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Life After Coal: Mining Towns In SW Colorado Race To Survive Another Energy Bust

Scott Franz
Many families have left Nucla and Naturita following the recent closures of a coal mine and power plant.

When Blondie's Diner closes around 9 p.m. and a table of hunters finish their green chili cheeseburgers and head back to their hotel, the town of Naturita feels a bit like a ghost town.

There are two new marijuana dispensaries still open late with green neon signs, but on a November night at the start of hunting season, not many customers are partaking.

The only sound punctuating through the cold evening is a semi-truck idling in the parking lot of the Rimrocker Hotel, its driver trying to stay warm.

And many of the buildings on Main Street are vacant with yellow "for sale" signs posted in front of them.

Credit Scott Franz / Capitol Coverage
Capitol Coverage
Despite a flurry of new businesses opening in Naturita, there are several vacant buildings for sale on the main street.

But when the sun rises, residents in this small southwest Colorado town are anxious to show off their efforts to ensure it survives after the loss of a coal mine and power plant that provided more than 100 jobs to the area.

"This is one of our new businesses up here on the left. This is Rooster's coffee, and they have done extremely well," Deana Sheriff says as she drives her Honda Element with more than 300,000 miles on its engine down the town's main drag.

Sheriff is leading economic development efforts here in southwest Colorado.

Every 30 seconds, she points to other signs of hope after coal.

"This building right here, this gray building, this is the Blake House Inn," she says. "It is about to be converted. It will become the Dark Horse Inn. New ownership. He has completely remodeled the building so now we will have another bed-and-breakfast."

Sheriff moved here a few years ago to fulfill a short-term contract to help boost business in the area. But she loved this place so much she decided to stay. Her job is to help residents adapt to life without coal. She says the key is starting more businesses and getting outsiders to come spend some time here.

But the reality is, people did move away when the New Horizon coal mine closed in 2017. And coupled with the loss of the power plant, it felt like a death blow for some in Naturita and in nearby Nucla - where Sheriff takes me next.

'A rough go'

As the pastor of First Baptist Church in Nucla, David Smith has seen firsthand how the loss of coal jobs in the area is hitting the town.

"It's been a rough go," he says. "I think the big thing for the community was the loss of families. Because you have had many young people who couldn't retire or take their pension from their job have had to move because they really can't find other jobs here. So, we have lost families because of that so that's hurt. It's hurt the community."

So, to try and turn the tide, Smith has taken on a second job. He recently opened up a brand new ATV rental store in Nucla. And although business has been slow in the first months, he is hopeful the area's stunning scenery and quiet trails will start to lure in more visitors.

Credit Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
David Smith poses with one of the ATVs he rents at his new business in Nucla.

"From where we're standing right now, you can go anywhere… You can go out on the Rimrocker Trail and go all the way to Moab," he says.

And Smith is not the only person in Nucla who sees its unspoiled landscapes and canyons as the key to surviving.

Trails to success

A few blocks up from the ATV rental store, Paul Koski is often dreaming up dozens of miles of new trails on his computer.

He uses Google Earth to map out potential pathways through the open vistas around Nucla. And he is excited to show visitors firsthand the first two miles of what he hopes will be the start of a grand new trail system.

"The West End is friendly for trail development," he says as he leads a hike to the Paradox Trail. "Even trail maintenance is much less here. The ground is real conducive to soaking up water."

Koski is an avid mountain biker who says Nucla will never become the tourist destination on par with nearby Moab, Utah or Telluride. But he thinks Nucla's quiet scenery and small town charm could lure in more families.

"What I would like to see is more young people coming in who are just tired of the city," he says. "Maybe they can work online because we have broadband here on the West End. I think we need young people with vision out here. We have lost so many. Nucla and Naturita could stand to take 100 families each out here. Just the way it is now."

Credit Scott Franz/Capitol Coverage
Paul Koski surveys the landscape from a new trail he helped to build near Nucla. Koski thinks more trails will help to lure more families to the area known as the West End.

But there are some challenges. Koski says the housing situation in both communities isn't great and living here isn't for everyone. But back in Naturita, Deana Sheriff is encouraged by the numbers.

"We've seen about a 6% increase in sales tax between 2017 and 2018, and we believe we're on a track to see another 10% increase between 2018 and 2019," she says. "We've seen larger sales of more expensive homes in our area. We've seen a lot of very positive indicators, but all of those things are really happening in our area."

Nucla and Naturita have survived an energy bust before when the nearby uranium mine closed.

Today, Sheriff remains optimistic about the growth of her new hometown. She also thinks what they are doing in Nucla could serve as a model for dozens of other communities that are about to lose their coal industries, like Hayden in northwest Colorado.

Capitol Coverage is a collaborative public policy reporting project, providing news and analysis to communities across Colorado for more than a decade. Eleven public radio stations participate in Capitol Coverage from throughout Colorado.

Scott Franz is an Investigative Reporter with KUNC.
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