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One Tough Road

Article by Sharon Chickering

Leadville Transition – February 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

During winter months, the sun hasn’t begun to lighten the sky over the Mosquito Range when parents begin dropping off children at The Center day care facility in Leadville. Buses, either from Avon-Beaver Creek Transit, or from individual hotels and resorts, pass by The Center and other locations to pick up these parents for jobs in Eagle and Summit counties. The resulting ten- to twelve-hour days are long for both children and adults.

Lake County, accustomed to the boom-and-bust cycles of mining, is experiencing a boom of another sort — that of a bedroom community for the ski industry — a boom for which it did not prepare, and which may not be entirely welcome. Although few remain employed in the industry, most residents still see Leadville as a mining town, and the transition to something else is proving difficult.

After a history of dependence on mining companies to provide life’s amenities, the community has little prior training in “pulling itself up by the bootstraps.”

County Commissioner Earl Boeve acknowledges the conflicting emotions: “If it hadn’t been for the ski industry when Climax shut down [in the early 1980s], there probably wouldn’t still be a Leadville. However, we set ourselves up for these problems [with the ski industry] by not working to provide jobs.”

Because few jobs are available in Lake County, many residents are taking employment along the I-70 corridor at wages much lower than they have been accustomed to receiving, and with scant or no benefits.

A plus however, is that middle-class families from the I-70 corridor are buying in Leadville — after being priced out of the inflated real estate market around Vail and Breckenridge. In 1995, over 34% of the Lake County workforce (approximately 1160 individuals) was employed outside the county, the majority in Eagle County.

But housing is no longer “cheap” in Lake County either. Local real estate agents estimate that housing costs have risen 25 to 28% over the last three years. With trailer park occupancy at historic highs, a “little, old house” might rent for under $400 a month, but most rents are closer to $500 a month and up. And, to make meager paychecks stretch further, two and three families (ten to fourteen people) may share one living unit.

Purchase prices for very modest homes begin at $65,000.

Nearly everyone agrees that the most pressing problem for communities around ski resorts throughout the state is lack of affordable housing. It is one thing to choose to drive fifty miles one way to employment, and another to be forced to because of lack of available housing. Although Vail Resorts plans a marketing budget of $20 million after its merger with three other resorts, there is a seeming unwillingness on its part to face more mundane problems concerning employee health, safety and comfort.

John Ozzello, Lake County Director of Social Services spoke about the effect on families of long work days and crowded conditions. Even with low-cost day care available, more children, even as young as ages four and five years, are being left alone during the day. Likewise, school-aged children have more unsupervised hours.

“How do you tell parents they’re being bad parents by going to work (to support their families)?” Ozzello asks.

With these added burdens, family stress levels increase. All it takes is for the teenaged son to make some wisecrack, and his parent lets him have it. After white-knuckle drives over icy mountain roads in lines of traffic that look more like rush hour in Denver, adults are too tired to participate in school or community activities, leading to low neighborhood attachment. Besides, the outlying trailer courts where many live lack facilities for group meetings even if there was a need or desire for community interaction.

The Center opened in 1988 as one response to the growing number of families with two working parents. Because parents had less time to spend with their children, kids were beginning school less prepared. With its own nationally recognized program as well as Head Start, The Center has helped bridge developmental gaps. This year the facility, which offers a sliding fee scale based on family income, is providing seven to eight hundred hours of care per day, but hopes that will increase as the ski season gets underway.

“We’re second-best to home,” acknowledges director Kathy Brendza. “Parents don’t want to leave their kids here so long each day, but it’s a survival thing for them. . . The parents are good people. They work long hours for not a whole lot of money and not a lot of job gratification.” Brendza estimates that 60% of the children at The Center have parents working in Summit or Eagle County.

Lake County has always had an interesting mix of ethnic minorities drawn by the promise of wealth and a better life. The cycle is repeating itself as the ski industry lures Mexican nationals and other Latin Americans to the area with promises of good paying jobs. When the ski industry asks for state permission to bring in workers from Latin America, it promises to provide certain levels of housing, transportation and health benefits. But, according to Ozzello, the state does not check to see if the agreements are being carried out.

Leadville Mayor Pete Moore is adamant when he speaks of this situation: “There is a great deal of exploitation going on…. The Mexicans are being treated as pieces of equipment — when the ski industry is finished with them, they are discarded and replaced by others…. I don’t fault [the Mexicans] — they are only trying to improve their lot.”

Although some of the Latinos have work permits, there are as many as 750 undocumented workers in Lake County alone, or 10,000 in the five -county region making up the Rural Resort Region (Lake, Summit, Eagle, Garfield and Pitkin counties). Ozzello blames the ski industry along with the state government for this situation.

“Tourism drives Colorado,” he says. “The state won’t allow us to do anything to kill the sacred cow. . . If the INS (Immigration & Naturalization Service) did its job and deported every illegal, the resort and construction industries would shut down the same day. . . It’s all economics.”

Most families can’t afford to live on a wage of six or seven dollars an hour, but compared to the one or two thousand dollars year the Latinos were making back home, it seems like a lot of money. In addition Ozzello says: “Only about ten percent of ski area employees get benefits. Ski areas are notorious for laying off people just before they qualify for benefits.”

