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TODAY’S FOCUS: Colorado’s Western Slope Tries to Break Energy Dependence

January 14, 1985

GRAND JUNCTION, Colo. (AP) _ Along North Avenue, empty commercial buildings abound. In a single block, a fast-food restaurant, a book store, a Mexican restaurant and a laundromat all recently went out of business.

More than 3,000 houses are up for sale in the area; many of them have been empty for months. Property foreclosures are running 13 times the 1980 level, and local attorneys keep busy filing personal bankruptcies.

This is the continuing down side of the energy boom that went bust on May 2, 1982 - Black Sunday, as it’s called locally - when Exxon USA announced that it was abandoning its oil shale project at Parachute, 45 miles to the east, and pulling out its work force of 2,200 employees immediately.

″1984 was an incredible shakeout, and we’ll see more of it,″ said Bob Kays, president of the area’s Chamber of Commerce whose first day on the job last June coincided with 200 layoffs at St. Mary’s Hospital.

But, on the other hand, Kays said, ″I also believe Grand Junction’s love for the big boom is over. That’s an important lesson.″

Officials say it has taken Grand Junction, which with 35,000 residents is the largest city on the Western Slope, nearly three years to sober up from its binge during the energy boom and begin charting a course toward more balanced economic development.

It wasn’t the first time the Western Slope, originally settled by gold and silver miners, had bet its future on energy. A similar uranium mining boom also went bust 20 years ago.

Unlike the prosperous ski resort towns of Aspen, Vail, Telluride and Crested Butte, which some local residents refer to collectively as ″Disneyland,″ the rest of the Western Slope, all of Colorado west of the Rockies has long depended on agriculture and energy.

Signs of change, however, are beginning to crop up in some of the Western Slope’s small cities.

Montrose recently landed a 60-job sign manufacturing company that moved from Kansas City. Delta had three grand openings last month of small businesses. Durango is concentrating on tourism and recreation but also has a chocolate factory, among other things. Ridgway, population 370, attracted a company that employs 30 people building and shipping picture frames.

George Gault, appointed last July by Gov. Richard Lamm as economic development coordinator for the Western Slope, said Grand Junction remains the economic linchpin for the Western Slope and its population of more than 300,000.

The metropolitan area formed by Grand Junction and neighboring Fruita and Palisade have a population of about 70,000, down from about 80,000 two years ago, officials say.

In Mesa County, the unemployment rate is 9.5 percent; generally, Western Slope unemployment runs 8 percent or more. Denver, by contrast, has a 4.9 percent unemployment rate.

In an attempt to wean the Western Slope from its boom-and-bust tradition, the newly formed Mesa County Economic Development Corp. plans to stress the areas’s attractive environment and recreational opportunities. Its next step is to raise $1.6 million for a nationwide marketing program.

The new group was criticized initially when more than 40 directors, all men, were selected. After pressure from women and some members of the new group’s board, former Mayor Jane Quimby was appointed to serve on the executive committee.

The selections of directors revived complaints about the ″good old boys″ -local businessmen who are perceived as putting their own interests ahead of the community.

However, local political and business leaders insist they are taking the right steps that will lead to future economic development success.

Gault said the first thing Grand Junction needs to do is ″get everybody moving in the same direction.″

He and Jim Driscoll, a Public Service Co. of Colorado executive on loan to Grand Junction for economic development, nudge, needle and at times push various groups toward a common goal.

″More than anything else, the variable in economic development is leadership,″ Gault said. ″There is the potential for leadership here but we need to get rid of the good-old-boy syndrome.″

Driscoll recently spent more than two years on a similar assignment in Pueblo, an economically depressed manufacturing city about 100 miles south of Denver with an unemployment rate of 10 percent.

A decision last year by Sperry Corp., an electronics manufacturer, to build a plant in Pueblo that will employ 1,000 people was ″one of the big emotional highs of my life,″ Driscoll said. He added that he’s hoping to hit a similar ″home run″ in Grand Junction.

Gault said he believes the Western Slope should take another route, helping to keep existing businesses and developing small, steady job creation programs.

″George wants 50 small ones while I want one big one,″ Driscoll said. ″If we both can deliver, we’ll have a winner.″

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