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Growth and Groceries in the Twin Cliffs

Column by Hal Walter

Custer County – January 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

With all the growth in recent years, the Westcliffe-Silver Cliff clusterplex is certainly no longer a one-horse town. But is it a two-grocery town?

That’s the question on the minds of many residents. Last fall the foundation was poured for a new, modern grocery store just a couple blocks down the street from Jennings Market, a fixture in the community for nearly a quarter of a century. The answer seems pretty clear cut — wait and see. But the big picture will reveal something about growth, and something about the character of the community.

Harold Jennings has been in the grocery business in the Wet Mountain Valley for the better part of three decades. He worked for his father-in-law who owned a grocery store across the street from the Silver Cliff Museum for 20 years. When that store moved to Jennings’ current location there were three groceries in the Twin Cliffs, including one next door and one across the street in Grandma’s House.

Jennings’ father-in-law bought the store next door, then later sold out. The corner store eventually absorbed the grocery in Grandma’s House. Jennings says he bought the grocery in 1974 after its owner defaulted on a loan.

It’s safe to say Jennings’ meat counter is an institution. The best steak I ever ate was a T-bone that was custom-cut behind the counter at Jennings in the spring of 1988. It was an inch-thick slab of red protein that I drove home and cooked to perfection over real hot charcoal, searing the outside but leaving it pink in the middle. I’ve had other steaks since, but the only ones I remember as well as that T-bone also came from Jennings.

To this day, pilgrims routinely travel from other cities to bring home the beef from the little Westcliffe grocery with the old-fashioned butcher shop. “We handle a better grade of meat,” says Jennings. “We don’t handle anything but choice beef … and it’s cut fresh while you’re standing here waiting for it.”

But the new Westcliffe’ Super Market will have some other things that Westcliffe residents are used to driving a long-distance U-turn for — like a pharmacy and bakery. Some say these attractions may allow the new store to take business from the old one. However, others point out that in recent memory a drug store with a pharmacist went defunct. Likewise a bakery.

Harold Jennings is aware that many area residents routinely do a certain amount of grocery shopping at the larger supermarkets “down below” in towns like Cañon City and Pueblo. “A lot of people just take a day and go to the city … and they buy some groceries while they are there,” Jennings acknowledges.

But he doesn’t mind it so much because ultimately these shoppers do end up buying some groceries or supplies at Jennings as well. They come to Jennings to purchase meat. Or it’s too hot to haul ice cream or frozen foods home from Pueblo. Or they run out of something before they can make a run to the big town. Show up just before closing time at Jennings and you’re liable to find yourself in a long line of these folks.

Last winter, in the wake of a rapidly growing customer base, Jennings remodeled the store to add shelf space. He expanded the produce department and the dairy case as well.

Since grocery shoppers are already spending money out of town, Lynn LaGree, proprietor of the soon-to-open Westcliffe’ Super Market, says he figures there’s enough business for both stores. He says he researched and studied population and growth figures before deciding to build his new store.

“I’m not coming with the intention of putting anybody else out of business,” LaGree says. “I just want to keep people shopping at home. It’s good for everybody — it will make the whole community better.”

LaGree too is acutely aware that a good number of residents buy groceries down below. “Those are the ones that we want to keep,” he says.

Living in Westcliffe and owning a grocery store there is a lifelong dream, says LaGree. He decided to go for it after three different Westcliffe residents prodded him to do so one day when he was working at his father’s Cañon Market in Cañon City. “I didn’t need too much pushing,”he says.

The Westcliffe store will not be affiliated with his father’s. “This is a thing I’m doing on my own,” says LaGree. The new full-line grocery store will have 14,400 square feet of floor space, comparable in size to Cañon Market.

LaGree hopes to have the store open by April and plans to hire as many as 20 employees during the busy summer months. He and his wife Jeanne will relocate to the Wet Mountain Valley.

But is there room for two groceries in Westcliffe?

Even with the influx of new residents, cattle still greatly outnumber people in Custer County, and when you throw in a sizable population of horses, dogs, cats, sheep, goats, and the odd burro here and there, it appears there would be more than enough hungry critters to keep the local feed store owned by Randy and Claricy Rusk in oats. But when a second feed store opened up a few years ago it spelled trouble.

“It hurts,” says Claricy. “It does. Everybody tries out the new guy, you know … You wish there would be some sort of loyalty when a new competitor comes in. But there’s not. People always go for the best deal.”

Fortunately for the Rusks, their new competitor didn’t last. When the dust settled, the Feed Barn was still standing, thanks to sidelines such as fence construction and wild-game processing — and a few loyal customers.

“We had some real good loyal people who didn’t change, and then some surprised me … but they did come back when he left,” says Claricy. She hopes area residents will remember the long-term tie Jennings has to the community when they weigh the choices in grocery shopping, but she wonders if new residents will have the same sensibilities that oldtimers have. “Harold has helped so many people whenever they were in a tight spot … but the new people don’t know that,” Claricy says.

People who have lived here for a decade remember that Valley Fuel and Supply on Colorado 69 on the south end of Westcliffe originally opened as a grocery store, with a full produce and meat section.

Competing with Jennings didn’t work. “There weren’t enough people living here full time to support something that extravagant,” says Dee Hoag, who owns the fuels business with her husband Chris.

Now Valley Fuel and Supply deals in various fuels ranging from gasoline to kerosene to propane. They also stock some parts and spin quite a few tires. “The tire business is good,” says Dee. “Seventy percent of the road systems are dirt, gravel, rock.”

But the recent opening of a new tire and alignment shop in Silver Cliff has ironically put the Hoags in the same position as Jennings, wondering if there’s enough business to go around. “You get to a point where people start wanting to do bigger and better things, and offer more. But is the town really ready? Has it really grown that much?” Dee asks.

The dilemma has the Hoags thinking about diversifying — maybe dabbling in some convenience-store groceries themselves. Travelers who stop for gasoline are sometimes disappointed that the only doughnuts at Valley Fuel are of the steel-belted variety. “We’d like to put a little quick shop here,” says Dee. “The traffic is tremendous from Texas, Oklahoma and New Mexico.” For now, however, Valley Fuel’s groceries are limited to a few snacks and a pop machine.

Other Central Colorado towns have supported several convenience stores and competing groceries for a number of years. Just look at Leadville, Buena Vista, and Salida, all of which supported two, and in the case of Salida, three, grocery stores even before the most recent tide of growth.

We’ll just have to wait and see what happens. But one thing is certain — for the first time in a long time, Westcliffe-area residents will have to decide in 1997 where to buy their local groceries. Perhaps never again will such a simple decision reveal so much about this little community, who we are and what we’ve become.

Hal Walter, who raises burros and hell near Westcliffe, is starting his second year as a regular columnist for Colorado Central.