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Steam is emitted from some of the Craig Station's smoke stacks Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021, in Craig, Colo. The town in northwest Colorado is losing its coal plant, and residents fear it is the beginning of the end for their community. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

In many ways, the economy of Colorado’s Western Slope looks a lot like the rest of the state: there are labor issues and a lack of housing options for workers.

But a key difference between the two is the cause. It also depends on which part of the Western Slope you’re talking about, said Nathan Perry, an economist with Colorado Mesa University.

“Coal is retiring in northwest Colorado,” Perry said during a session at the Colorado Demography Summit earlier this month. “Rio Blanco and Moffat are taking the brunt of the hit.  … Between 40 to 50% of (the region’s) GDP comes from coal. In Rio Blanco, oil, gas and coal is about 70% of their GDP. So, energy is a big deal.”

It’s not a new story, as communities in northwestern Colorado, especially, are trying to diversify their economies. Their power plants and coal mines are winding down in favor of finding cleaner energy sources, which is creating a different type of labor challenge. Workers are having to look elsewhere for a new job. 

But if the region can gain some traction on efforts to diversify, that could go a long way, at least that’s the hope. Perry suggested that the existing oil and gas infrastructure and workforce could become the base to expand into small-scale nuclear or hydroelectric power or consider alternative uses for coal rather than just burning it. 

“There’s legitimate energy infrastructure up there, and you don’t have to be a professional economist to think of, well, how can we put that to use,” he said Friday. “Rio Blanco is a really small county. If you look at it (oil and gas) as a percentage of jobs, it’s around 12%. They’re higher-paying jobs and they’re hard to replace but it’s easier to replace 12% of the jobs than 70%.”

A boy crosses Main Street in Meeker on a scooter, Feb. 12, 2022. The small town in Rio Blanco County has a population of approximately 2,600 residents. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Looking at just one data point doesn’t necessarily show the complete picture of a local economy.

In Moffat County, which is facing the closing of its Craig Station coal plant in the next decade, the local chamber has been considering pretty much every possibility, said Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce. 

“We’re honestly looking at recruiting any kind of new business,” she said. “We have some industrial sites with the mines and the plant leaving, how can that be repurposed? We have transmission lines that can go in and out with electricity. … Anything and everything from geothermal, hydro, nuclear, solar, everything has been investigated (including) reusing coal for rare-earth elements … so we don’t need to burn the coal.”

Coal sits at Craig Station, the power plant in Craig, Colo., Thursday, Nov. 18, 2021. The town in northwest Colorado is losing its coal plant, and residents fear it is the beginning of the end for their community. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

Part of the effort has been about connecting as a region and working together to attract more industries and people. Some things were already well planned, she added, including getting fiber internet to the area and setting up a coworking space co-op to attract more remote workers.

“We’re still more affordable than the rest of Colorado,” she added. “You can get a really nice place here for a family, like a three-bedroom, two-bath for $250,000 to $300,000.”

Some counties are probably looking to Mesa County, which has one of the more diverse economies for the western part of the state. Mesa County cut its reliance on oil and gas by half since 2018. About 5% of the county’s GDP came from oil and gas extraction in 2021 compared with 10.9% in 2018, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. 

Wiggy’s co-owner Kok Bou inserts the Lamilite sheet beneath the exterior layer of the sleeping bags before the laminating process using the decades old machine at the factory, Apr. 21, 2023, in Grand Junction. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

But Mesa County is a different Western Slope community that even 20 years ago was less reliant on oil and gas. In more recent years, it’s become a health care hub, as well as an outdoor recreation manufacturing destination. Last week, Skyhook Solar announced its move to Grand Junction, where it plans to build movable solar generators that can be placed in remote areas to charge EVs or provide lighting, internet access and other services.

“Mesa County is not really going through an energy transition. There’s been a scale-back obviously in oil and gas, but it’s a lot more diversified,” Perry said. “They’ve done that through health care expansion, which has naturally happened just due to the demographics of the region, a lot of migration and just the isolated nature of Grand Junction.”

