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Passion, community drive new businesses in rural Yuma County despite recession

A three image collage with a white Y shape cutting through them. The leftmost image is of a tough couple, both Latino, a woman with long brown hair and a man with very short hair and beard. The middle image is of a middle-age near-bald Japanese man with a face mask hanging off his neck. And the right image is of two men in their 60s with grey short beards and shortsleeve button-ups. Both are white.
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Left: Maribel Ayon and Juan Carlos in front of Mexsu. Middle: Dr. Monte Uyemura in his office. Right: Richard Bernie and Ron Winger in The Orphanage.

The pandemic forced Colorado industries to shut down storefronts and put up with supply chain issues and inflation. Despite the financial squeeze, the state’s new business filings have skyrocketed during the last three years, nearing a 10-year peak last quarter. And the economic development is happening in urban and rural communities alike.

A woman with her hair in a ponytail and a pink apron on, a stove is barely visible behind her. Part of another woman's back can be seen in front of her.
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"Our role in this restaurant changes. Some days I'm a dishwasher, some days I'm on sushi bar, some days I'm serving. Some days I get to be a boss and be in the office," Maribel Ayon (pictured) said with a wry smile. "I think because we're self-employed, we cover a lot of the positions."

As lunch rush ends in the city of Yuma, a small crowd exits the small, colorful dining room of the Mexsu restaurant at the far end of Main St. Co-owner Juan Carlos is sitting by a window, engaged in deep conversation with an older customer.

“Especially in this community, you can have that interaction because I know 80 or 90 — if not more — percentage of my clients,” he said. “I always kind of know already what he wants, what she doesn't.”

In 2019, Carlos, 37, moved to Yuma from California with his girlfriend — and now business partner — 30-year-old Maribel Ayon, to be with family. About a year and a half later, the couple toured an empty main street storefront and quickly decided to throw their savings into opening a restaurant.

“It was crazy because we didn't know what to expect,” Carlos said of the restaurant’s first two days in operation. The first day was slow, but then so many people showed by word of mouth on the second day that the restaurant had to shut down hours early. “We were not expecting to have what we have so far, which is amazing.”

Carlos said he was “not at all” scared to be starting a new business in an unfamiliar community in the middle of a pandemic. 

The city of Yuma is Yuma County’s largest population center, with about 3,500 residents. State data show 18 new businesses have opened up alongside Mexsu just on the city’s Main St. since 2020.

“I was scared,” Ayon said. “But that helped me personally, (Carlos) not being scared. Because him having the courage, definitely led me to more having that courage as well.”

“Now that I think about it, it sounds scary, man,” Carlos said. “What the hell? Why would you do that? It's crazy. Don't spend your money on something that is so uncertain.”

Adding to the uncertainty was the couple’s decision to serve this “beef town” the fare traditionally found in food stands along the western Mexican coast: sushi and tacos.

“We wanted to just to be a hamburger place, because that's what we thought the city needed,” Ayon said. “But to be honest, we didn't feel comfortable because it's not who we are. So we said, let's just embrace what we eat and who we are.”

Raw tuna  piled on a crispy tostada on a black square plate. Garnish is sprinkled on top, soy sauce can be seen in the background.
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Mexsu aims to serve ingredients, like the raw tuna on this tostada, as fresh as possible, co-owner Juan Carlos said. Living up to that requires weekly supply trips to Denver and temporarily removing items from the menu if the couple isn't able to find anything they deem fresh enough that week.

She and Carlos spent large chunks of their childhoods in northwest Mexico’s Sinaloa state, particularly in the coastal cities Mazatlán and Culiacán. Ayon also went to culinary school in Mexico.

The couple can tell their bet paid off, by watching sales rise monthly and by watching community members who think they “don’t like sushi” expand their palate.

“You go safe first with bacon, steak and mayo, cream cheese and avocado. And then you switch to baked salmon or some octopus,” Carlos said, explaining that Mexsu’s ever-changing menu is designed to ease people into the less familiar foods by including sushi rolls filled with cooked bacon and beef, for example. “Eventually they try the raw stuff.”

