LEADVILLE —A coffee shop downtown finally got fed up with the question and posted an answer: No, you cannot leave your bicycle in here. Everyone has a $10,000 bike.
The sign got laughs from the locals, who’ve earned the right by living year-round at 10,000 feet to poke fun at Front Range and out-of-state tourists and their fancy bikes.
Gobs of them flooded this mountain town during the pandemic, bought second homes to work remotely for the summer, drove up property taxes and the cost of breakfast burritos, and pinched out the workers who commute “over the hill” to clean hotels in Vail and Frisco.
Just a few years ago, Leadville was a quiet place where houses were affordable, workers were available and business was slow compared to nearby mountain towns. Folks who live here figure the high elevation kept people away.
That’s over now.
Leadville has gained international notoriety with its Leadville 100, a grueling, 100-mile ultra-run at high elevation that happens this weekend. Its mountain bike race, 100 miles topping out at 12,424 feet, attracts competitors from around the world, including Lance Armstrong, who won in 2009. There’s also skijoring, in which a horse pulls a skier down the snow-covered main street, and burro racing, in which a donkey and a trail runner take turns pulling each other up and down a 3,000-foot mountain pass.
The extreme-terrain events have been amping up Leadville’s profile for years, yet — unlike all the resort towns around it where tourism fueled a booming economy over the past few decades — Leadville still felt like a quiet, old mining town.
The coronavirus pandemic, though, shoved Leadville and Lake County full speed into the kind of vacation-rental economy that’s now common in Colorado’s high country. While second homes in the county sit vacant or are listed as short-term rentals, a housing shortage has doubled or even tripled home prices. Half of all home sales in 2020 and 2021 were to second-home owners. Some restaurants have had to close a couple of days a week because they can’t find workers who can afford to live there.
Town leaders at least had the advantage of seeing the affordable housing crises unfold in Vail, Breckenridge and Aspen, and they jumped ahead of the curve in passing an ordinance that caps non-owner-occupied vacation rentals at 12% of all housing in the city limits. Now there’s talk of lowering the cap, which the city quickly reached and had to put want-to-be landlords on a waiting list.
County commissioners, for their part, made it easier for homeowners to build garage apartments and other so-called “accessory dwelling units,” simplifying the permit process.
“We want growth on our terms,” said Jeff Fiedler, one of three Lake County commissioners. “We want to keep what’s special about this place. We have one school district, one Safeway, one post office. We all know each other. Nothing against people who visit, but we don’t want to be 70% short-term rentals and second-home owners.”
Of course there is grumbling about property taxes and Texas license plates in the county of about 8,000, as well as plenty of opinions usually expressed in “Safeway aisle No. 7” or at the coffee shop on historic Harrison Avenue rather than in public meetings, Fiedler said. The long-time residents pine for quieter times, before their property taxes doubled and the streets were packed with people who drove in for the weekend to watch a racing event and eat a fry-bread taco.
Most, though, are talking about how to deal with the growth in a thoughtful way, trying to figure out how to keep the old-time charm but create affordable housing and more child care options.
On the bright side, the boost in tax dollars is helping Lake County begin to catch up on gaps in services left lingering for decades. County commissioners have moved ahead with plans for a $45 million justice center after major liability and safety concerns about the dilapidated jail. The jail in Leadville hasn’t been updated in 65 years and, before closing two years ago, had cell doors so rickety that deputies had to ask inmates to help wiggle them open.
The county has been driving criminal offenders all the way to the Eastern Plains, at a cost of about $250,000 per year.
“You could get arrested for a DUI or drunk and disorderly on Saturday, and you wake up Sunday morning on the Kansas border,” Fiedler said. “And then you have no way home.”
Growth brings plenty of problems, but at least there are more tax dollars flowing into the city and county to fix some of them, he said. Commissioners recently boosted salaries so now the lowest-paid county workers make a minimum of $40,000 per year. Construction on the new justice center is expected to start next year.
“We are catching up on that kind of deferred maintenance. We are able to provide raises to county staff,” said Fiedler, who became a commissioner a year and a half ago. “We haven’t had the money to consider doing that.”
