The first blast furnace started blowing in Pueblo in 1881. By that time it was already apparent that those stacks, iconic of today’s Steel City, would be a beacon of opportunity and build the town that built the West.
For nearly a century steel was king in Southern Colorado and it brought thousands of immigrants who hoped for a better life in the U.S. They’d arrive by train, likely settle in Bessemer or somewhere close and work in the mills. They spoke different languages, although it’s hard to tell exactly how many were spoken in the neighborhoods that surrounded the mills. And they put their own touch on Pueblo’s culture, the food, the language, the faith.
In the 1870s General William Jackson Palmer started buying up land across Colorado and founded the town of South Pueblo. He saw an opportunity, but he wasn’t the first. By then the flags of five countries — Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas and the United States — had, at one point in time, waved over current-day Pueblo.
Palmer started the Central Colorado Improvement Company, which eventually morphed into the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company and then in 2007 became a part of Evraz, a Russian-owned steel company.
How opportunity has been defined in Pueblo has almost always mirrored the eb and flow of the steel industry. Early on, residents of Bessemer didn’t even feel that their small, blue-collar city needed schools. Men were expected to make a career in the smelters.
World War II became a boom time for Pueblo, as the steel mill was working at full capacity.
Then, in 1982, the steel industry collapsed. Pueblo saw an unemployment rate of nearly 18 percent, eight points higher than the national average. CF&I filed for bankruptcy in 1990. Well into the mid-2010s steel workers were still being laid off in Pueblo, 70 in 2014, 200 in 2015 and 450 a year later.
As a result of the 80s steel decline, local leaders established an economic development corporation, aiming to never again put all its eggs in one basket. Even so, a half-cent sales tax ordinance pigeonholed opportunity into manufacturing and call centers for at least two decades.
Steel has also shaped the political landscape.
In 2016, political pundits and presidential candidates set their sites on the Rust Belt, cities that have experienced the downward spiral of steel and manufacturing industries. While places like Ohio, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania quickly became the eye of the storm, Pueblo wasn’t far off. Unlike anywhere else in Colorado, elements of a strong union town still exist. Trade policy was fair fodder for locals. Economy was the voting issue.
“A lot of people are buying into what he (Trump) is saying,” Chuck Perko, a steel worker told me ahead of a visit from then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016. “It’s a great message. People are so desperate. It’s been hard for us (steelworkers) for 20–30 years.”
Perko thought Pueblo would, like recent history had suggested, swing blue. Trump won by a small margin, shocking some to the north who paid little attention to the issues Puebloans were voting on that year.
“Labor is the biggest issue,” Perko said. “It really affects everything else.”
Today some-900 employees report to the Evraz plant for work. Other manufacturing centers, like Vestas, Trane and United Technologies Aerospace, have risen to become major manufacturing employers in the city. They echo the pride and the opportunity that has always been at the heart of Pueblo.
In 2016, dozens of Vestas workers gathered in a impromptu tent on the edge of the Chile and Frijoles Festival to celebrate the announcement of 108 new jobs at the plant. After some prodding, the company’s vice president, Tony Knopp, told me those jobs would fit technology in the plant that would take over some human-occupied jobs. Still, the workers, many that had likely earned a degree or certificate at Pueblo Community College, posed for photos with Knopp. They reveled the success of their livelihood.
Companies like Vestas are alive in Pueblo today because they depend on the same resources that the steel industry did, namely rail.
City lawmakers and economic officials have attempted to bolster opportunities for emerging or expanding businesses. They have shell buildings willing to accomodate manufacturing companies that want to move to Pueblo. They’re eager to offer economic incentives and build additional facilities, even for companies that haven’t held up agreements in the past.
Most recently Pueblo bet big on cannabis, offering an institute dedicated to research, the country’s first marijuana college major and the willingness to offer incentives to hemp businesses.
In January, a group of young, ambitious journalists dived into Pueblo’s great cannabis experiment. With its 174 licensed marijuana businesses and 139 licensed retail cultivators, cannabis has come with a bevy of varying views.
Those championing it also see a lot of room for expansion. How it all turns out is still to be determined. While the market has consolidated to some degree, local business owners say it’s not impossible that America’s future big cannabis brand, which is inevitable with the number of states that have now legalized the substance, could be home grown. It’s just a matter of cultivating the opportunity.