A sushi roll, chopped and flattened on a plate, with cheese melted on top and bacon, beef and jalapeno piled on top of that. A hand can be seen coming from the top right corner, holding a blowtorch used to enflame the dish before serving.
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The beef, bacon and queso smothered "ranchero roll" is the restaurant's tribute to Yuma County's cowboys. It's also intended as a point of entry for those who may be unfamiliar with sushi.

New economic development is also flourishing a 40-minute drive east in Wray, the second-largest city in Yuma County.

A new health care clinic opens in Wray

Dr. Monte Uyemura just opened a new doctor’s office with a unique subscription-based model on Wray’s Main St. six months ago.

“Rather than pay fee for service, people pay a membership fee, either a monthly membership fee or annually. But basically, it pays for everything that I can do in my clinic,” Uyemura said. That includes limited blood analysis, he added, though anything sent to an external lab, for example, would have to be paid separately.

A man in a green shirt holds open a door as he walks through it. His face is turned so it is half visible
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"I don't think DPC is a miracle, but it's it's maybe one building block and trying to improve," Dr. Monte Uyemura (pictured) said. "And then it's kind of an experiment to see how it works in a rural area, I think."

He left his Wray Family Clinic partnership after 25 years, feeling the practice was stable and in “good hands,” and finally fulfilled his pandemic-delayed dream of opening Uyemura Family Medicine.

“I had been thinking about this for seven years probably. And prior to this, there just wasn't a good time,” he said. “I didn't want my kids to just see me dream about something like this and then never do it.”

Going solo with this “direct primary care” model, Uyemura said, allows him to do more preventive care, spend an hour with each patient rather than just 15 minutes, and spend less time on paperwork since insurance isn’t involved. The cost ranges from $15 to $80 a month depending on the patient’s age.

Many critics argue the direct primary care model is just “concierge medicine,” a form of health care they say widens inequality gaps by guaranteeing special treatment to a wealthy few. Uyemura and many other DPC doctors disagree.

Dr. Uyemura stands in his office with his hand in front of him. Diplomas are on the wall behind him and so is his desk.
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“I have a few patients who I think are just making a donation to me because they support me, which I struggle with accepting their membership a little bit,” Uyemura said. "But the community has been nothing but supportive for me. So I think I'm really lucky.”

“My membership fees are, I think, comparable to what you would pay if you're paying for cell phone service,” he said. “A person could come see me 10 times in a month and pay no further co-pays.”

While he does see DPC as part of the solution to the healthcare access and quality crisis facing the country, he said it isn’t the whole solution — and definitely isn’t the best option for everybody.

“It's not that I advocate and recommend not having insurance,” Uyemura said, adding that many of his members currently do in case they need to be hospitalized, for example. “But for some people who don't have insurance, at least I can try to keep them out of the emergency room… and try to do some preventive medicine stuff so they can have a little bit of peace of mind that they at least have somebody that they can turn to.”

Dr. Uyemura stands next to a large metal logo with the words Uyemura Family Medicine
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"You expect to see about 1% of your (membership) in clinic a day. So if I get up to 600, then I would expect to see about six patients a day, which is good," Dr. Monte Uyemura (pictured) said, explaining how he can give each patient more of his time and attention. "I was seeing about 18 patients a day in my (previous) clinic, my partner doctor, he'd see over 20. And I know that it's just it's hard."

The model is slowly gaining popularity among doctors nationwide, though the majority are in urban or suburban areas where it’s easier to get many subscribers. (Though another DPC does exist in nearby Sterling.) But Uyemura said he would not want to do this “experiment” anywhere else.

He estimates he needs at least 600 “members” for financial success, but said the about 250 he has now are enough to keep the lights on at least. His goal is to partner with local businesses that can offer a membership with him to employees instead of — or as a supplement to — health insurance plans.

“I just think that it's another option in the community to actually improve what we can offer (to workers),” Uyemura said, adding he’s proud of “how well we do in our health care in this community, despite being 100 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart.”

