Grand Theater in Rocky Ford (Jasperdo | flickr)

Our Detroit – Southeast Colorado

Illustration from New York Times
Illustration from New York Times

Thirty years since the CF&I laid off its work force. A rural population in decline. One-hundred miles from one of the largest, job opportune regions in the country.

Southeast Colorado is one of the hardest places to live in Colorado. Pueblo, Huerfano, Las Animas, Crowley, Otero, Bent, Prowers and Costilla Counties exist in another Colorado—one that doesn’t have the same opportunities or growth as the rest of state according to a New York Times report.

The situation in Southern Colorado is the single most underreported story in Colorado and the cause of the greatest threat to this area’s way of life.

In Colorado, the New York Times listed Southern Colorado as the hardest place to live in Colorado considering six factors: income, college education, obesity, disability, unemployment, and life expectancy.

What all this shows is that Southeast Colorado is trailing Northern Colorado and Western Colorado. It is even trailing most of the San Luis Valley.

What the Times didn’t provide is context so beyond the nice colors here’s what the numbers tell us.

Bent County is the hardest place to live in Colorado and one of the hardest in the nation. Only 478 counties have it worse than Bent and that translates to 85% of the country have it easier.

In Pueblo County, 60% of the country has it better. Prowers and Las Animas have it the same as Pueblo. Huerfano has it little worse with 67% of the county living better. Costilla the worst ranked county in the San Luis Valley is at the 74th percentile of hardest places to live.

Now here’s the shock. Nearly 80 percent of the United States has it easier than Crowley and Otero Counties. And the loser in Colorado…Bent County is the hardest place to live in Colorado and one of the hardest in the nation. Only 478 counties have it worse than Bent and that translates to 85% of the country have it easier.

There are two ways to take this; one is to assume Southeast Colorado is a bad place to live. That’s not what this analysis is saying. The point here is that it’s harder to make a living, find opportunities, and create a sustainable way of life.

The Colorado Fallow Belt

Since the 1970s, nearly every one of the counties listed above has seen stagnant growth or a decline in population. Otero County has seen the worst drop in population with nearly a 6,000 decline since the 1970s. Baca County, though not listed as a hard place to live, has seen steady decline as well.  From the mid 90s to around 2007, Crowley, Huerfano, Las Animas, and Otero Counties saw small gains either to the 1970s level or more, as was the case in Crowley. Since 2007, all these counties have seen a sudden decline.
Pueblo, the regional hub, is in a different situation. The city itself has remained stagnant since the 1970s and only the growth in Pueblo West has helped its numbers.

Putting this into perspective is not about population or a nicely colored map; it’s what the numbers indicate. Low college education rates translate to lower paying jobs. Low paying jobs affect property and retail taxes, entrepreneurship, and attractiveness to the region.  And, these affect the workforce making a locale unattractive for new opportunities to settle in.

Now, factor in forces out of our control such as the constant drought conditions mixed in with the 2007 economic depression adding to why Southeast Colorado has it hard. We could be witnessing the long term decline of the southern quarter of the Colorado.

Here’s the reality, Pueblo, in the New York Times study is ranked 1,882 out of 3,135 counties in the country. Youngstown in Mahonhing County, Ohio–the other industrial city Pueblo is compared with–is ranked 1880.

Yes, just like Detroit.

There are critics that will say, “But at least we aren’t like one of the steel towns out east.” No? We are exactly the same if you take a look at the region as a whole.

For you non-Pueblo readers, the saying “Well, at least we aren’t Detroit “ is flung around this town like a badge of honor. “It’s better than it was,” people say. Well, there were tires in the 1940s where Pueblo Riverwalk is today so that’s positive.

No business coming in. No out-of-state student. No CEO. No tourist or visitor cares about two decades before. No job seeker. No parent with young children. None of these people care about a place in its golden years. Why doesn’t the allure of 20,000 workers walking from Bessemer to clock in at CF&I attract Apple to Colorado? Because that’s the way things were. Everybody cares about the way things are–for daily life.

Only the critics, and maybe politicians, care about the way things were to justify the way things are. Pueblo as a community gets too lost in comparing what was to admit that Pueblo along with its neighbors are experiencing a different Colorado, closer in problems to Detroit than Denver.

Here’s the reality, Pueblo, in the New York Times study is ranked 1,882 out of 3,135 counties in the country. Youngstown in Mahonhing County, Ohio–the other industrial city Pueblo is compared with–is ranked 1880.

Gary, Indiana, of Lake County has life easier than five of the rural Colorado counties I mentioned.

Yes, we do have our Detroit. Actually, it’s worse than Detroit. Out of 3125 counties in America, Bent County is the 2657th hardest to live in county in America while Wayne, Michigan [Detroit] is better at 2516th. The reason why we don’t consider it Detroit is because it’s rural.

