It took over three decades, but the “Heart of the Rockies” today shines as an example of how to create a strong, lasting economy.
Salida, Colo. morphed its struggling business climate into a popular outdoor destination and diversified its economy in the process. As the Chaffee County seat created a vibrant tourism base, it expanded other industry sectors as well, and the city of around 5,000 looks poised to weather future economic storms. The process encompassed effort from various community members and groups over the long haul.
The last 30 years in Salida serve as a guide for communities looking to build their business blueprints. In fact, a statewide study uses the city as an example of rural resiliency. “Rural Economic Resiliency in Colorado,” by the Colorado Office of Economic Development & International Trade, discusses how the community leveraged its natural amenities to build a solid business base.
Of course it helps that the area is surrounded by a dozen 14,000-foot tall mountain peaks, with the Arkansas River river rolling through. But even with its natural advantages, Salida didn’t start out as a recreation destination. Early on in its history, in the 1880s, most residents were employed as railroad workers.
A century later residents worked as ranchers and miners, and many commuted to the Climax mine about 60 miles away. Around 3,100 employees and an $80 million annual payroll kept the economy going, according to a 1994 Colorado Central Magazine story. Then in 1982, the mine “unexpectedly suspended operations, creating economic and social upheaval that is still felt today along the upper Arkansas River valley.”
Salida felt the effects, according to Chaffee County Economic Development Director Wendell Pryor. However, a handful of residents recognized the potential of building up a tourism economy centered on river recreation. That vision required looking past the poor condition of the river at that time.
It “was not a place you’d want your kids to play in because it was basically the city dump,” Pryor said.
Long-time Salida business owner Ray Kitson concurred.
“There was trash, no bank to speak of, and it was a lot of brush,” Kitson said. “We re-did that and turned it into a beautiful white water park with the help of different foundations and the state of Colorado, as well as local efforts and donations.”
Kitson worked with others to form the Arkansas River Trust, which helped the community see the value of having a river corridor for recreation. Organizers teamed with the city, state and federal government on a series of grants, loans and self-initiated projects to clean things up and create a vibrant waterway that gave rise to sixty miles of gold medal water for fishing, rafting and kayaking.
Various organizations kept the improvements going, creating the Arkansas Headwaters Recreation Area (AHRA), Riverside Park in the city’s historic district and a variety of trails in and around Salida. The downtown was also revitalized thanks to both private and public sector initiatives. In the meantime, entrepreneurs established new businesses to serve visitors. Today, the town is buzzing with dozens of artist-owned studios and galleries, specialty shops, restaurants, breweries and distilleries, farmers’ markets and festivals.
“There are community leaders that have kind of a can-do attitude,” Pryor said. “They’re creative. They’re primarily business people who basically say, ‘we can do this.’”
The tourism cornerstone of Salida, even in the early days, was rafting. As undeveloped as the river was, people would still come to raft, but with relatively few hotels or restaurants, visitors would stay for just the day. Change progressed slowly at first as groups kept plugging away on different aspects of the economy.
One worked on trails for mountain biking. There was another about the Riverside Park. New owners made improvements at a nearby ski area. The city council supported new projects. New schools were built and the nearby hospital expanded. All these individual efforts contributed to a broader momentum.
The resiliency study, which partnered with the state’s demography office and the Leeds School of Business, took a 25-year look at rural communities in Colorado to see what the difference is between those that thrive and those that dive. Leadership and risk-taking is key to what makes a rural economy resilient. Communities in the 80s that worked to diversify are reaping long-term benefits.
It looks different depending on each community’s assets and local goals. While some are doing well, many rural communities are digging out of economic difficulty and still feel the effects of the Great Recession, according to Meridith Marshall, Brian Lewandowski and Laura Blomquist, the key researchers on the study.
“I think we still have this pretty widespread recession or depression among rural counties nationally, and that problem really hasn’t been solved yet,” Lewandowski said.
He added many communities within his state have been on the decline or stagnant for a while, but are trying to stem the losses. “Engineering your way around those losses can be really difficult in some communities.”
Pushing a rural economy forward takes drive, organization and leadership. Some of the best candidates to take it on are those who grew up in the community. This is referred to as the alumni network – people who left to get an education, start a career and now want to move back and give back.
“They bring back with them education and experiences and ideas that can be leveraged in those communities, ” Lewandowski said.
Kitson was part of that alumni network through marriage, as his wife, Penny, hails from Salida. The couple took risk and lived on a shoestring to make it work early on. Their affinity for the city motivated them to stick out the tough years. Then they did it again in the early 2000s, selling their rafting, retail and lodging businesses and starting a restaurant.
“I had no business building a restaurant the size I built it,” Kitson said. “It didn’t make any sense from a population standpoint, but I just felt like it was something that would really add to the area and add to downtown and it would gain traction, and it did.”
Support from their family as well as patience by employees and contractors contributed to surviving the first few years. Eventually, other improvements downtown drew more traffic to the restaurant, which today is thriving.
“We all saw the same vision,” Kitson said. “We knew that we could make it here. And then little things started happening.”
Another alumni network member through marriage is Shawn Gillis, who moved to Salida in 1999 with his then fiancé Dena. Gillis owned a bike shop in Flagstaff, Ariz. and decided to start one in his new home. Early on the business consisted of selling medium level bikes and doing a lot of repairs. Rental income was non-existent.
Gillis remembers about 40 percent of the downtown buildings being vacant, which was an improvement over what it had been in the 80s. Today, downtown has very few vacancies, and Gillis’ team of over 20 sell high-end bikes. The rental business is strong, and they take a steady stream of visitors on guided tours. The intense effort to get to and maintain such success is not forgotten by the business owner.
“Definitely had to work harder to make things happen,” he said. “Had to volunteer more. And had to contribute more in a way that’s pretty much our livelihood in this community.”
Gillis added, “You don’t get to just sit here and be passive. You have to contribute, to volunteer. There’s a lot of pride in the town.”
The resiliency researchers are presenting their findings and key takeaways to rural communities throughout the state, hoping other areas will incorporate them into an overall mission and strategy. The study serves as a guide when “making decisions and plans and strategies at the local level,” Marshall said.
Included is an “Economic Resiliency Guide” with suggestions on how a community can “identify their assets to build upon in order to attract people.” Key suggestions are defining a vision, investing in assets, taking some calculated risks, cultivating leadership, investing in education and healthcare, addressing housing needs and collaborating regionally.
Pryor keyed in on the importance of defining the vision.
“Without that vision, or the process to arrive at a vision, there isn’t anything to lead, so to speak,” the economic development director said. “Once a community has a vision, as some of [Salida’s] leaders did as far as creating a river park, that’s what allowed people to come behind that vision and organize and support it with leadership from the private sector.”
One of Salida’s biggest challenges today is providing affordable housing for those who wish to live and work there. The real estate market has gone through the roof, and officials have worked on plans for a new apartment project, though it has been met with some resistance.
Gillis expects community members will continue to work toward positive solutions and progress.
“You can always throw money and uninformed labor to solve a problem, but that is nowhere as efficient as throwing a volunteer and hard work at solving it,” he said.