identifying potential new industries for the area. Sheriff also serves as a Small Business Development Center (SBDC) consultant, teaches a workshop series on running a profitable agriculture business for Region 10, and raises money to fund various projects.
Outdoor recreation and tourism were identified as important untapped industries for the rural communities of the West End.
“We have all the elements to have a recreational paradise,” Telluride Foundation president and CEO Paul Major said. “Nucla and Naturita are well-positioned to take advantage of an exploding, vibrant tourism economy.”
Sheriff is planning a number of projects that would enhance the area’s tourism – including a heritage program where visitors can learn about the region’s rich uranium history. There are plans to add public restrooms, and a town park along the rural scenic highway, as well as a proposal to extend the Nucla Hopkins Airport runway to accommodate larger jets.
“It’s the last undeveloped tourist area of Colorado,” Sheriff said.
A developer is working on a “glamping park” outside of Naturita, where visitors will spend the night in teepees outfitted with king-sized beds. Sheriff said the new accommodations will help with the increase in tourists expected this year.
Sheriff is additionally increasing lodging options while also putting money in the pockets of local residents, by teaching them how to run Airbnbs on their properties.
New signage along the highway, funded by Region 10, will direct travelers to Naturita’s Visitor Center, area trails, and other local attractions.
Region 10 also paid for an economic development study and hired a Durango- based business management consultant to work with the West End to create a business development plan, Region 10 executive director Michelle Haynes said.
“We’re very focused on working with the community to solve for the loss of the coal plant closing,” Major said. “At the end of the day they’re going to lose 75 percent of their tax base (as well as a major employer). We’re actively working with Region 10 and the community to replace that economic activity.”
The area is also gaining traction as an agricultural hub. Because of the influx of growers and producers, Leila Serafin, coordinator of the Norwood Fresh Food Hub, the Local Food Initiative, and the Norwood Community Garden, approached Nancy Murphy, Region 10’s business development director, about creating and offering business planning classes to support farmers.
As a result, curriculum was developed to address the needs of the local community and Sheriff, because of her background in business and agriculture, was tapped to facilitate it. The program, “Tilling the Soil,” helped businesses refine their marketing, pricing, accounting, employment, and funding practices, and introduced them to tools and resources that can help them reach their financial goals. Serafin recruited 19 participants who completed the 8-week series in February.
“We want to help people interested in expanding or starting a food-related business,” Serafin said. “Small businesses need guidance.”
Sheriff said the feedback from class participants has been great, and that clients are already implementing what they’ve learned.
For example, “one client, who raises alpacas, has developed five additional uses for his alpaca fur and fiber,” Sheriff said.
Through Region 10, Sheriff continues to build relationships with community members, provides training for farmers and other entrepreneurs, and works to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place to support new and expanding businesses.