The town of Silverton has a marketing slogan; “Real Town. Real People. Real Fun.”
Add to that: Real Turmoil.
One of the highest-altitude municipalities in the country and most remote communities in Colorado is in the midst of its latest spasm of small-town tumult. The sixth town administrator in seven years is stepping down this week as the town’s 460 year-round residents joust over Silverton’s future. The town’s attorney has also moved on.
“Emotions are running a little high around here,” is the way most recent town administrator John Reiter characterized the mood in Silverton. “Silverton is not always an easy place to be.”
The community’s touchy collective mood swirls around some big questions.
Should this once-grand mining town do more to rise in the pantheon of mountain destinations—such as adding a full-fledged ski resort? Is it too pie-in-the-sky to keep pinning some hopes on mining? Is the balance shift to newcomers from old-timers triggering a philosophical avalanche?
This past summer brought a glut of pandemic-era visitors. Fuller town coffers came with noisy swarms of off-road vehicles on town streets and squadrons of hikers leaving garbage-strewn hiking trails. What does that bode for the future?
Answers don’t come easy in the charged atmosphere of a community of hardy souls hemmed in to less than a square mile by towering mountains. Silverton, elevation 9,318 feet, has the added remote factor of sitting between avalanche-prone highway passes so rugged that some here call them “filters for the weak.”
“You have to have an iron will and a hearty outlook to live here,” said Jim Harper, one of five new members on the town’s six-person board of trustees. “You have a group of people here who are very strong-willed — who are reaching to the future, but also trying to hold on tight to the past.”
“We bicker like siblings,” is the way Silverton Chamber of Commerce executive director DeAnn Gallegos described the town’s amped-up style of civic engagement. “But in the end, we really are like siblings; we come together.”
As the revolving door turns
This latest spin of the revolving door of Silverton administrators hasn’t been as provocative as some in the past. Reiter resigned without drama to pursue another opportunity, and the Silverton Board of Trustees accepted. There was a minimum of gossip about it.
Past administrators have often been booted or chose to move on in more sensational dust-ups.
In 2014, then-Administrator Brian Carlson and Public Works Director Gilbert Archuleta were both shown the door after a feud that had Archuleta accused of piling walls of snow around Carlson’s vehicle while plowing town streets. There was plenty to work with; Silverton gets an average of 163 inches of snow each winter.
The town board drafted a “niceness contract” between the two, but it was allegedly violated in late-night bar talk.
That brouhaha was still simmering in 2015 when there was a very prickly recall election for a town trustee who had voted to oust Archuleta. The historic town hall had to be locked down for a week after angry citizens showed up to holler in the halls.
In 2017, there was a touchy airing of grievances when the next town administrator pursued some controversial moves, like investigating finances at the town’s volunteer fire department and taking on remediation projects for the town’s contaminated old mines.
Silverton, at that time, was in a national spotlight after the historic Gold King Mine above town had a blowout and turned the Animas River into a bright neon-orange waterway all the way through the tourist town of Durango and into the Navajo Nation to the south. That happened on town administrator Bill Gardner’s first day on the job.
“I was excited to get something going, but in my experience, it was impossible,” said Gardner, who took on the job after serving 30 years in law enforcement, including as a police chief, a sheriff and Silverton’s marshal. “That little town is so fractionated. The people don’t understand what governance is. It was like yelling into a typhoon.”
The next town administrator, brought in from Taos, N.M., was abruptly forced out in 2018 with no explanation.
Reiter was lured away from the Purgatory Metropolitan District between Silverton and Durango nearly two years ago to try his hand at running Silverton. His resignation happened to fall during a spell of robust debate over growth in Silverton that has shot property taxes up 30% in the past year, ballooned the student body at the small K-12 school and created a pressing need for affordable housing.
New families drawn by skiing and schools
A rotating cast of interim administrators have filled in, often plucked from the ranks of town employees. Because Silverton is so small, there is an unusually incestuous employment and town-official pool.
The newly named interim town administrator, Anthony Edwards, also serves as the municipal judge, the county judge and the liquor license overseer. He is the only lawyer in Silverton. (During the Gold King Mine spill he was also the spokesman for the town and San Juan County.)
The current mayor, Shane Fuhrman, lives next door to Archuleta, who is also the longtime fire chief. Fuhrman and Archuleta ran against each other for mayor in the most recent municipal election. Archuleta lost by only 10 votes. Needless to say, there aren’t friendly chats over the property line.
“The thing I am trying to get the town to do is communicate more,” said Fuhrman, who moved to Silverton from New York City six years ago and is part owner of the Wyman Hotel. The historic rooming house has been made over with “bespoke furniture” and is now a busy part of Silverton’s tourist economy.
Fuhrman said he knows some Silverton residents view him as a big-city interloper, but he said he is now a Silverton resident to the core. The hardiness required to live in Silverton and the adventures to be had just outside his door grabbed him and held him as it has others in the town’s largest growing demographic — 30- and 40-year-olds.