You are witnessing two Colorados forming in front of your eyes.

Two Colorados

What does all this mean? You are witnessing two Colorados forming in front of your eyes. The mountain towns, the Western Slope, and Northern Front Range communities are forming the Colorado represented in the tourism ads; the one Senator Udall hikes for campaign ads, and one the Governor boasts about for the new Colorado economy.

Denver and the metro-region that surrounds it, in multiple reports, are shown as one of the fastest growing regions in the nation, a region with a high number of people aged 24-35, and an area that offers the highest numbers of job opportunities in the state of Colorado.

That Colorado is not this Colorado. That Colorado is debating fracking and jobs. This Colorado is debating how to attract any job. That Colorado is celebrating a new western revival. This Colorado is wondering when we will leave the recession.

When our politicians talk about this new Colorado, can-do, western growth, they are not speaking about Southern Colorado.

Consequences of thinking small

Southern Colorado at risk of being irrelevant–politically and economically, not only in the struggles to attract major companies, but also in the reluctance to invest in local ones. We are also seeing as a side effect losing our political clout because the State Capitol is reluctant to send money south.

This situation is at fault but of the consequence of local band-aid solutions to a regional cancer.

Pueblo risks being a regional sinkhole instead of driving economic opportunities. The sinkhole effect isn’t anything new but when it’s as bad as this every failure is exacerbated.

Not so long ago, Pueblo was bigger than Fort Collins, then the boom hit the Boulder/Fort Collins areas where this corridor fed off the talent, people and opportunities and created the growth you see now. It spurned on real growth, not the one-company-to-Pueblo-a-year-growth.

We are already seeing the great migration away from the sinkhole. Our tech contributor messaged me a few weeks back when the Old Navy Store announced its closing. His sentiment was, “Who can we attract when we can’t keep an Old Navy?”

More than low-cost clothes, this migration is seen everywhere. The media has left. KOAA and KCCY went to Colorado Springs. The legendary Pueblo radio stations were sold off then transitioned to Springs’ stations. As for young people, well, there’s not a vibrant, young person scene south of El Paso County. Why did I focus on the media and young people. The TV stations and radio stations find it more prosperous to focus on El Paso County not south of it. And the young, 18 to 35 drive economic growth.

The critics will say, “We don’t need box stores, or care about TV and young people; we don’t want to become like Denver.” Okay, but put yourself in the position of a potential company being recruited by any one of the economic development agencies in Southern Colorado. If the town which they are moving from has a vibrant downtown, box stores, franchises, a food scene, a nightlife—do you understand what they have to give up to move into this region?

If Pueblo cannot serve as the regional hub, companies will not entertain moving and investors will not entertain investing in outlying counties. Both Pueblo County and Southeast Colorado are linked. The good in La Junta, helps Pueblo. The bad in Pueblo hurts Trinidad.

To solve this problem it require the rise of the greatest area leadership Southern Colorado has seen in the last 50 years.

The Fix

You may have it okay and comfortable, and all of what I said is nothing more than loud-mouth complaining. What about the life of the farmer outside of Lamar? What about the prospects of a seven-year-old kid at Parkview Elementary on the eastside of Pueblo? What about the balance sheet for a small business owner in Fowler?

We don’t live in the worst part, or the ugliest, or the least artistic area of Colorado. We just live in one with the fewest options for small business owners, college graduates, entrepreneurs, families and job seekers. And one where people care but do not know what to do.

A few months back, Kara Mason wrote an excellent piece showing off in-fighting over the half-cent sales tax. If you picked up on it, we really do believe that everyone on City Council, PEDCO, and the Chambers do care and do love Pueblo. We also are confident saying this about all the commissioners, mayors, and councils of Southeastern towns.

The idea that people don’t care is nothing more than talk. No one knows what to do but many are trying, some are misguided, some are not, but caring starts by accepting—Southern Colorado is not moving as fast as the rest of the state.

This cannot be solved with $40 million of Pueblo’s Economic Development fund. The longer you believe this can be solved with one company in one county, the longer the problem remains. It will take more than a Southwest Chief rail line, proper funding and a football team to Colorado State University-Pueblo. Not even more rain and the Arkansas Valley Conduit will be the quick fix to the conditions in the valley. It will take all this and more.

This current problem will require the rise of the greatest area leadership Southern Colorado has seen in the last 50 years. And it will require these leaders to create a new economic force in partnership with the state and the entirety of Southeast Colorado to form a coalition that can find capital, companies, and solutions – the likes of which we have not seen and the force of which are reminiscent of the New Deal.

We have no other option and time is up. It starts with not thinking we are better off than Detroit. The Arkansas Valley isn’t. Pueblo is another Youngstown. And does the rest of the state even know we are here, struggling?

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