Essay by Martha & Ed Quillen
Growth – May 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine
Recently the U.S. Bureau of the Census released the July 1996 estimates of population. These census figures reflect a little more than six years of change since the official census on April 1, 1990. So what do we find in the new numbers?
Well, of the five fastest-growing counties in the United States, four are in Colorado, and two are in Central Colorado.
The leader among all 3,142 of America’s counties (which also covers the county-like Louisiana parishes, home-rule cities in some states, and election districts in Alaska) is Douglas County, Colorado, whose seat is Castle Rock. Douglas County spreads along Interstate 25 between Colorado Springs and Denver.
Little wonder that it grows. It’s a constant of history that the vast majority of people won’t spend more than 45 minutes going to work. In ancient times, that meant a three-mile radius for a city (a pedestrian at a good clip walks about four miles an hour). In modern times, it means a “commutershed” with a 50-mile radius, and Douglas County thus falls into the commutersheds of both Colorado Springs and Denver.
Douglas County grew 84.9 percent, from 60,391 to 111,647, in the last six years and three months. That’s 51,256 people, more than the entire population of Central Colorado. Douglas County is also more than 100 miles away, with one or more mountain ranges separating them from us, but that’s not far enough.
Because most of their new homes rely on wells which tap an aquifer whose useful life is no more than 100 years (and it won’t last even that long if the growth continues). Soon Douglas County residents will want more water, and they’re in a position to get it. Their numbers are growing, which increases their political clout.
In addition, Douglas County houses people of some means (their median household income in 1989 was $51,718, more than double Chaffee’s $21,174), which counts for even more in American politics. As former Governor John Love once observed, “in Colorado, water flows uphill toward money.” And there’s water under Saguache County, where the 1989 median household income was a mere $15,853.
Some years back, AWDI failed to export water from the San Luis Valley to the Front Range, but now there’s a somewhat similar new plan, the “No Dam Water Project” from Stockmen’s Water Company. So, it behooves us to keep an eye on Douglas County, since it has little choice but to want resources from Central Colorado.
And while we’re at it, we might keep a wary eye on all of those other urban Front Range counties, too. Although percentage-wise many of them are not growing as fast as some Central Colorado counties, their growth in sheer numbers dwarfs ours, and they’ve definitely got more money to pay water lawyers, and more votes to sway legislators.
But what of the other three Colorado counties in the Top Five?
Elbert County ranked second nationally — 68 percent growth in six years, from 9,646 people to 16,209. Elbert is just east of Douglas County, and for our purposes, it might as well be combined with Douglas.
Now we get to Central Colorado.
Park County ranked third nationally — 61.7 percent, from 7,174 people in 1990 to 11,602 last year, and county officials suspect the census estimates are low. Custer County rated fourth in the country: 59 percent, from 1,926 to 3,062. In absolute and national terms, these numbers don’t amount to much — a total of 5,564 new residents, and the national population grows by more than that every week.
But what do they mean here?
In Park County, most of the influx is commuters. Most of the growth is in the Bailey area, which is now becoming a bedroom community for metro Denver. As the four-laning on U.S. 285 extends ever deeper into the mountains, so will this growth.
There are new houses in Fairplay, reportedly belonging to middle-management types who work in Summit County. The Lake George area of Park County gets commuters to the Springs. And we’ve heard of people in Hartsel who commute in every direction — some to Breckenridge, some to Salida, and some to Colorado Springs.
All in all, this growth is essentially suburban — because Park County has no center attracting this growth. Instead, the cities importing new residents into Park County are elsewhere, as evidenced by the county’s high proportion of commuters (65.3 percent in 1990) to jobs outside the county.
As we’ve detailed in previous stories, such a boom can actually generate economic problems. Unfortunately, with so many of its citizens spending most of their waking hours elsewhere, it’s doubtful that Park County’s retail sales and subsequent taxes will ever grow as fast as its population.
Custer County’s growth is somewhat different, though, and may actually benefit Custer County, at least in the sense of providing more income and opportunity to its residents.
I talked to Jim Little, publisher of the Wet Mountain Tribune in Westcliffe, who coincidentally was working on an editorial about those growth numbers.
“I just got off the phone with our county manager,” Jim told me, “and nobody’s sure just what kind of growth we’re getting. We do know that job growth hasn’t kept up with population growth.”
Some new residents commute, Jim said, since the new federal prison in Florence is a 40-minute drive. “We’ve also got a contingent of airline pilots who work out of the Springs.” But Colorado Springs is a 90-minute drive, too far for daily commuting by most people, and Pueblo is close to an hour. “So I don’t think we’re getting too many commuters.”
