Colorado Coal Country Sees Economic Salvation In Solar, Organic Farming

· Apr. 5, 2017, 6:37 pm
Photo: North Fork Coal Country Solar Grace Hood
Solar Energy International Director of Operations Kris Sutton stands near SEI’s training grounds.

To see the worst of the coal slump in Colorado, look no further than the state’s North Fork Valley. Since 2013, two out of three mines have closed around Paonia. The region has seen a large exodus of miners and their families as the number of mine-related  jobs dropped from 950 in January 2010 to just 220 in January 2017.

Workers at the last mine standing in the region, West Elk, met President Donald Trump’s executive order with cautious optimism. But travel to the west central Colorado region, it’s clear that the area isn’t banking on coal coming back to what it used to be. And the decline is clear. It’s meant a few empty storefronts in Paonia, a drop in Delta County School District students, and fewer fully-insured health care patients in the region.

And there’s another challenge: In contrast to big coal producers such as Wyoming and the Appalachia region back East, federal grant dollars to ease the transition away from coal aren’t flowing as freely into Colorado. That’s according to Democratic state Sen. Kerry Donovan, who represents Delta County.

“I think what’s unique about Colorado is it’s not thought of as coal country, Donovan said. “Those federal programs have focused on the more traditional West Virginia, Appalachia communities that we think of as coal country. So I think in Colorado it’s going to fall more on the shoulders of the state.”

On the bright side, this means there’s new opportunities for economic planning and development. Up around Paonia and Hotchkiss, that’s meant a focus on existing industries like solar energy and organic farming.

Photo: North Fork Coal Country Organic Grace Hood
Shawn Larson launched the hard cider line for Big B’s Juices, which has grown over the decades in Hotchkiss.

Jim Ventrello, the Delta County School District’s financial officer, said there’s a fundamental belief that a coal industry revival isn’t going to save the region. And efforts to transplant a new industry to the region won’t work, either.

“Goodyear isn’t going to walk in here and build a plant,” said Ventrello. “If we’re going to continue here and we’re going to develop, we’re going to have to do it ourselves.”

The Obama administration sent some dollars to Colorado for rebuilding coal communities, including nearly $650,000 to Gunnison County for job retraining. For her part, Donovan has unsuccessfully sponsored legislation to appropriate $500,000 for communities scrambling to plan forward from sudden mine and plant closures.

With planning help from state economic developers, Delta County Economic Development Inc. drew up its future plans in 2016. Here's a look at the key items.

  • Solar: With the help of training school Solar Energy International, the North Fork Valley could see more rooftop solar. Delta County’s high poverty rate has translated into low demand for rooftop panels. With Solarize Delta County, SEI plans to make the energy more accessible and affordable by spurring more local investment. SEI has also launched efforts to retrain coal workers, although SEI Director of Operations Kris Sutton said the effort has been slow going in the short term: “If coal miners here want to pursue solar jobs. They’re going to have to probably move,” Sutton said, referring to the fact that most solar installation jobs are along the Front Range.
  • A specialty food manufacturing incubator: Delta County School District, which runs the region’s technical college, purchased a 22,000 square foot building that will eventually house classrooms, a commercial kitchen and a warehouse. Entrepreneurs could get classes, marketing assistance and a space that helps them create food products out of regional produce from the valley, including organic foods, Ventrello said. “It’s value added. Rather than just selling tomatoes, can you make a high end salsa?”
  • Organic food: In Hotchkiss, Big B's Juices has evolved from from a shed that sold organic fruit to an outfit that sells juice and a hard cider line across the country. Ventrello says the incubator could help existing businesses like Big B's expand their business, and hire more folks including out-of-work miners. Shawn Larson, who moved to the area from Utah in 2010 to  help start Big B's hard cider line says every extra job helps. "“We sell products nationwide. You know, we have that reach, but also affect our community," he said.
  • Recreation and tourism: In its economic blueprint, the county's economic development group plans to beef up its Gunnison Riverfront property with more access points for water sports, trails and picnic areas. It also calls for a hotel and conference center to make the city more of a destination for travelers.
  • Broadband: Delta-Montrose Electric Association will spend up to $125 million on high-speed broadband internet to the region in the coming years, which includes the towns of Paonia and Hotchkiss. Paonia was one of the first towns to be fully wired with the broadband. Mayor Charles Stewart said it will be one key to recruiting new businesses and drawing more residents to the region. “People like those amenities. When you can say to folks, ‘Yes, you can live in the North Fork and still have high-speed internet access,’ that’s a positive,” said Stewart.
  • Other renewables: It’s not just individual homeowners that could see more solar in Delta County. The region’s electricity provider, Delta-Montrose Electric Association, is also seeking to add more solar and hydroelectric power to its grid. Meantime, regional economic development leaders like Tom Huerkamp are eyeing the region’s shuttered mines and seeing another economic opportunity: generating power from methane that naturally vents from shuttered underground mines. “If we tap the old coal mines, this community has the ability in the next maybe five to 10 years to disconnect from the grid,” Huerkamp said.

In addition to the state, Delta County Economic Development Inc. also plans to apply for grant money for its Incubator with the U.S. Economic Development Administration, an agency President Trump sought to eliminate in his budget.

Ventrello said economic development officials are mindful of submitting any applications before next budget cycle.

In a purple state like Colorado, economic development officials in conservative Delta County are mindful that economic salvation for won’t come from one side of the political spectrum. Building more renewable energy will have to stand alongside traditional industries like tourism.

“I don’t want to be a category,” said Tom Huerkamp, vice president of Delta County Economic Development Inc. board of directors. “I want creativity. And I think that is more important than locking yourself into a political philosophy.”

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