“Community first, tourists second”
Vanessa Saldivar moved to Leadville about a year ago after accepting a job with a local nonprofit. She and her husband had dreams of buying a home and settling into the small-town life. Except there were no homes, to buy or even to rent.
The move from Denver was delayed by months as Saldivar’s new coworkers networked through friends to find a rental house. They took the rental and kept looking for a home to buy, watching as the prices were “inflating at an alarming rate,” Saldivar said.
“At this point, we have given up hope,” she said. “It impacts our long-term plans and our ability to put down roots here.”
To add to their stress, the couple had a baby last fall but hasn’t found child care. They are 12th on a waitlist and Saldivar’s husband is staying home to take care of their daughter.
“It’s such a lovely place to live that we just keep pushing through,” she said.
The price for Leadville’s growth “is being paid for by the families that live in this town who, by and large, are not super affluent,” Saldivar said. “We’ve reached a point where people can’t innocently own a second home in Lake County and Airbnb it and think they’re not hurting people. If we can’t house teachers, health care workers, our nonprofit leaders, our families that live here are the ones that pay for that. Not the vacation-home owners.”
Ted Green, who moved to Leadville from Chicago with his wife and three kids a year ago, spent the first few months dismantling suspicions about his intentions. Green left behind what on paper was the picture-perfect life, spacious home and a job at Facebook to open a candy store on Leadville’s main street.
Locals who walked into the new Blueflower Candies & Provisions suspected Green was some rich guy who opened the store and then intended to live elsewhere and pay someone minimum wage to run it. He’s had to win them over, one by one, by explaining that his wife is a teacher at the local school and his family is living full-time in Leadville.
Residents are fed up with “people with money coming into town and buying buildings and turning them into swanky things that they had where they were from,” said Green, who admits he used to wear tailored clothes and tried to keep up with the Joneses and was miserable. “They walk in and say, ‘Where do you live? What else do you do?’ They’re waiting for me to say that I live in Denver and I’m going to have somebody run the store for 12 bucks an hour. I’m super sensitive to that. That’s why I’m so cautious and welcoming to everybody in the community.”
The Greens were lucky, buying three acres south of town about four years ago, before the rush. They’re living in a rental while building a house on their property, which has a view of the Mosquito Range and access to Mount Sheridan from a backyard that touches a national forest. “It’s like 360 degrees of awesomeness,” said Green, a cyclist. “Our backyard is basically infinite.”
He quickly got involved in Leadville’s economic development corporation and ended up bailing on his initial plan of opening an ice cream shop when he learned a nearby hotel was putting in an ice cream parlor.
With the candy shop, Green is trying to make sure he fills a need for locals, not just tourists with kids. In the summer, tourists raid the grocery store and leave the shelves bare, so Green added some basic groceries and granola bars to his inventory. He also keeps a running list of nostalgic candy mentioned by locals, including Boston Baked Beans and Black Jack chewing gum.
“I didn’t want to be the guy that came in from the big city and said, ‘I know what is going to work,’” he said. “I wanted to support the community first and the tourists second.”
Leadville no longer a bedroom community
The reasons Leadville took off so fast stem from how it was doing before coronavirus showed up.
Interest in the town was growing, thanks to the race series that goes all summer, building up to the Leadville 100 in August. But the town was still low-key and affordable, the 10,000-foot location a deterrent to many. It’s harder to breathe, obviously, but also harder for some to sleep and a more difficult place to grow old. Vacation homes were under $200,000 only a few years ago.
Also, there’s no huge resort, only the family-oriented Ski Cooper about 15 minutes away. The tourism was never centered on a ski resort, but on a combination of smaller attractions — hiking trails, ultra running, mountain climbing and cycling, and the museums focused on the history of the mining town that stretches back to the 1850s when miners discovered gold.
All of it meant Leadville was set up to blossom when the pandemic sent tourists outdoors and remote workers in search of mountain homes.
“It hadn’t bloomed yet, and why?” asked Francisco Tharp, who has lived in Leadville for 12 years. The towns surrounding Leadville — Vail, Aspen, Salida — went through the booms long ago. “But Leadville was a depressed mining town into the 1990s. It hadn’t blown up in that way.”
