It’s not the Colorado most visitors think of, but for one Ordway resident the plains are enchanting and could generate tourism revenue. The problem is getting enough start up money to get the project off the ground.
Gillian Hoggard is a New Zealander, a creature of the sea — she lived on a boat in the South Pacific when her two boys were young — and a globetrotter. She also called London home for a bit. But now her focus is Ordway, the small, dry, town an hour’s drive east of Pueblo starving for any kind of economic development.
“There’s no money and there’s really no energy,” Hoggard said of Crowley County’s one major hub.
Hoggard recalls things really taking a turn for the worst in 2008 when a wildfire charred 24 homes in Ordway. It also claimed the lives of two volunteer firefighters, Gert Marals and Terry DaVore. Among the nearly 9,000 acres burned in the fire was Hoggard’s home and barn.
“After 10 years all I owned was a pair of flipflops, a torn tee shirt and a pair of shorts,” she said.
Shortly after the fire Hoggard quit her job at the prison and started working part time jobs. For the first 10 years Hoggard was in Ordway she said she minded her own business, went to her job, raised a family. But the fire changed things.
“These people come to help you resurrect yourself,” she said. “I like the people and their resilience.”
She could have left, went back to New Zealand or to a metropolitan area anywhere in the country. Hoggard was comfortable with new places, but her boys had friends in Ordway and she felt they were too old to be pulled out of school and starting new somewhere else. All of her animals made it through the fire so she stayed for them, too.
“Most ideas percolate for a while,” she said.
Hoggard watched the community come together amidst a crisis, but there were still struggles.
Nearly 30 percent of the county’s population, which is around 5,000 people, from 2009 to 2013 were under the poverty level, the median income is $20,000 less than the state average and only 12 percent of people living in Crowley County have a four-year college degree, according to the Census.
Five months ago Hoggard decided to fill an empty seat on city council thinking it would help her help the community. She’s also an EMT and has taken a weekend job delivering mail. She has more involvement in the community than she ever has, Hoggard said. She talks to more people because she’s interacting with more people.
The rural lifestyle has always fascinated Hoggard.
“When my husband and I got to the States we were driving up from New Mexico and when we got to Trinidad I saw these cowboys fixing a fence and I said pull over I have to go take a picture,” Hoggard said. “I thought that was movie lore. I didn’t know there were these actual cowboys.”
“These people are the foundation of the rest of the county.”
It was later during a workshop about economic development Hoggard had a lightbulb moment. The speaker was talking about heritage and agritourism growing across the state and recited a quotation from Theodore Roosevelt’s autobiography: “Do what you can where you are with what you have.”
That sentence left Hoggard thinking that the people of Crowley County had everything they needed to encourage economic development. They had a lifestyle that can not be matched in most places across the country.
Hoggard recalled the 150 or so cyclists who pass through Ordway while traveling the Transamerican Cycle Route each year. Many of them have stayed with Hoggard and blogged about their experience, which has led to even more cyclists spending the night at her house.
“It always amused me how they loved being out there,” she said. “They love the rural lifestyle because they’re mostly city kids.”
So if Hoggard, an outsider from the other side of the world, and the city kids, having never experienced the country, were charmed by Crowley County, maybe others would be too. It was just a matter of getting the word out and giving visitors the full experience.
“The prairies are like the oceans,” she said. “You go out on the oceans and it seems lifeless, but it’s there.”
Hoggard talked to others in the community and realized the appeal was that everybody had different strengths and that’s what kept the town afloat, even if just barely.
The idea all came together. An ultimate Crowley County vacation. Five days will get you the full experience of what it’s like to unplug from the city, escape the bumper-to-bumper traffic and breathe. One day you might go horseback riding, another you might go out photographing the prairie, the next you could be hearing the history from the retirees who’ve spent their whole lives in Ordway or out on a lake sailing with Hoggard.
“How can we compete with a business plan in the Rockies and the advertising is $13,000 a year? If we had the money to do that, we wouldn’t need to be doing this.”
The framers have dubbed the vacation marketing plan Alternative Colorado. No, it’s not skiing or relaxing in a high-end lodge. It’s real Colorado. It’s small town living the way much of Colorado does.
“Small towns need people coming in to survive,” Hoggard said. “The town is too poor to improve its own infrastructure.”
Hoggard believes the vacation package would generate enough revenue to help improve the town. It’d create more business for the locals and it would give kids in high school summer jobs. There are more people than jobs in Ordway.
The vacation is more of a marketing umbrella. That’s what Hoggard calls it. Bringing attention to the strengths of the town, the things you can’t get anywhere else. But beyond that it’s creating a sense of identity that the Ordway citizens can be proud of.
“They take it for granted the lifestyle they have,” Hoggard said. “It’s such a strength of this community, but I think they feel like second-class citizens. I’ve seen how this place changes people’s lives. Even just how the weather matters: You can’t just turn on the air or the heater and forget about everything else. People aren’t meant to live in concrete jungles. They aren’t.”
The plan is ready. But the money to get it going isn’t there.
“How can we compete with a business plan in the Rockies and the advertising is $13,000 a year? If we had the money to do that, we wouldn’t need to be doing this,” Hoggard said. “We can make money with $5,000 and good money at $10,000.”
Hoggard hoped that filling the city council seat might get the ball rolling. It could create connections. But the position pays $18 per month so there’s little financial relief to actually spend the required amount of time focusing on the things the city desperately needs, she said. Not just for her, but she sees it in other positions as well.
“All I’ve heard since I got here is that southeastern Colorado needs rejuvenation and then you bring an idea to the table and there’s nobody that can help you. They say we can talk about it but we can’t fund you,” Hoggard said. “I was really naive about what the process was. I thought I could put together a plan and somebody would say that’s what exactly what we need to do. They would market it.”
For now, a lot of the grant opportunities have passed. Moreover, grants take time and knowhow. Something that $18 per month does not really cover.
The state and other local organizations have been of little financial help, Hoggard said. There’s little that can be done for what Hoggard has in mind. It’s not a business or organization.
“Crowley County won’t even put me on their website without being a chamber member,” she said.
There isn’t enough money for that membership.
Even with little money many local community leaders say they like the idea. Hoggard said a group of Southeastern government leaders say they would like to replicate the model in other counties. The group of community members have received $1,000 for marketing and will have a trial run of the Alternative Colorado vacation in March.
“There’s advice, but they won’t actually help you go through the process. Advice is one thing,” Hoggard said.
But she says she has received enough advice. She’s ready for action, but it requires more money than what Ordway or anybody trying to make a difference has.