Abuses are common. Some undocumented workers will work up to four weeks, especially in the construction trade, but when it comes time to be paid they are let go. Because they have no work papers, they have no legal recourse. Furthermore, if an undocumented is injured on the job, there are no Workmen’s Comp or health insurance benefits to help with medical expenses. How often does all of this happen? “More often than people think,” says Ozzello.

Five years ago, most of the newly arrived Latinos were single males between the ages of 25 and 35. But now there are many young families with children, thus providing a better social support system for that population. Although most local businesses and government agencies now hire some employees who can communicate in Spanish, the impact on the Lake County School District R-1 has been even greater. During the 1990-91 school year, there were eleven Limited English Proficiency (LEP) students enrolled. In the current year, there are one hundred thirty-four — an increase of 1118%.

Feeling they were not adequately serving the LEP population, the school district wrote a Transitional Bilingual Education Grant for grades K-5. With the $125,000 received in each of three years, the district has been able to hire one ESL (English as a Second Language) Resource teacher, and three and a half bilingual paraprofessionals, as well as provide additional training for other staff. This is the last year of the original grant, but the district hopes to get a continuation for another two years.

From 1991-94, Lake County health facilities were hit hard with indigent care. In 1994, of the 120 births at St. Vincent’s General Hospital, forty were for Eagle County residents. Although Eagle County medical facilities began accepting Medicaid patients in 1994, Leadville’s hospital still provides much free and reduced-fee care each year. Some reduced fees are covered through Medicaid and other state-funded health care programs, but the slack is indirectly taken up by increased property taxes and higher charges.

The Catch-22 for undocumented Mexican nationals is that even though they may qualify for emergency Medicaid (as in the case of childbirth), when salaries are checked as part of the application process, the employer may immediately dismiss them.

There is no question that workers who live in Lake County are positively affecting the economies of Eagle and Summit Counties. Because of available services, vacationers flock to the area, the ski industry thrives, and sales and property taxes are up. Eagle County has an assessed valuation of $970,977,700 and taxable sales of $675,724 and those of Summit County are $550,174,350 and $565,448, respectively. With an assessed valuation of $47,933,760 and taxable sales of $27,828, Lake County’s figures look like peanuts.

In addition, given the provisions of the Gallagher amendment to the state constitution, the Lake assessed valuation is going down (if the total valuation of county property goes down — which it will with the decrease in mining — the value of residential property must go down proportionately).

While Summit taxpayers can spend over $27 million to build a new high school, Lake taxpayers felt an $8 million bond issue for essential repairs and renovation on several school buildings was too costly. While the Eagle County Library District, which passed a $6 million bond issue to build two new library buildings in the last two years, has a budget equivalent to $47.50 per capita, the Lake County Public Library’s budget is closer to $14.00 per capita. Lake County workers’ efforts go toward providing amenities to more affluent citizens while their own children make do with less than the best.

In an effort to balance some of the inequities in the five counties composing the Rural Resort Region, public officials have been meeting for more than three years. A project co├Árdinator, whose job it will be to develop benchmarks in fiscal resources, housing, child care, health care, and transportation, was recently hired.

However, Lake County Commissioners are somewhat pessimistic. Unless the private sector is willing to “step up to the plate” and be part of the solution, answers will be limited. It may also take action by the State Legislature to effect equitable remedies: some form of revenue restructuring such as using a percentage of the sales taxes generated by Eagle and Summit Counties to help provide services in Lake County might be a possibility.

Commissioner Bob Casey assesses the situation when he says: “The community is more aware of the inequities that the current system allows. . . There is growing animosity against Eagle and Summit Counties. That animosity didn’t exist ten years ago.”

But, in spite of everything, community residents agree that Lake County is still a good place to raise a family. Alice Pugh, Director of the Full Circle Project, a program of prevention in the areas of substance abuse, violence, teen pregnancy, juvenile delinquency and school drop-outs says: “You can do things here. If you and I sit here and decide we’re going to do something, we probably can.”

Pugh cites agency co├Áperation, children’s programing at The Center and Lake County Public Library, and Colorado Mountain College as important community assets.

County Sheriff Dave Duarte acknowledges that rates of domestic violence are high, and that if he had the fiscal resources he could keep a person busy full-time working on drug cases. There are also some problems with differences in cultural expectations between long-term residents and newly arrived Latinos, but only a small number of the latter actually get into trouble with the law. And to Lake County’s credit he adds: “We have a bunch of darn good kids in this county. Juveniles are the least of our problems.”

Both Lake County’s strengths and weaknesses stem from its insular character. The residents’ historic individualism has helped preserve the integrity of the area — those unique qualities that many people seek in a small mountain town. However, when it comes to planning the future, those traits, as well as the great diversity of opinion, prevent the community from implementing concrete strategies. About the only thing on which everyone agrees is that they do not want to see Leadville become another Aspen or Breckenridge.

Without a doubt, Lake County will continue to be a bedroom community, even if more jobs can be created to lessen people’s need to travel “over the mountain.” But the question remains whether residents can come together to direct that future, or will allow it to happen by default, and whether the ski industry can be made to foot its fair share of the bill.

Sharon K. Chickering lives and works in Leadville, thus sparing her the commute over a pass.