FLORENCE — Past downtown’s hip coffee shop and brewery, across the street from a gravel pit and next door to a long abandoned house, a Lego-like solution to Colorado’s housing crisis is taking shape.
“Everything you see in here was recycled or it can be recycled,” said Wyatt Reed, swinging open the doors to a 40-foot shipping container.
Inside the metal box is a plush home, with insulated walls, re-used cabinets, trim from local barns, salvaged doors, decorative tiles made from melted down garden plant containers and lockers from the high school. Reed and his business partner, Barna Kasa, buy the shipping containers for about $4,000 and convert them into homes. Their business plan calls for eventually selling the move-in-ready homes for $50,000, and a bit more for units that ship inside the container and are assembled on top, offering nearly two-times the space.
“I call it Ikea meets Uber for homebuilding,” said Reed, leaning back on the railing of his rooftop patio.
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The dial-it-up, drop-it-off, click-it-together home costs a fraction of a stick-built house of equal size and about half the cost of a fully-equipped tiny home. (It also costs about $10 a month to heat and cool.) Reed and Kasa are opening their first four containers as a hotel in an industrial section of Florence, where residential development would require a lengthy rezoning process. They hope their super-affordable, energy-efficient Industrial Hotel — the first shipping container hotel in Colorado — will prove their concept for a larger project on 10 acres a quarter-mile down the road. That’s where the two hope to change how Colorado thinks about affordable housing.
Florence is emerging as a model in more ways than housing, with a start-up business campus taking over the town’s former high school. The rural business renaissance sparking economic development in Florence is straining the town’s ability to offer housing for workers, a challenge facing countless rural communities suddenly popular with new work-from-anywhere residents. Innovators like Reed and Kasa are hoping their container homes can help ease the pressure on workers finding themselves priced out of the riverside community.
“Four years ago I thought ‘Why isn’t anyone buying land down here and developing homes so all the people who need housing in Florence don’t have to live in 100-year-old buildings downtown, which could be used for restaurants and storefronts and an actual hotel,” said Kasa, a career recycler and salvager with a degree in computer science.
“We can create a better product here and we can pull people out of those old buildings in downtown. If we can create a shipping container house with more square footage, more storage and your own bathroom and you can still walk to downtown, all for half the rent of town, we will pull all the people out of the prime real estate downtown and those properties can be redeveloped,” he said.
Reed and Kasa are big on Fremont County. Reed, a homebuilder, won a pitch competition hosted by the Fremont Economic Development Corp. with his plans to build tiny homes on top of storage containers. Kasa renovated several 1950s-era mobile homes to create the Rosedale Vintage Mobile Home Park and organizes the Junktique Antique Show and Flea Market each fall in Florence.
Their different skillsets are merging on 10 acres on the edge of downtown Florence, about a mile from the Supermax prison that houses the country’s most notorious criminals.
On that desert parcel, workers more than two decades ago poured the concrete slabs that made the prison walls. The 51-meter concrete pit where the slabs formed could become a competitive swimming pool, Kasa said. The parcel has 3 acres of smooth pavement where the two envision a container community.
It’s going to start as a hotel, because that’s what the zoning allows. But once they prove the concept, Kasa and Reed see a neighborhood of container homes sprouting on the site.
When they first proposed the containers as living space, a consortium of vocal neighbors showed up at council meetings to express concern over the impact of the metal houses on their property values. So Reed and Kasa brought in Realtors, bankers, business owners, developers and elected leaders from neighboring communities to present evidence showing that developing higher density near downtown areas — like building accessory dwelling units behind homes — actually increase property values.
The four-unit container hotel is the “try it before you buy it experience,” said Reed.
“A confused mind says no, so we needed something that would help ease the confusion,” said Reed, describing how support for the container project grew as they spent hours working with city staff and elected leaders in Florence.
Mike Patterson, the 10-year city manager in Florence, said staff and city council members have been receptive as they explore “any and all opportunities for attainable housing in our community.”
Workforce housing is in short supply in the town of 3,900, so the council has worked to keep available acreage for residential development from being gobbled up by luxury homebuilders, Patterson said.
“We are trying to learn our lessons from a lot of different places around Colorado,” he said. “It would be nice to see the free market take care of our housing problem, but the free market is not going to build attainable houses and we have to come up with other opportunities.”
“Totally in the driver’s seat as a community.”
Reed and Kasa attend almost every council meeting. Same with planning board meetings. They go toe-to-toe with a small, but vocal, group of residents who oppose container homes.
“Barna, especially, he has just been a pitbull. In our community, just like every community, there are small groups of people who oppose affordable housing. They say, forget those people who can’t afford a home,” Patterson said. “Barna stands up to them and says ‘Hey these are my friends and they are people I work with and they are the backbone of this community and they are tired of sleeping on couches and having six people crammed into a two-bedroom unit.”
Across Colorado, as a housing crisis worsens with more professional-class remote workers relocating to the state’s rural communities, local leaders are pleading for private partners to join in the effort to build housing for workers. In Florence, entrepreneurs are asking the town to work with them on building homes in what Patterson called “the worst spot in all of Florence.”
“Where they are building, it’s hard to find a worse place,” Patterson said. “And what they are doing is urban renewal. We are lucky to have them here.”
It’s been a long process of education with locals and leaders, said Brad Rowland, an entrepreneur working to develop a vibrant tech start-up ecosystem in Fremont County, which spans both sides of the Arkansas River from Salida to just west of Pueblo.
Rowland is part of a group of local investors who bought Florence’s century-old high school from the school district in 2019. The 80,000 square-foot Emergent Campus is designed to anchor the growing wave of innovators eyeing small towns as fertile ground for the next big idea.
“We showed the lack of housing for people making $30,000 to $60,000. Those are the firemen, the first-responders, the search and rescuers, the cops and teachers,” said Rowland, who manages the Emergent Campus where Reed and Kasa have an office. “No one wants a community without these people and there is no community without them. I think Florence understands that.”
Rotating exhibits from local artists line the hallways between offices for a swelling assortment of startup offices and co-working spaces in the Emergent Campus.
Dozens of workers stream in and out of the downtown campus where students once roamed. They work in insurance, cyber-security, software, recycling, podcasting, military defense contracts and even Crossfit jump ropes. One company offers drone services for farmers, building the aerial crop-watchers in the school’s former music room. Behavior analysts work with clients in a former science lab. One of Denver’s fastest growing tech companies — Pax8 — has workers spread across the building.
The Emergent Campus is part of the Fremont Economic Development Corp.’s mission to build an enticing economic landscape to lure businesses from metro areas along Interstate 25.
“For the 15 years I spent in tech in the Bay Area, we moved jobs overseas,” said Rowland. “Now these communities that are so close to metro areas, they are saying, why don’t you move those jobs to places like this? For some of these bigger companies in big cities, having staff in rural communities can become a strategic asset.”
Jamie Finney, a partner in the Greater Colorado Venture Fund that has invested in more than 50 rural start-ups across the state, sees Florence and Fremont County as “a healthy canvas.”
“What’s cool about Florence is that they are totally in the driver’s seat as a community and they can see the forces of growth and change on the Front Range and the mountain communities,” Finney said. “They can look at places like Salida upriver and Pueblo downriver and they are able to build the things that are working and they want to see.”’
The entrepreneurial experiments in rural Colorado — like the Industrial Hotel — reflect a growing awareness that communities don’t need nearby ski hills to thrive. A variety of outdoor amenities coupled with innovators fostering a diverse economy “can create high-quality communities,” Finney said.
“What it takes to create that, it’s not a ski area,” he said. “It’s people doing really cool stuff. Like they are in Florence.”