NATURITA — The flashing lights bounce off the rusting water tank as the DJ’s thunderous bass resonates across the desert. A couple dozen well-spaced revelers, young and old in wigs and glitter and outrageous costumes, frolic beneath the glowing Milky Way.
A friend leans over to Natalie Binder as they absorb the scene from the back of a pickup truck and asks if she ever expected all these colorful characters would be dancing on a remote desert bluff that 60 years ago was home to one of the largest mining camps in Colorado.
“Absolutely,” says Binder, who with her architect partners, is developing 120 acres above the San Miguel River into a boutique retreat they hope will spark a long overdue renaissance in the struggling West End of Montrose County.
Since buying the property in 2018, Binder, a longtime Telluride local, has spent many weeks in the West End, where the Vanadium Corp. built a company town called Vancorum. Her grandmother was secretary to the company president. Her dad grew up in one of the cabins she is remodeling. Her mom and dad met on the property.
“I’ve spent a lot of time here alone in the last two years, and I always kept thinking about how much I want to share this place,” she says the morning after the dance party near the hulking tank that once provided water to mine workers. “I know this will become a very special space for a lot of different people. That’s what I thought last night. This is happening because this is what we manifested.”
Binder’s Camp V, with campsites on the river, luxury cabins on the hill and an eclectic emphasis on art, history, architecture and outdoor recreation, is a big deal for Naturita and its sister community Nucla. The project — one of Colorado’s first recipients of an Opportunity Zone investment — marks a definitive turn toward tourism and outdoor recreation in an area that has spent decades hoping for a revival of uranium and vanadium mining.
Camp V is the latest example of economic sparks promising to revitalize Montrose County’s West End, which joins a growing list of Colorado’s overlooked rural enclaves embracing innovative entrepreneurs who are tapping the surging outdoor recreation and tourism industries as economic drivers.
And the sparks couldn’t come at a better time. Hope for a new uranium mill in the nearby Paradox Valley has died. The promise of a resurgence from the exploding hemp industry has not materialized. The local Tri-State power plant and coal mine closed two years earlier than planned. As hopeful winds from new residents, investors and projects again fill the West End’s sails, locals are hoping this is Nucla and Naturita’s long-overdue moment to shine.
Here come the coffee shops, organic grocers and B&Bs
“Her enthusiasm is spreading,” Deana Sheriff, the director of the West End Economic Development Corp., says of Binder. “Absolutely I think this could finally be our moment.”
New businesses are cropping up in Binder’s wake. New owners have renovated Naturita’s Rimrock Hotel. Additional campgrounds have popped up in the region, as well as new bed & breakfasts. There’s a new coffee shop and organic grocery in Nucla, where miles of new mountain bike trails lace the desert above town.
Sheriff says Camp V has been a catalyst, bringing in new tourists.
The spring and summer have been exceptionally busy in Nucla, Naturita and the surrounding public lands, as visitors seek out-of-the-way escapes during the pandemic.
“When COVID hit, the West End was everybody’s secret space where they could bug out. And it really wasn’t that secret. We were inundated with visitors,” says Sheriff, describing how the local grocery, restaurants and liquor store saw tremendous traffic this summer. “The community really stepped up and responded well.”
Sheriff calls the pandemic traffic “trial by fire,” proving the community is ready to accommodate a surge of tourism.
There’s also been a boom in real estate sales in recent months as more urbanites flee density for wide-open country.
“If it’s in livable condition, it’s on the market a maximum of 10 days,” says Sheriff, describing a wave of young professionals moving to the West End and Paradox Valley and working remotely through the 1-gig internet provided by family-owned Nucla Naturita Telephone Co.
Sheriff sees Camp V drawing a more international audience than the rafters and Moab-lured folks who typically pass through Naturita and Nucla. Binder is setting up an artist-in-residence program with the New York Academy of Art and Telluride Arts. She also has collected some of the materials from the shuttered Tri-State plant, including giant cooling turbines that an artist planted into the campground for shade, like a thick-limbed tree.
“It’s been great who she has opened us to,” Sheriff says.
Shawn Bertini, a principal at Steamboat Springs’ Four Points Funding, invested in the Camp V project as part of his fund’s effort to direct Opportunity Zone investors into rural communities in Colorado. (Those investors can erase capital gains tax liability if they park cash in economically depressed communities identified in the 2018 federal tax overhaul.)
The Four Points Opportunity Zone funds are not only about supporting single projects. The hope is that seeding one project in an Opportunity Zone could lure more entrepreneurs to try their plan in neglected areas. Four Points is transforming an old building in Craig into a coffee shop, co-working space, events center and food hall where restaurateurs can test concepts. It invested in a long-dormant camping park in Meeker to create a hotel with tiny homes and an RV park. And now it’s investing in Binder’s art-focused retreat in a former mining community in Montrose County’s West End.
