Gunnison Country appears to maintain its balance

Article by Allen Best

Community identity – November 1998 – Colorado Central Magazine

Gunnison Country appears to maintain its balance

The Gunnison Country remains an anomaly among beautiful places of the West. Defined by geography, the broad basin has sky-piercing peaks, wide open spaces, and even a destination ski resort, attributes that usually cause a place to become bombarded by changes and lifestyle clashes. Yet the old order seems to operate in a vaguely comfortable balance with the new order. There is, by most accounts, a strong sense of community.

In a forum sponsored by the Boulder-based Center of the American West, Gunnison County Commissioner Rikki Santarelli said he believes “Gunnison is the same community… that I graduated from 40-plus years ago.” He believes there are several reasons.

Western State College, located in Gunnison since 1909, has caused the community to accept new people and consider new ideas. There are identifiable geographic boundaries that bind the people, and few people commute beyond those boundaries. There is a cultural cohesion.

Cultural cohesion is achieved through institutions such as the Gunnison Country Livestock Association, the state’s oldest. The “community story” that newcomers eventually learn is told through plays performed at the college, at museums, and through such events as the county fair and rodeo and Crested Butte’s Vinotok festival. This constant retelling of the community story causes newcomers to eventually become part of a community.

Schools also bind a community. “It’s not unusual to see people at high school football games in Gunnison who haven’t had children in schools for a generation,” he said.

Finally, there are many community centers, places where people gather for official and unofficial business.

All that said, Santarelli said Gunnison and Crested Butte show signs of stress and discord.

A local land developer, a long-time resident, was called a “dirt pimp” at a recent meeting. Protests at public meetings have become louder. Even if you change nobody’s mind, it makes you feel better, Santarelli suggested.

The county has sustained little statistical growth, but the demographics have shifted. Every year 150 to 200 homes are sold to people who make their livings outside the region. One-third of the people have been there a year or less.

Also, families are smaller and more fragmented. Hence, while there is little population “growth,” there is a great deal of development, many new faces, and a pace of change that is “now too fast, I think, for the community to absorb.”

Many newcomers are fleeing something, often the congestion and sprawl of cities, and they arrive in Gunnison Country with specific notions of how Gunnison and Crested Butte should avoid that same fate.

His vision for the Gunnison region? To avoid the sharp economic distinctions that resort economies seem to engender, he believes in aggressive economic diversification. And that, he added, will require public subsidies. “You hear a mantra that growth must pay its own way. But I don’t think it can, or it should,” he said.

Denis Hall also has been part of that public dialogue in the Gunnison Country. He’s been in Crested Butte roughly 30 years, writes for the leading paper there, the Crested Butte Chronicle, and he now heads the High Country Citizens Alliance, considered one of the most effective grassroots conservation organizations in the state.

He’s pessimistic about the growth of “hollow homes,” that second-home development which tends to be located adjacent to public lands or open spaces. “Humans like edges just as much as wildlife does,” he noted. It offends wildlife, and “it offends me,” he said.

Vail Resorts Inc. has been interested in buying the Crested Butte ski area, Hall continued, “and that would offend me.” But ranchers in the region bolster hope. There, they have banded — steadily if sometimes reluctantly — to preserve an agrarian backdrop through sale of conservation easements, thus ensuing resort sprawl does not continue endlessly.

Peter Decker of Ridgway, whose book, Old Fences, New Neighbors, spawned this discussion, warned against looking back at old towns too nostalgically. They tended to be mean and festering places. Still, he also wants the rash of newcomers to realize that a community existed previously — and to hold on to what makes sense.

–Allen Best

(Decker’s book is reviewed by Ed Quillen on page 34). Book Review