As coal fades, Northwest Colorado's economy looks to tourism

DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT, Colo. (AP) — The 10 rafts are secured to the banks of the Green River. The tents are up. The sun is setting over the sandstone canyon walls. As 30 rafters dig into steaming bowls of chili, it’s time to start planning for the future.

How can northwest Colorado entice and manage visitors, protect natural landscapes like the Green River’s stunning Gates of Lodore and prop up an economy girding for the looming departure of coal mining?

“As our coal leaves, what do we have left?” asks Jennifer Holloway, the executive director of the chamber of commerce in the town of Craig, where she grew up. “We have an amazing experience that can change lives. How can we share that, but also protect it?”

Three years ago, Moffat County “had some challenges with our identity,” Holloway says, describing how her father, when she was little, walked away from the family farm to work in the better-paying coal mines. “Not everyone had a coal job, but we focused on coal and neglected other things.”

Those other things — like tourism, agriculture and outdoor recreation — are no longer being neglected. It’s been a year since Tri-State Generation and Transmission and Xcel Energy announced they would be closing their coal-fired electrical plants and nearby coal mines starting in 2028. The closures will cost northwest Colorado as many as 800 jobs.

A community-based transition plan focuses on growing the region’s tourism and recreational amenities while protecting agricultural heritage and natural resources. The communities of Moffat County, downstream from the bustling resort of Steamboat Springs, are essentially a blank slate. They are taking cues from other Western Slope communities, hoping to glean lessons on what works and what does not. And the wheels are turning.

“Our community is on the cusp of doing great things, transformational things,” Holloway says.

Craig has applied for a $1.8 million federal grant for the roughly $2.7 million Yampa River Corridor Project, which hopes to revamp boat ramps and add a whitewater park as part of an effort to bolster the region’s appeal with river runners and paddlers. An additional phase of the plan would build a trail connecting Craig to the Yampa River.

Last year the City of Craig purchased the historic Yampa Building from the Moffat County School District. The building has been converted into a visitor welcome center as well as home for artists, a senior center and several local nonprofits and private businesses.

Josh Veenstra said investment in the river will help shape a new identity for Craig and northwest Colorado.

“This is the last stop before the wild begins,” says the co-owner of Good Vibes River Gear who was born and raised in Craig and worked in both the coal mines and power plant.

Veenstra learned to sew at the power plant and now he and wife Maegan are sewing and selling all sorts of handmade, heavy-duty mesh bags and gear for paddlers. They also own the Good Vibes River Gear shop in Craig.

“This outdoor recreation thing, it’s a hit and it’s coming quickly,” says veteran rafter Veenstra, who worries that recreating visitors could impact resources and experiences if the community does not plan. “We’ve always lived in this boom-bust cycle that might not be the best way for us. We might need to grow a little slower, but in a more sustainable way.”

Nathan Fey, the head of Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office, has joined the Office of Economic Development and International Trade in recruiting students from the University of Colorado to map recreational assets in Moffat County as well as business infrastructure.

That case study will inform a larger project that will include local residents in shaping how northwest Colorado is presented to both visitors and outdoor recreation businesses. That larger project is part of Colorado’s new Rural Technical Assistance Program, or RTAP, which offers rural communities technical education that deploys online tools to help community leaders identify needs and build a plan for future growth. The second phase of the rural program involves technical assistance for planning, and finally the state will help the community implement its strategic plan.

Moffat County is among the first communities to go through the Rural Technical Assistance Program.

Say, for example, a snowmobile business or manufacturer approaches the state with an idea about relocating to Colorado. Fey can suggest Craig and Moffat County, offering maps of snow trail systems where the company can test designs as well as insights into supply chain management, broadband and commercial space. And residents in the community would already have expressed interest in welcoming that kind of business.

The rural assistance program would enable Moffat County to find a company “that fits into the community without necessarily impacting the community culture,” Fey says.

“I think there is a bunch of money available to communities like Craig now,” says Fey, who dips his oars into the water as he suggests one way to spend it locally — completing the long-sought Yampa Valley Trail. “We are sitting on money that could do that.”

Tourist communities go through three cycles of development: getting ready for visitors, figuring out how to keep them entertained, and managing their impacts when they arrive en masse.

“I think Moffat County is ready for all three,” says Andrew Grossmann, the destination development director for the Colorado Tourism Office.

But before a plan gets launched, Grossmann says residents need to weigh in and outline their expectations and desires for an economy that, in part, caters to visitors.

“I think places like this have an opportunity to do proactive development and rethink what does it mean to be a success,” says Grossmann, who suggests new indicators should be considered when building a vibrant tourism economy.

As he gazes up at massive sandstone cliffs above the Green River near its confluence with the Yampa River, he riffs on what a shifting valuation for tourism economies might look like. Is it attracting wealthier visitors who leave more money in the community? But what if those high-rollers arrive on a private jet and emit that much more carbon than a less affluent visitor? One thing that is going away: the former yardstick for measuring success that was based solely on numbers of visitors.

“Maybe it’s time we apply a triple bottom line that considers resident sentiments, carbon footprints and economic benefit?” Grossmann says. “We have to re-shift our value proposition.”

Jon Miller, who grew up in Craig, is on the raft with Grossmann. He’s got some ideas on how to better include locals in the planning and management of outdoor recreation in northwest Colorado. First, get ’em outside when they are young.

Miller is helping to build a 50,000-square-foot skatepark, which would be the largest in Colorado. His Craig Skatepark Alliance is organizing supporters and lobbying for state support.

“I envision the skatepark connecting our youth with the outdoors and the greater outdoors,” says Miller, who grew up skating in Craig.

Donors, like the anonymous benefactor who recently gave the Yampa Valley Housing Authority $23 million to buy 536 acres west of Steamboat Springs, are recognizing the impacts of directing dollars beyond resort communities, said Tim Wohlgenant, the executive director of the Yampa Valley Community Foundation.

“This is a connected ecosystem and they get that,” he says.

The list of donors supporting the foundation appreciate leadership and Wohlgenant says his goal is to highlight local leaders outside of Steamboat. More of his donors are lining up to support nonprofits and community-based work in places like Craig, Meeker and across Moffat County.

“Our job is to help them see leaders in these places they might not be as familiar with,” he says. “The leaders who are really making a difference excites them. It’s like they are investing in a start-up in a way.”

Paul Scolari, the superintendent of Dinosaur National Monument, says his approach to managing National Park Service property includes supporting the work and desires of the local community. He demonstrated that community approach that day by spending 30 minutes in a downpour holding an umbrella over the lunch crew and then cooking the team chili on the second night of the rafting trip.

Just look around this gathering, Scolari says, pointing to the circle of camp-chaired federal land managers, conservation advocates, local entrepreneurs and economic development champions, all working to grow northwest Colorado in a sustainable way.

“This group represents a lot of power,” Scolari says. “If we just get ourselves on the same page, we can do amazing things. If we all work together that is a hell of a lot of power to make these changes happen.”