— Anne Stattelman
Decades later, Pueblo still reeling from steel exodus
Editor’s note: This is the third in a three-part series examining parts of Colorado left out of the economic boom including Grand Junction and Colorado Springs.
For many Coloradans, Pueblo’s best known as the home of the State Fair -- and the southern Front Range city wants to keep it that way.
Every year it seems there are rumblings from state lawmaker that the State Fair should move to another city. Pueblo would fight for it tooth and nail, partly because the region needs the economic impact of all those visitors, estimated at nearly $25 million annually according to a study commissioned by the fair.
No metro area in Colorado has suffered as much economic pain over so long a period. Pueblo’s 7.8 percent unemployment rate is, by far, the highest in the state, and nearly twice as high as Fort Collins, a city of similar size.
The economic crisis here started back in the 1980s when the steel industry collapsed and the city’s largest mill slashed its workforce.
“The recession, I don’t think, ever was over in Pueblo. It hasn’t been over since 1980.”
The lengthy nature of the downturn has been destructive for the community. “I’ve talked to some leaders who talk about a permanent underclass here in Pueblo,” says Ann Stattelman, who runs Posada, a local charity that works with the homeless and poor families. “And I think unfortunately that’s what we have created with the subsistence on government aid.”
One in three people in the Pueblo area is on some form of public assistance.
Stacy Rodriguez used to be on public assistance. Born and raised in Pueblo, she graduated from high school with no job prospects and a young son. So getting government assistance wasn’t really a choice.
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“I realized that I have to do what I have to do to make sure I provide for my son,” Rodriguez says.
Even though her mother also needed assistance to get by, that did not provide Rodriguez much comfort.
“I broke down all the time,” says Rodriguez. “I didn’t think I was ever going to get to where I wanted to be and be the kind of successful person for my son to look up to and have a stable environment for him.”
After two years of getting government checks, she finally got a job in the county social services department, and she hopes to eventually get a college degree.
In the past, a college education seemed unnecessary given the plentiful jobs provided by CF&I, the main steel mill.
“For generations, families were able to make a good living with the CF&I,” says Sandy Gutierrez head of the Latino Chamber of Commerce in Pueblo. “So the mentality was, ‘you know what? I’m going straight to the workforce and start earning a good paycheck and bypass college.’”
She says the lack of a highly educated workforce has hurt business recruitment.
For those who do get a college degree the decision to stay in Pueblo is a difficult one.
“Some want to stay in the area, because they have strong family ties,” says Kevin Duncan an economics professor at CSU-Pueblo. “But they face a tough choice: once they have a college education there’s a lot more job opportunities outside the area than there are locally.”
Duncan says there are bright spots however. He points to the future construction of the state’s largest solar plant in Pueblo, to be finished by 2016; retail sales have ticked up recently; and city and county leaders have worked hard to incentivize new businesses.
The fruits of those labors can be seen on trains carrying Vestas wind turbines out of town, according to city councilor Chris Nicoll.
“I always get excited when I’m driving to work and I pass a giant train full of Vestas towers heading north and heading south,” Nicoll says.
Vestas isn’t the only manufacturing facility thriving in Pueblo, thanks partly to economic incentives from the city.
Rocla, a company that makes concrete railroad ties just down the road from Vestas, had an easy transition from their old plant in Lakewood thanks to the local government and the Pueblo Economic Development Corporation (PEDCO).
“I think they did everything they could to make sure it was an easy transition to come in down here,” says Rocla’s vice president of operations and engineering Rusty Croley.
According to PEDCO, Rocla got $1.7 million for installing a rail line at their factory in return for 100 jobs. Another $800,000 in Pueblo money has flowed to the company in return for more jobs agreements. There will eventually be 250 workers building railroad ties 24/7.
But Guy Whitfield, the plant operations manager says they’ve struggled with employee retention. The work is strenuous, and he says many in the community don’t have a strong work ethic.
“What’d you call it awhile ago? ‘Generational poverty’, that’s a good term,” Whitfield says.
He adds the plant has slowly begun to assemble a good core of workers.
For lifelong Pueblo resident Stacy Rodriguez, it’s her son that motivates her to fight through the obstacles of the region’s long-term poverty.
“My mom was on assistance. I was on assistance. I feel like he’s at that disadvantage,” says Rodriguez. “I hope to break this generational thing with poverty. I’m really trying.”