That demographic shift has spiked the controversial spell. About 40% of Silverton residents are over the age of 60. Those residents remember when the last mine shut down in 1991, and some of them would like to see good-paying mining jobs return to a town with mining at its core. Silverton was born in the 1870s when a scattering of gold miners’ shacks appeared after two miners tapped their picks into the Sunnyside silver vein. The Victorian buildings lining Greene and Blair streets are the vestiges of the mining heyday that followed.
The later-generation newcomers, with their young children in tow, have been drawn to Silverton by a ruggedness that hasn’t been smoothed over and watered down by the outsize wealth flowing into many of Colorado’s other mountain towns. Silverton doesn’t have chichi spas and upscale restaurants — yet.
What it does have is legendary extreme skiing on Silverton Mountain, where powdery glades have been drawing skiers from across the globe since it opened to guided groups in 2002.
The town is also known for rough-and-tumble events like skijoring where horses pull careening skiers through the snow-packed town streets. Silverton hosts an annual extreme 100-mile running race over mountain tops, and a famous bike race on Colorado 550 between Durango and Silverton.
Along with uber outdoor adventures, the town’s K-12 Silverton School is also a big draw for the younger set. The much-lauded institution offers innovative classes and focused, individual attention for the 80 or so students. Some families have reportedly moved to Silverton with the quality of the school at the top of their list.
There is also the family friendly playground of the Kendall Mountain Recreation Area. It is a small locals’ ski area, sledding hill and ice rink that has been operating on town and federal land with a single lift on the edge of Silverton for 15 years.
The future of that mountain is the powder in the keg of current local controversy.
A new idea — it isn’t even officially being called a proposal at this point — would turn Kendall Mountain into more of a true ski area with up to five lifts and more than 300 acres of runs. After more than three years of “visioning,” a local group has released “recommendations for consideration” for Kendall Mountain. That report has given town residents something to chew on — and bicker about.
At the outer edges of big dreams for the mountain — the part that scares some residents big-time — it would span 800 acres, include a slope-side restaurant, a lodge, ziplines and an alpine slide for year-around activities Two resort operators — the owners of Silverton Mountain and Purgatory ski area — have expressed early interest in guiding the development of Kendall Mountain.
The mayor stressed that any changes to Kendall Mountain are very much in a toe-dipping phase.
“The town has not committed to anything,” Fuhrman said.
COVID accelerated Silverton’s exposure to the world
The younger population, including Fuhrman, now makes up the bulk of the town board. Harper, who owns Silverton’s showcase Grand Imperial Hotel and whose family operates the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge train, notes that he is the old-timer on the board at 43.
Harper is thrilled to see that kind of younger-generation engagement in the town. But it doesn’t sit well with some long-time residents. The fact that Archuleta nearly beat Fuhrman in the mayor’s race shows the older crowd still has sway.
The younger generation displayed its muscle in the 2020 primary when Vermont’s U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders blew away the other Democrat contenders with 86 votes. By comparison, Donald Trump won the support of 74 Republicans. There are 693 registered voters in San Juan County.
Fuhrman said he believes the current roiling of Silverton’s civic engagement can’t be pinned entirely on Kendall Mountain, generational shifts and other local-growth headaches. He believes the nastiness of national-level politics has trickled down to Silverton.
“I believe everyone is trying to do the same thing here, but there is a lot of fear,” he said. “The national environment doesn’t help. COVID doesn’t help.”
COVID-19 has been a life-changing headache like in every other town. But in Silverton it is credited with bringing a surge of tourism the town has never seen before. The pandemic caused the 138-year-old narrow gauge train to stop chugging into Silverton for the first time in its history. The train normally disgorges around 200,000 credit-card carrying tourists each summer. The lack of a train that used to be considered the ultimate economic driver of Silverton’s summer economy did not keep tourists away. They drove in anyway, drawn by the perceived safety of isolation.
They boosted businesses, with Silverton’s 2020 sales tax revenue surpassing pre-pandemic expectations. But the visitors also raised new fears..
“COVID accelerated our exposure to the world,” Reiter said. “We have a whole new slew of fans.”
This kind of popularity gives life-long residents like Archuleta the jitters.
“We don’t need to become a Telluride or an Aspen or one of those towns,” said Archuleta, who works as Harper’s building superintendent as well as serving his 15th year as fire chief.
Fuhrman shares his mayoral opponent’s fears. He knows that big-buck developers are eyeing Silverton, and he would rather the townspeople decide their own future before outsiders direct it for them. That is why the Kendall Mountain expansion is being studied by locals and why the town’s masterplan is going to be overhauled. It is part of why Reiter stresses the need for Silverton residents to stay focused on getting utilitarian, but important, things done — like affordable housing and sewer line replacements.
Reiter said he is stepping down with concerns for Silverton’s future. He has a stake in what happens because he plans to continue to live there.
“There is no doubt people are going to come here and there will be price escalations in many areas,” he said. “How to slow that down needs to be addressed.”
That will fall under the purview of the next town administrator. A committee will begin meeting this week to figure out who that might be.