While the fund finds it easy to lure investors to its big multi-family projects in Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs, the equally impactful community-focused projects in Craig, Meeker and Naturita take a bit more convincing, even though they can generate strong returns, Bertini said.
“Our investors are happy and they get to see almost immediate impacts on local communities,” says Bertini, who calls the Camp V project in Naturita “a literal and figurative nexus of so many things.”
It’s an inclusive space that can host $30-a-night drive-up campers and visitors interested in renting luxury cabins for much more near where mountains fade to desert. And it’s a project that can spur more investment in the region.
“It can be the center of gravity that creates opportunities to bring diverse people together and bring in other entrepreneurs,” says Bertini, who visited Camp V in his camper van earlier this month.
He recalls chatting with a Google executive who visited the project and raved about the different people he met around the communal campfire.
“I think this is offering something that people are really craving right now,” Bertini says.
Economy struggling to convert from mining, energy
Naturita and Nucla are certainly yearning for investment like that behind Camp V. It’s been a long road for the two towns that were once the hub of America’s Cold War embrace of nuclear energy and weaponry.
Nucla, by the way, doesn’t draw its name from the region’s history with nuclear energy. The town was founded in the late 1800s by Denver families as a sort of Utopian colony based on egalitarian and socialist principles. The idea was that the town would serve as a nucleus for surrounding farms, where members of the Colorado Cooperative Co. directed half their labor toward building a 17-mile ditch to deliver irrigation water. The town thrived and became renowned for its weekly dances, music, art and hard-working citizens. Around 1912, when radium was discovered in what would be known as the Uravan Mineral Belt, farming gave way to mining and the West End remained a vibrant enclave for more than 50 years.
A bustling mill in Uravan, fed by dozens of nearby uranium mines, drove the Atomic Energy Commission’s Manhattan Project. Hundreds of miners worked the Uravan Mineral Belt — the third-largest reserve of uranium in the country.
Following the Three Mile Island disaster in 1979 and the Chernobyl meltdown in 1986, the uranium industry collapsed and never recovered. The decline wreaked havoc on Nucla, Naturita and now largely abandoned towns like Uravan, which became a 680-acre Superfund site requiring the removal of more than 3 million yards of mill waste and the complete burial of everything in the town as part of a 21-year remediation that concluded in 2008.
The drive-in theater went dark. The ball fields that once drew hundreds of residents every week became choked with weeds. Hundreds fled the West End as jobs evaporated. Today there are roughly 1,500 residents in Nucla and Naturita, which is about half the population of 1960 but up from the 2010 Census count.
Hope returned to the West End in 2008, when Toronto-based Energy Fuels Corp., which owns the country’s only operating uranium mill in Blanding, Utah, announced plans to build a new uranium mill on 880 acres in the Paradox Valley just west of Nucla.
The plan was hailed in the West End but drew vehement opposition from environmental groups, which pitted the more liberal and wealthy residents of Telluride against their struggling neighbors down the road in Nucla and Naturita. It was a rift that would only grow as lawsuits challenged Colorado’s radioactive materials license issued in 2013 to Energy Fuels. Energy Fuels ultimately sold its license and plans for the Pińon Ridge Mill to Western Uranium and Vanadium Corp., which is working to open five mines in western San Miguel County. Colorado regulators in 2018 revoked the Pińon Ridge mill’s license following the lawsuits.
The West End’s economic woes worsened when Tri-State Generation and Transmission shut down its Nucla power station a year ago this week, a full two years before the scheduled retirement. The plant had been operating since 1959. The nearby New Horizon coal mine that fed the power station also closed last year, all part of Colorado’s plan to improve air quality, cut emissions and increase renewable energy production.
The shutdown of the power plant and coal mine ended more than 80 of the best-paying jobs in the region. A skeleton crew of employees at the mine and power plant are winding down reclamation and dismantling work.
The power plant closure, combined with the rejection of the uranium mill and perpetually depressed prices for uranium, spurred a new crop of bohemian entrepreneurs who embraced hemp as the next economic opportunity in the West End. A dormant schoolhouse in Nucla was converted into a technology incubator for the growing hemp industry.
The explosion of hemp in Montrose County hasn’t delivered the West End the bounce it hoped for. Conflicts with federal law — which banned hemp until the 2018 Farm Bill made it legal — and disorganized investors kept the region’s hemp-centric plan at a slow simmer. The hemp business center at the Nucla schoolhouse never happened.
But the region is seeing strong growth in tourism and outdoor recreation, with the West End Trails Alliance building trails and new businesses drawing both visitors and residents.