Many new residents appear to be “Lone Eagles” whose work can go out over telephone lines — and “there are a lot of young families with children moving in. It used to be that our growth came almost entirely from retirees.”
Whoever they are, “they’re spending more money in town. Custer County used to lead the state in retail leakage, Jim noted, “but a lot of our new residents like to shop here, even if they have to pay a little more. So the merchants have more inventory and better selections, and our retail sector is growing.”
So in some ways, Custer County is better for its growth.
According to the census, every county in Central Colorado is growing. Even Lake County (which led the nation in relative population drop during the 80s) was up 3.4 percent from 6,007 to 6,212 in the 1996 estimates.
But Lake County, which plunged from 8,830 people to 6,007 in that decade, wasn’t the only county hereabouts to lose population in the 1980s. Chaffee declined from 13,227 to 12,684, and Gunnison dropped from 10,689 to 9,273.
Yet now they’re all growing. The only mountain counties losing population recently are Jackson (Walden), where coal mines and sawmills have closed, and San Juan (Silverton), where the silver mines have closed. They’re going through the same transformation we went through in the 80’s, from an extractive raw-material economy to a tourist-amenity economy, except they started later.
So they may turn around. But they won’t be the same places, just as Salida isn’t the same places it was fifteen years ago.
When you look at the current growth numbers around here, they don’t reflect “growth” as much as they represent an invasion.
What’s the difference?
The easiest explanation that comes to mind is to imagine some Arapahoe camped at one of their favorite spots, the mouth of Cherry Creek at the future site of Denver, during the winter of 1858-59. A few prospectors are holed up nearby, and the Arapahoe can reasonably expect a lot more when the weather warms up.
By some accounts, “Arapahoe” means “trader,” and it’s fitting, for the Arapahoe did considerable business with the White Eyes: gambling and prostitution, but also hides, turquoise, beadwork, peltry, flints, etc.
So this prospective growth in 1858 should have meant more prosperity for the Arapahoe — more patrons for their prostitutes, more folks to fleece at gambling games, more folks to buy buffalo robes, etc.
But the Arapahoe did not face mere growth. They faced an invasion. The new people took over everything. There weren’t any Arapahoe around to take advantage of those new commercial opportunities. If an Arapahoe tried to return to a favorite camping spot, the soldiers appeared to run him off.
That’s the difference between growth and an invasion. Growth means the expansion of existing commerce and institutions. An invasion means their replacement by new institutions.
Salida’s recent growth didn’t help Waggoner’s Pharmacy — it just meant that the town could support a Wal-Mart.
How can we distinguish between growth and an invasion?
That’s fairly easy. Invaders don’t move in and adapt to your culture; they replace yours with their own.
Note how the white men didn’t move into teepees and start eating puppies? Well, in much the same way, contemporary invaders are developing a whole new way of life.
If you’ve been in the Colorado mountains for a while, you must wonder where all of those old deer heads, antlers, stuffed fish, wagon wheels, dude ranches, cow hides, and pine recliners went. Today, Central Colorado has more decks, more adobe, more ferns, more galleries, and more modern, subdivided, covenanted communities than you could have found from Federal Boulevard to Grand Junction in 1970.
A few of these additions have definitely been welcome.
But now there seems to be a concerted effort to complete the annihilation of Colorado’s pre-invasion mountain culture. And the natives (and those who prefer to go native) are getting restless.
(Sometimes I think this all started in Salida when we let the Denver Symphony Orchestra play in the high school field house. Right then, some people started getting some pretty fancy ideas about what kind of things we could have right here in the Ark Valley. In retrospect, maybe we shouldn’t have let those violinists in.)
In the beginning, however, Colorado’s cultural metamorphosis seemed a wonderful thing. Denver bloomed into a city, and a lot of poor mountain communities got more art, more ideas, new businesses, and a little prosperity. Besides, the Colorado mountains have always attracted invaders.
In the past, ’59ers, conmen, and prostitutes were followed by mining magnates, railroad tycoons, and British cattle barons. More recently, the mountains have lured Texas tourists, hippy communes, front-range hunters, skiers, river rafters, hikers, mountain bikers, and crusading environmentalists. Yet a semblance of old-fashioned rural culture survived regardless.
Currently, however, it looks like our small remnant of rural culture may soon give way — because never before have so many invaders seemed so inclined to settle in and stay.
The resulting culture clashes have been notable.