Leadville was still considered a bedroom community, where many residents traveled to work in nearby resort towns, cleaning hotel rooms and serving food. About 70% of the workforce was going “over the hill” to work in Summit and Eagle counties, said Tharp, who recently stepped down from the city council after moving out of his ward. That’s beginning to shift as there are more construction and tourism jobs in Lake County, he said.
“It’s not a bedroom community anymore,” Tharp said. “And people have nowhere to go. Leadville was the last place that people got pushed out of, and that’s going to affect Summit County and Eagle County.”
In 2016, Tharp’s family bought a three-bedroom home in downtown Leadville for $175,000. “You couldn’t even get a closet in Vail for that,” he said. Now, his house, which he uses as a long-term rental, could sell for four times that, Tharp said.
The population in Lake County hasn’t actually gone up that much, but the shift has brought in more second-home owners and pushed out lower-income residents, local leaders said. And the divide between the wealthy and the poor is widening, which has caused a kind of geographic segregation. Many of the county’s working class are Latino, concentrated in some of the last available affordable housing — mobile home parks. About 70% of the school district is Latino.
Tharp’s partner, Elsa Tharp, owns a hotel in town on the grounds of an old train depot. “Freight” has a group of cabins for rent, plus an events venue to host weddings and quinceaneras. Finding workers has been a challenge.
Francisco Tharp said that while Leadville and Lake County leaders are doing what they can to manage the growth, he hopes state lawmakers take action, too. He wants a mechanism for counties to charge a vacant-home tax, as well as better documentation so that communities can keep track of second-home ownership.
While some question whether the racing series, which was sold by its founder to Life Time Fitness in 2010, got too big, brought too much notoriety, Tharp disagrees. When the series began in Leadville, the town was impoverished, suffering from the closure of the mines in the 1990s. People were moving away; houses were selling for cheap.
“What was the alternative? Just wallowing in poverty,” he said. “It’s a complicated story, and people might have different opinions about whether we are better off now or could we have taken a different tack.”
Notoriety brings the tourists, and exhaustion
Trail running, including the Leadville 100, is mainly what made Greg Labbe fall in love with the town. He moved to Leadville full time 11 years ago and now he’s the mayor.
Labbe, 74, hasn’t run a whole 100 and doesn’t plan to, but he’s joined his sons in the race for as long as 34 miles.
The mayor says the last couple of years have been weird, to say the least. While other towns and counties were suffering during the pandemic, tax collections were up 46% in 2020 in Leadville, he said. Businesses were reporting a 30% increase in sales.
“It was stunning. At the same time, our affordable housing was diminishing,” Labbe said. “A restaurant that had plenty of staff now has 70% of staff so they have to close on Tuesday and Wednesday.”
In 2020 and 2021, about 50% of all home sales were to second-home owners, the mayor said. A new housing development on the north end of town is expected to add about 300 homes, though the 10-year project is just beginning.
It’s not just the housing crisis that’s exhausting, the locals say. The town’s vibe has changed as tourism has grown more intense.
“We used to have mud season,”said Nathalie Eddy, wife of commissioner Fiedler and director of the annual burro race. “There was this quiet time in the fall where you just felt the energy go down. You only saw friends and family in town. We’ve lost those shoulder seasons. There is almost never a time when you’re like, ahhh. It’s good for the businesses, but it’s just a different rhythm that we are adjusting to.”
Still, it’s not entirely fair to judge others who want to escape to the mountains just because they didn’t get there first, said Eddy, who moved to town 14 years ago. “We were all new here at some point. Most of us aren’t old Leadville,” she said. “Everybody is trying to figure out how to embrace this change.”
And the whole town is trying to figure out how to deal with its popularity.
“There is a difference between what the races bring to town in terms of commerce and in terms of identity,” Mayor Labbe said.
“This is a small, mountain city. We are known around the world and I take pride in that. I want people to value Leadville the way I value it, but I don’t want them to feel like they need to move here to do that.”