“I’ll tell you, if you wanted to film a real-life ‘Survivor’ show, the West End is the community you would go to. They just continue to work and do what they have to do to keep things going,” says Colorado Sen. Don Coram of Montrose.
Coram, a Republican, once tried to launch a hemp business in the West End. It’s still alive, but the initial hope for a sweeping hemp revival has tempered. Coram has been watching the West End for decades, helping where he can as the community fights to survive as the disappointments pile up like the tumbleweeds burying baseball backstops across the valley.
Out in Paradox earlier this spring, he met a couple who moved to the nearly abandoned town from St. Louis, Missouri. They were fleeing the pandemic in their city and they were loving the 1-gig internet provided by Nucla Naturita Telephone Co.
Hemp could still happen and help float the lonely side of Montrose County, Coram says, “but there is no reason that you can’t do it all with tourism and recreation out there.”
“Never underestimate the mindset of that region,” Coram says. “They’ve got that tough, frontier spirit.”
Opportunity came knocking
Binder, who has spent more than 20 years managing luxury rental properties in Telluride, Mexico and Europe, was driving back from looking at a property when she saw a sign advertising the Vancorum site for sale.
It was September 2017 when she drove up through the 14 cabins rented to struggling locals and knocked on the owner’s door.
“As soon as I introduced myself, she said ‘Of course I know who you are. Your uncle went to high school with my daughter and they went to prom. And I knew your mom,’” says Binder, standing on the porch of a cabin her team has renovated, almost three years to the day from that meeting with the owner. “And I was like, please sell this to me because I want to do something with this, but I don’t know what yet.”
She called her dad and told her she was buying the Vancorum site. He had grown up in one of the cabins on the hill, which was known as “Snob Hill” because it housed the mine company’s bosses. Her dad played baseball at the fields now blanketed with rusting mine equipment. Binder, who grew up in Green River, Wyoming, didn’t know her dad had even lived on the property.
“He said, ‘You are crazy.’ His memories are from a long-ago time. He hadn’t seen it in so long,” she says. “But he told me ‘Well, I guess you are young enough to recover from this. Good luck.’ Then he came here in April and he saw how amazing it is.”
Binder recruited Telluride architects Jodie and Bruce Wright as investors in her plan and they purchased additional acreage to add to the project. She was plowing her own money into a slow renovation of the property and working her day-job when Paul Major called. He’s the president and CEO of the Telluride Foundation. He wanted her to join the Telluride Venture Accelerator, a sort of bootcamp for start-up entrepreneurs.
For her final project in July 2019, she had to pitch the Camp V plan to a group of investors gathered at the Sheridan Opera House in Telluride. Bertini was there. By December 2019, Four Points Funding was an investor in Camp V.
Camp V is “a case study for what needs to happen in rural communities in Colorado,” says Major, who is a founding member of Colorado’s Rural Community Response and Recovery Project, which supports rural regions during the pandemic.
As real estate prices climb in the mountains, ranching has become a much more difficult pursuit. The roller-coaster economics of the energy industry has injured rural economies.
“A lot of the fundamentals of rural economies have changed,” Major says. “How many booms and busts do we have to go through before we figure out how to diversify the economy?”
The West End looks a lot like Moab, Utah, did 40 years ago, when a uranium mill owner was struggling and the lonely outpost was bleeding jobs. Environmental regulators were grappling with how to clean up the tailings pile just outside town on the banks of the Colorado River. After decades of work, Moab now is an international destination with a red-hot tourism and recreation economy.
“Everyone says this is where Moab was. The question is what are we going to do as a community and as a state to replace lost jobs when uranium mills and coal plants close?” Major says. “Natalie is showing us one way to make that transition and she is working as an individual, as an entrepreneur with no public subsidies. There isn’t a silver bullet here. It’s about creating a mix of different industries to create a vibrant economy with recreation and tourism amenities that become a quality-of-life attraction for people who may want to move their businesses there.”
Galit Korngold opened her Wild Gal’s Market in Nucla in November last year, before she met Binder or learned about Camp V.
So far, her organic grocery has been largely supported by locals, she said. But she expects that will change as more people visit and learn about the West End.
“We are like at the early stage of what I feel will be a renaissance here and Natalie is a part of it,” Korngold says. She describes young residents on town boards in Nucla and Naturita who are promoting innovative plans to make the region more attractive to visitors and residents, including an initiative pursuing designation as International Dark Sky Association communities, where light pollution would be limited to allow crystal clear star-gazing. Nearby Norwood recently won that designation.
The younger people, the artists and the innovators come first and then it gentrifies after,” Korngold says. “I feel like we are at the point where the innovators and artists are discovering this place because it’s affordable and we are going to make it cool.”