A classic car gallery withstands the pandemic

While many new businesses were started during the pandemic across Colorado, state data show the number of established businesses that folded is high too. The Orphanage, a classic car gallery on Yuma's Main St., is among those still standing.

A squat snail-like white van with a flat back and circular rear windows. there is a small donation box and plauque in front of it. Light streams in from the window beside it, illuminating the car's front
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A squat snail-like white van with a flat back and circular rear windows greets people passing by The Orphanage. It’s a 1980 Nissan S Cargo, the classic car gallery’s newest addition.

“We like to say about The Orphanage, expect the unexpected,” said 67-year-old Ron Wenger, the classic car gallery’s co-owner. “And I think we live up to that.”

Born and raised in Yuma, Wenger has owned the auto repair shop across from the gallery since 1977.

“The dirty, greasy side is over there,” he said, beaming with pride. “This is the shiny clean side.”

An older man points into the corner of a garage full old cars, with his back to the camera. The car in the foreground is painted with flowers
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Part of the goal when Ron Wenger (pictured) and Richard Birnie opened The Orphanage was to free up space in the neighboring repair shop. But the repair shop is once again nearly at capacity with cars Wenger collected since the gallery opened.

Wenger left Yuma for about 20 years to try life in Denver. After moving back with his husband, Richard Birnie, Wenger started running out of room for the classic cars he’d collected in the repair shop. The gallery’s name is a reference to the term for car models the parent company no longer creates: orphans. Birnie, a former landscape architect, made the gallery his retirement project.

“And we thought, well, we could probably rent the place out for events. And then we also liked the idea of showing local artists here too,” Birnie said. “So it evolved very quickly.”

Birnie talks with pride about how he developed interesting ways to display the art, pointing to one exhibit featuring local quilters’ work draped over car hoods.

“It's definitely a gathering place for the community,” Birnie said.

An older man with his back to camera points to the top shelf in a glass display case filled with classic hood ornaments. A small blue coupe-style car can be seen in the background.
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Richard Birnie (pictured) said he enjoys finding new ways to display new exhibits at The Orphanage, like the glass display cases currently set up around the gallery filled with old hood ornaments. Some belong to him and Wenger, but most are temporarily donated for display.

The Orphanage’s first event was in late 2018. Since then they’ve hosted a prom, a wedding, award ceremonies and a variety of other gatherings.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, they shut down and refused requests to book the space until that summer as a precaution.

“We didn't do it for a profit motive and it's held true to that,” Wenger said, leading both men to share a hearty chuckle. “Yeah, but it's our passion. We're willing to invest money in it.”

Despite the event bookings, they don’t break even on the gallery. It’s supported with funds from the more financially stable repair shop, but both are OK with that.

“It's basically showing off our cars in a really nice space and helping local artists,” Birnie said. “Some of them have never displayed their work before.”

“People are always surprised to see this in Yuma. We have comments like, ‘Oh, this is something you would expect along the Front Range,” Wenger, who was born in the city, said. “(Hearing that) just makes me euphoric. I love it. Sometimes you wonder if your work has been worth it, but that is a sign that it totally is.”

The couple are grateful for the local chamber of commerce’s “First Friday Art Walks” for driving foot traffic to the gallery and the rest of Yuma’s Main St. The Orphanage’s cars and other displays are constantly changing to ensure visitors still get something out of repeat visits.

“It's nice to see all the cars parked down the street once again, because I've seen it pretty bare down here,” Birnie said.

A gif of an older man lightly shaking a car and causing the whole thing to easily sway.
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The French-made 1967 Citroen AMI 6 is one of Wenger's favorite cars on display in the gallery. Largely, he said, because of its uniquely soft suspension and light body.

This story was produced as part of the America Amplified initiative using community engagement to inform and strengthen local, regional and national journalism. America Amplified is a public media initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Corrected: June 6, 2022 at 10:47 AM MDT
The story was updated to accurately reflect the monthly subscription cost range for Dr. Uyemura's practice. The top of the range is $80, not $50.
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