In the Arkansas Valley, finding and job and attracting employers is much more difficult than in other parts of Colorado.
When Sugar City resident Art Eichhorn went to work on Friday, August 15, he was expecting several people to be laid off, he just wasn’t expecting one of them to be him.
Layoffs aren’t as uncommon as they should be in and around Sugar City.
In 2010, the Southern Colorado Economic Development District’s Comprehensive Economic Development Strategy, a “roadmap” for the region’s economic activity, said unemployment and job creation was at the top of the priority list, but unemployment has since increased in Crowley County.
It’s higher other places too. In a recent New York Times report, Bent, Otero and Crowley County were calculated as the hardest places to live in the state based on statistics such as unemployment rates, average income, college education and disability.
Crowley County’s current unemployment rate is 12.1 percent, 1.6 percent higher than four years ago. Otero’s unemployment has gone from 8.7 percent to 9.5 in four years, and Bent’s 2010 8.1 percent unemployment rate has increased .4 percent.
The reason why more people are unemployed now is complex. Recessions tend to hit rural areas later than urban areas. These areas also rely on agriculture as their main industry, thus main employer, and that field of work is changing.
“There are several factors in those counties most of which is the down turn in the agricultural economy in the region, second is the environment with the lack of precipitation the last few years producers have had to sell off their production herds of livestock, farmers have not planted as much crops all contributing to the down turn in the economy.” said Doug Dowler, executive director of SCEDD. “The fallout of the downturn of the agricultural economy is also in those supportive business that provide goods and services to agricultural. They too have had to cut back with fewer production agricultural operations going.”
Basically, it’s a ripple effect.
“The jobs that you have there have really changed in the last decade from labor intensive to mechanically driven,” Dowler said. Less workers in the fields. More computer-driven equipment.
Eichhorn spent most of his life in Michigan, graduating high school and going on to work at various jobs in the oil fields and farm work. But when the economy started going south, he struggled for a couple years in Michigan before moving south himself in 2009.
Three years before he arrived, La Junta lost the Treehouse Foods pickle and relish factory, and 153 jobs. Two weeks before that a bus factory, a major employer in the region, was closed in Lamar. The next year, 2007, the recession really started to hit Southeastern Colorado, according to Ryan Stevens, executive director for La Junta Economic Development.
Stevens has only held his position since November, but he’s hopeful for the future of the region. Things are finally starting to reach a tipping point, he said. He’s got a plan– economic gardening. Basically, planting businesses in the region, growing them there and keeping them there will build economic development and provide more jobs.
But it’s tough, he said. The hardest thing about attracting employers, especially in the manufacturing sector, is the workforce. It’s hard to keep people in the region, and there’s not many to begin with.
Ironically, Eichhorn never meant to stay. But while visiting some friends in Fowler and Pueblo, he found work. “I was stuck,” he laughed
He started dating his now-fiancé Shanna Ediger in 2010, and that further cemented the move.
Eichhorn started working for Ordway Cattle Feeders LLC, the third largest employer in Crowley County, about a year and a half ago. His previous employer sold some equipment to the feed yard, and a crew of four, including Eichhorn, began working at the feed yard along with the equipment.
His full-time job included running heavy equipment such as graders and loaders to push the manure out of the cattle pens before loading it in trucks.
It may not have been the most glamorous of jobs, but it gave him security and allowed for him to provide for his fiancé, who is currently living with him. But all that changed with the layoffs.
Eichhorn filed for unemployment, and the feedlot manager, Tyler Karney, hired Eichhorn to do some yard work for him immediately following the layoffs, so he has some income coming in, but he doesn’t know for how long.
“How long will it last? Oh gosh I don’t know. Until I’m done cleaning horse pens, he’s got me mowing his lawn, doing some painting for him. It might last a week it might last a couple weeks. You never know,” he said.
The unknown is what a lot of people in the region face, and Hunger Free Colorado’s Executive Director Kathy Underhill believes taking care of that, at the most basic level, could help economic development in the region.
The hardest thing about attracting employers, especially in the manufacturing sector, is the workforce. It’s hard to keep people in the region, and there’s not many to begin with.
In Bent, Otero and Crowley county the median monthly income is $866.66. That doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything outside of necessity, and sometimes that even means food, she said.
“For us, we’re experts on food and nutrition and hunger — not the mechanism of farming. We have a couple of basic premises,” Underhill said. “Get people out of survival mode. If I can’t feed my family tonight, I don’t think about anything else. Part of our work is helping people get out of survival mode, then you’re in a place to say, ‘now I have the capacity to think about what’s next for me.’”
But even that is more difficult than it sounds. It is difficult for this region to rebuild when the issue is so complex and intertwined.
For Hunger Free Colorado, the problem is very narrow. Focus on one aspect, and it will hopefully transcend into other areas of economic development. But looking at the problem from 30 thousand feet, like Ken Lund, executive director for Colorado Office for Economic Development and International Trade, requires a lot of knowledge about many aspects of the region’s economy.
Employment, the workforce, tourism, housing, education — the list goes on and on.
“I think our philosophy is that the solutions start with what you’re already good with,” Lund said. “In region six, that’s agriculture, two junior colleges, some manufacturing, health and wellness. I look at the dilemma and you can either struggle with where to start or you can start with what you’re good at. That’s our approach. Not what you want to be in 20 years, it’s what you are now.”
Exports from the agriculture sector are at record highs, and that, Lund said, strengthens rural areas.
But the big picture is difficult to see in the midst of living day-to-day like Eichhorn is.
And he’s not sure when that will end. He’s had to postpone his wedding. He and Shanna were hoping to get married within the next month, though they hadn’t set an exact date. Now those plans have been pushed back.
“I don’t know when we’ll be able to get married now,” he laughed.
Although Eichhorn would like to stay in the area, he isn’t very hopeful about the local job prospects. He’s the workforce an employer would like to have, but there aren’t enough of him, and so the jobs aren’t there.
“I’d like to find a job around here, but everything’s scarce right now in this area,” he said. “Heck, I don’t know how many jobs there is going to be.”
He’s looking for anything he can get: construction, farm work or maybe even the oil fields again.
“If it comes down to that (working in the oil fields). I don’t want to, but if I have to, I have to,” he said.
Although he hasn’t had time to apply for many jobs yet with his current gig, the one application he did put in was for a railroad company in Denver.
Through it all, the layoff, uncertainty and putting off his wedding, Eichhorn has been upbeat.
“It’s like I told my bosses when I found out I was getting laid off. ‘This is just gonna turn the page and start a new chapter in my life.’ That’s all I could say to them,” he said.