In Salida, we’ve had battles over parking problems, proposed trails, water ordinances, a comprehensive plan, a bigger Wal-Mart, teenagers, trailers, low income housing, and subdivisions. Admittedly, such fights are hardly new.
As this was going to press, the Salida city government was favorably considering several ordinances, primarily aimed at teenagers, that would presumably eliminate the time-honored practices of hanging out and loitering. In 1948, when today’s grandparents were teenagers, Salida also considered an anti-loitering law on account of noisy youth.
But recent frays have taken on a furious intensity.
At a recent Salida city council meeting, a speaker suggested that teen curfews and loitering laws would merely send teenagers out of town where drinking would be uncontrolled, and thus the proposed ordinances might actually lead to accidents and deaths.
Whereupon, the teenaged daughter of a friend of ours was grievously insulted — when a woman nearby clearly pronounced that she wished they would all die.
In the past couple of years, Salida city council meetings have rather routinely offered exhibitions of anger, threats, and rude remarks.
Yet curiously enough, in many cases, the natives and the invaders have much in common. On the whole, they’re both leery of rampant growth and development.
More and more often, however, it seems that local governments are firmly on the side of new money from outside interests — or at least that’s a growing perception on the part of many Central Colorado citizens.
In Park County, citizens battled county commissioners for several years over a proposed airport that could have provided scheduled jet-setting for Summit County resorts. Officials there just couldn’t seem to believe that most residents really wanted to turn down a $3 million investment. Accusations, lawsuits, and recall talk escalated — until the issue finally came to a vote, and was resoundingly defeated.
Recently, Salida officials eagerly supported a $1.4 million “affordable” housing project, which required an annexation of property. The city hastily approved the annexation, and now there’s an Annexation Repeal Committee circulating petitions. In this case, many opponents of the project claim they’ve been treated rudely or worse by the city government.
Obviously, what some officials see as multi-million dollar investments, many citizens see as multi-million dollar nuisances.
In Park County, the dispute about an airport is over. But a proposed water diversion, numerous subdivisions, a new jail, and a multitude of other issues guarantee that litigation, accusations, and suspicions continue.
In Buena Vista, former Mayor Mike Lockett and two former trustees sued the recall committee that successfully ousted them. Thus far, their suit was dismissed in district court, and then a petition to the Colorado Supreme Court to disqualify the judge who dismissed the case was denied. But already recall petitions are circulating again.
This time around, petitioners claim that Trustee Dean Hiatt has a conflict of interest because he’s a developer who abstains from certain votes, and thereby deprives the citizens of representation on important issues. Since it was hardly a secret that Hiatt was a developer when he ran and won last fall, this recall seems a bit arbitrary.
But it does illustrate a point.
It’s getting harder and harder to be a local representative here. What with all the meetings, annexations, subdivision proposals, and infrastructure changes, it’s a lot of work, and many officials undoubtedly feel greatly unappreciated.
But at the same time, with so much happening, a lot more citizens have legitimate concerns about the repercussions of new projects in terms of additional noise, traffic, water problems, inconveniences, and costs. Furthermore, a growing number of people feel that while their towns are growing and prospering, their own quality of life is diminishing.
And even when residents heartily support a new project, they may still want to know how long their roads will be torn up, or whether a plan can be modified to alleviate a potential problem.
The wants, needs, questions, and criticisms of residents deserve to be heard. Yet often it seems like our representatives embrace new plans before the citizens can air their viewpoints. And thus, all too frequently when citizens turn to local government for solutions, they end up feeling that their concerns aren’t taken seriously.
In Salida right now, there’s a growing perception that the city solves all of our problems (be they with teens, parking, or water-pressure), by passing a few ordinances and fining us more. Whereas they save all of their creative energy and investment ideas for schemes to provide new water systems, roads, subdivisions, and recreational opportunities for people who don’t even live here yet.
Anyway, a lot of citizens are beginning to wonder whether our government agents today are like certain Indian agents in the past. Whose side are they on? Ours, or the invaders’?
In spite of stereotypes, most locals don’t seem to view Denverites or Californians as invaders. Instead, the perceived enemy appears to be suburbia, strip malls, traffic, noise, and crowds. Very few residents in small mountain towns are clamoring for more up-scale developments, shopping, airports, or migrants. But that’s what their representatives keep offering.
For things to get better, local officials have got to stop acting like corporate directors eager to enhance the revenue stream and make the company more attractive to investors. Most citizens still think it is the job of government, especially local government, to represent them, not to sell them to the highest bidder.
–Martha & Ed Quillen