Rural Communities Shift Away from Boom and Bust

Mining has been an economic driver in Southwest Colorado since the late 1800s. But when a local mine and power plant closed in 2017, a number of communities were forced to reimagine.
Wild Gals Market in Nucla, Colorado. (Julia Caulfield/KOTO)

by | Feb 21, 2022 | Environment

This story is part of a collaboration with Rocky Mountain Community Radio focusing on the transition away from fossil fuels across the Mountain West.

Walk into Wild Gals Market in Nucla, Colorado, and the store is bustling. Owner Galit Korngold is doing inventory on the order that just came in, when a member of the community busts through the door. She got her days mixed up and forgot people would be coming to her house for book club in a few short hours. She needs soup and bread.

Wild Gals is a success story for the West End Economic Development Corporation (WEEDC), an organization supporting businesses like Wild Gals Market, and encouraging new industry and jobs in the area. Something crucial since the closure of local mines.

Nucla, and Wild Gals, sits in Colorado’s West End, a collection of communities on the west ends of Montrose and San Miguel Counties in the Southwest corner of the state, right on the Utah border.

If you ask Deana Sheriff, executive director of WEEDC, the region has always been boom and bust.

“The people that came out here, if they were not the original homesteaders, they came out here as part of a mining operation, or a milling operation for uranium,” she said. “And then when that fell out of favor, post-World War II, we saw a little bit of a bust then. Uranium came back a little bit in the early 80s, busted again in the 90s. It’s been very volatile since then.”

The last “bust” came when the New Horizon Mine and the Tri-State Power Generation facility closed in 2017.

“It’s been challenging when you have a community of less than 1,000 people, you’re talking about 10% of your population was impacted by this–and that’s just direct impact,” Sheriff said. “That doesn’t count the grocery stores and the gas stations, and the hair salons and everything that was also impacted.”

According to Sheriff, about 60% of the mining workforce moved. Businesses on Main Street largely sat empty. But a group of locals in the West End did see the closure coming, and created WEEDC, with the aim of helping new businesses and the region weather the storm.

“That’s everything from how to set up your books, how to hire, do you need a personnel manual, where do you find employees. We really help them try and identify every piece of their business so they can be successful,” Sheriff said.

Sheriff said WEEDC focuses on three areas of business growth: entrepreneurship, value-added agriculture, and outdoor recreation and tourism. To date, WEEDC has worked with over 100 entrepreneurs in the area, with 36 of those turning into businesses.

Galit Korngold, over at Wild Gals, was one of those entrepreneurs, although she didn’t lose her job when the mine closed. Originally from Montreal, Canada, she and her husband moved to the area just before the pandemic, and bought an old mechanic shop.

“Once we moved here, I realized that there was no food that I really wanted to eat in this town. We had this great space at the front of the building, and I decided to open a food store,” Korngold said.

Wild Gals Market focuses on local, organic, and homemade goods from the region–with a selection of ingredients from the international market.

Korngold said WEEDC was “integral” to developing the plan for Wild Gals.

“I took accounting classes, and business mentoring from WEEDC,” she said. “Because we don’t have a commercial kitchen of our own yet, and we make a lot of homemade food, we use the kitchen at WEEDC. That’s been just the greatest resource. We love that kitchen. We’re usually in there once a week, making stuff for the store.”

The West End is shifting. New businesses are opening, and broadband across the region makes remote work easy – drawing workers from across the state and country looking for a rural life. Korngold says it’s an exciting time to be in the area.

“I feel like we’re at the beginning of a renascence here, and it’s really cool to be a part of it,” Korngold said.

As that renascence continues, the future of the region is still to be determined. But for Sheriff, she hopes the days of boom and bust are over. For her, it’s all about steady, community-building growth over the long term–and WEEDC plans to be there every step of the way.

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About Julia Caulfield

Julia is News Director at KOTO in Telluride, Colorado. She reports on housing, public health, and the environment in Southwest Colorado.

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