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Coming lows for the highest town

The drive to the small mountain town of Leadville from either side of Highway 24 will eventually lead to a series of grand old buildings, which, years ago, hosted the likes of Doc Holliday, Oscar Wilde and the unsinkable Molly Brown.

The unmistakable mountain air that encapsulates the town represents a lifestyle closely associated with the outdoors and the history of the town is laced with prosperity.

With a population that has dwindled from Colorado’s second largest to just over 2,500 in the past century and half, the town has witnessed the rise and fall of a mining industry, the Wild West and a cultural renaissance.

Most recently, though, the town has experienced an economic downfall.

“It’s tough up here. It’s a tough economy,” said Alice Pugh, executive director of Full Circle, a non-profit organization that provides services to low-income children and families in Leadville. “It’s almost like we have a target around us. All around us, there’s a lot of wealth.”

Resort towns like Monarch, Aspen, Vail and Breckenridge make a nearly perfect circle around Leadville. But none of the revenue from those towns makes its way to Leadville.

“We don’t really get the benefits from the resort towns. They’re so far away,” Pugh said.

Pugh said that the volume of Leadville’s population is like most other mountain towns — citizens do not necessarily live in concentrated areas. Commuting long distances over mountainous terrain is part of the reality of living there. The same issue applies to tourists who travel to only one part of the region.

Pugh has been the director of Full Circle for 23 years. In that time, she said Leadville has experienced a sharp increase in its population of Hispanic immigrants.

A February Colorado Public Radio report attributes this increase to the affordability of living in the town. Much of the Hispanic population commutes to nearby resort towns for work, often in hazardous winter driving conditions.

For many families, commuting from Leadville is the only realistic option, but even that comes with its own set of difficulties.

“The cost of transportation is really large. Sixty-two to 68 percent of our parents commute out of town for work. With the cost of the gas, that becomes a huge issue,” Pugh said.

And even though Leadville is far more affordable to live in than the surrounding resort towns, many families struggle to make enough money to cover basic expenses.

“One of the biggest challenges in expenses is heat. Many of our houses are not well insulated,” Pugh said. “I know that when you are working a low wage job, that becomes problematic. I feel that many families are forced to make decisions around paying bills and putting gas in the car.”

The surrounding resort communities also benefit from Leadville shoppers. Pugh said that because there aren’t many stores in Leadville for citizens to buy basic necessities like toothpaste and underwear, many travel out of town.

“Those other communities receive the sales tax revenue. Even though our citizens are buying those basic products, it’s not coming into our community,” she said.

In 2012, the Leadville/Lake County Economic Development Corporation was founded to boost the struggling economy.

Executive Director of the LLCEDC Nicole Thompson was unavailable for comment but wrote in a 2014 Leadville Herald Democrat guest column that, “the EDC is working closely with multiple entrepreneurs and developers pursuing viable business opportunities throughout Lake County.”

Right now, the corporation is focusing on renovating the historic buildings along the town’s main street, Harrison Avenue. In March, the historic Tabor Grand Hotel reopened after undergoing a yearlong $9 million renovation.

The LLCEDC also hopes to attract industries that might be interested in conducting research at high-altitudes. With an elevation of 10,152 feet, Leadville is the highest incorporated city in the United States.

Pugh said that, so far, efforts to improve the economy have not been working.

“I know there are people working on it,” she said, but “the efforts so far have not been very effective. You know, we’re in a tough place. We definitely have a workforce but there are cheaper places for businesses to move.”

Since it was founded, Leadville’s main industry has been mining. In 1874, miners discovered that the town was rich with lead and silver carbonate. The following years contributed to the town’s economic and cultural boom. For Leadville citizens, employment was easy to come by.

“Back in the old days, you could get out of high school and get a job in the mines,” Pugh said.

But when the Sherman Silver Purchase was repealed in 1893, the town struggled. It would only recover two decades later, when molybdenum was discovered.

The town’s largest employer is currently the Climax Molybdenum Mine, which was founded in 1916.

Molybdenum’s value comes from its ability to strengthen iron and steel when they reach high temperatures. It became especially useful at the start of World War I when countries began building up arms.

Over the next few decades, the price of molybdenum fluctuated until it reached a low point. In 1987, the mine laid off 3,200 workers. It operated on and off until 1995, when it closed completely.

In 2012, after a 17-year closure, the mine was reopened by Freeport-McMoRan.

Freeport-McMoRan, a natural resources corporation based in Phoenix, has active mining sites in North America, South America, Africa and Indonesia. In addition to molybdenum, the company mines for gold, copper, cobalt, oil and natural gas in its locations around the world.

The corporation has another molybdenum mine in Henderson, Colorado. According to a company document, the two mines contributed $443.3 million directly to Colorado’s economy through compensation, business taxes and vendor purchases.

It also says its indirect impact on the economy was $483.8 million. The company accounts for this through factors like employee spending in the state, spending from new tax revenue, pension income and vendor purchases.

“It’s almost like we have a target around us. All around us, there’s a lot of wealth.” – Alice Pugh, Executive Director of Full Circle, a nonprofit for low income families in Lake County

Leadville’s other major employers include city and county government, schools, Colorado Mountain College, Ski Cooper and St. Vincent Hospital. Residents who don’t commute or work for one of the town’s major employers rely on retail jobs at local businesses, many of which only have the means to support part-time positions.

“It’s really difficult to make a living on a service job,” Pugh said.

The St. Vincent Hospital is currently the town’s second largest employer, just behind the Climax Mine. But its fate has become uncertain in recent months.

In 2014, Lake County voters turned down a property tax hike that would have put more funds toward the hospital for the first time since 1988.

The hospital began winding down its operations in November 2014. By December, it had closed its surgery department and moved many of its long-term elderly patients to other locations.

The hospital was slated to close in March but in February, Colorado health provider Centura Health said it would manage the hospital for one year while it searches for funding. If the hospital fails to find a source of funding over the next year, however, it will close after 136 years of operation.

In this scenario, Leadville citizens would have to travel to other towns for medical services.

“I think people will have to wait and the problem will get worse,” Pugh said. “I honestly think people can die en route to another hospital.”

Pugh said other medical services such as alcohol and drug outpatient programs are also difficult to come by in Leadville.

“People are forced to drive 60 to 70 miles to get treatment,” she said. “People have to drive very far to get basic services.”

The citizens of Leadville are turning to long commutes in order to make a living. For a town that was once Colorado’s center of prosperity, life has changed tremendously. The old buildings that line the streets of Leadville, for now, serve as the only glimpse of the town’s former grandiosity.

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