Perry provides quarterly or semiannual updates on the counties in the Western Slope and he hopes to have an update on Rio Blanco, Moffat and others soon. The most recent was Mesa County. Check out his other updates online.

Prices still up but home sales decline

With mortgage rates reaching above 8% last month, the impact on Colorado’s for-sale housing market was evident in the drop in the number of homes for sale and the number sold in October, according to the monthly update from the Colorado Association of Realtors. 

In metro Denver, the number of homes sold fell 17.4% to 2,784 in October compared to a year ago. The number of active listings dropped 23.1% to 7,834. A year ago, there were more than 10,000 houses for sale and that was already a market in decline. The median sales price was up 4.3% from a year ago to $625,000.

Townhomes for sale in a Frisco neighborhood, Sept. 11, 2023, in Summit County. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Statewide, the number of houses sold last month fell 15.2% to 4,926 while active listings fell 13.5% to 15,366. The median price of a home sold was up 2.8% to $570,000.

“What it is, and how it feels, is different,” Patrick Muldoon, a Colorado Springs Realtor, said in a CAR news release. “Looking at the statistics, you would probably be drawn directly to the fact that the median sales price increased year-over-year and moved on down the road with that in your mind as good news. But that is not how it feels. For those of us selling in the market, it feels very different than one easy 2.6% increase in value year-over-year. We are meeting with buyers who cannot buy. Or they can buy but are not going to buy in this market at these rates because they can rent for far cheaper.”

➔ Metro Denver home sales report >> See October 2023 report

➔ Colorado home sales report >> See October 2023 report

➔ Sales by county >> Report

Read more economic news from The Sun:

➔ Where did Colorado spend $500 million in federal infrastructure money? Reporter Mark Jaffe has an update. >> Story

➔ UCHealth is using AI to prevent deaths from sepsis. Humans are important in navigating artificial intelligence, John Ingold reports. >> Story

Other working bits

➔ Dish Network laying off 499 in Colorado. The Douglas County satellite TV service notified the state’s labor department on Thursday. According to the Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, the company said layoffs will begin in early January and impact 499 employees. The company has struggled to curb TV subscriber losses and in the past decade, moved into internet TV service with Sling as well as mobile phone service. But in the latest quarter, Dish said it lost $139 million on $3.7 billion in revenues and was down 64,000 pay-TV subscribers as well as 225,000 wireless subscribers during the third quarter. One financial analyst called the results “astonishingly bad,” according to a The Denver Business Journal. >> Layoff notice

➔ Colorado small businesses less pessimistic than most states about fourth quarter. Most small businesses in a new Alignable national survey said they expect the fourth quarter to be worse than last year. But Colorado businesses appeared more optimistic. Only 49% expressed the same sentiment, compared with 52% nationwide. While that’s just a few points different, it puts Colorado well ahead of the pessimism felt in Florida (68%), Maryland (59%) and Texas (58%). >> See results

➔ It’s Colorado Apprenticeship Month. The state’s labor department has been plugging apprenticeships for a couple of years now, largely due to new legislation passed in 2021 to create the State Apprenticeship Agency. According to agency, there are more than 470 employers registered in the state directory who will trade training for a starter job. >> See employers

  • There is a job fair. And it’s virtual. For folks interested in learning more about apprenticeships or finding what’s available, the state-sponsored job fair is November 13-17. >> Register as a job seeker or employer

Thanks for sticking with me for this week’s report. Remember to check out The Sun’s daily coverage online. As always, share your 2 cents on how the economy is keeping you down or helping you up at ~ tamara 

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Tamara Chuang writes about Colorado business and the local economy for The Colorado Sun, which she cofounded in 2018 with a mission to make sure quality local journalism is a sustainable business. Her focus on the economy during the pandemic...