In recent years, Colorado has become the destination of choice for people searching for a better quality of life and lower cost of doing business. The trendy Front Range has long been the main draw – until now…
The cost of living there has risen with the population, causing many along the Front Range – and throughout the nation – to turn their attention to lesser known areas within the state. As a result, an undiscovered rural community along Colorado’s Western Slope is suddenly getting the attention it deserves.
“Delta County is very uniquely positioned,” says Trish Thibodo, Director of Delta County Economic Development (DCED). “We are a small, rural community, but there are a number of different assets that we have here.” Ms. Thibodo understands these advantages first hand – she is one of those Front Range residents who escaped to Delta County for a better lifestyle.
After 20 years in Denver, “It was about what you can do and afford and the quality of life and the quality of housing. We are seeing people coming from California, we are seeing people are coming from the Front Range; they are coming to Delta County and moving their business over because it is more affordable for them.”
A low cost of living, low cost of doing business, low cost of real estate, and an abundance of “quality, innovative workers” are all Delta County strong points, Ms. Thibodo shares. “The cost of commercial property is 53 percent of what folks are paying on the Front Range. There is warehouse space, [available] land, and the opportunity for people to build new; we have a little bit of everything.”
Newcomers will find a surprising variety of recreational opportunities, particularly for outdoor enthusiasts. “We are this unknown resource within the state and within the western slope,” Ms. Thibodo points out. “The outdoor recreation resources that we have here are amazing.” The county is surrounded by scenic public lands ideal for a wide variety of activities including hiking, trout fishing, mountain biking, waterskiing, horseback riding, birding, small and big game hunting, white water rafting, and off-highway vehicles (OHV). The Gunnison Gorge National Conservation Area and Wilderness is a stunning landscape of adobe badlands formations, colorful sandstone canyons, sagebrush flats, and pinyon-juniper covered slopes descending into a beautiful river canyon. The Dominguez-Escalante National Conservation Area boasts dramatic waterfalls, sandstone canyon and the Dominguez Canyon Wilderness. Grand Mesa, the largest flat top mountain in the world, is also located nearby as is the Black Canyon which is like no other canyon in North America, combining the narrow opening, sheer walls, and startling depths.
Residents also enjoy access to a variety of festivals, fairs, and arts and cultural opportunities. There is a long list of art galleries and art studios in Delta County specializing in everything from hand-spun and hand-woven clothing to photography, pottery, custom furnishings, and paintings. Antique shops are plentiful as well. Golfers can play at two courses, each with differing characteristics and both of which provide remarkable views of mountains and canyons. Pioneer Town and Fort Uncompahgre deliver living history experiences that will transport visitors back to the old west. Delta County’s wineries are open for tours and tastings, while the county’s farms provide refreshing, farm to table dining experiences.
Indeed, farms are commonplace throughout Delta County. “Thirty four percent of our land is in agriculture,” Ms. Thibodo reports. An abundance of water, rich volcanic soil, and a moderate climate with plenty of sunshine make the area ideal for growing crops. Fruits, vegetables, dairy and meat products are all produced in Delta County, as well as value-added food and beverage products. “We have a thriving agriculture community here. Not only fruits and vegetables, but ciders and wines too. Folks are using locally produced apples to produce really high quality ciders; they are growing hops and supplying hops for beer; they are making distilled spirits. That is a really exciting thing that is happening here in Delta County.” Sustainable farming is also taking off throughout the county. DCED hosts an annual Soil Health Conference and has the highest concentration of organic growers in Colorado. The County is also rich in historic mainstay crops. “[Delta County] really is this great food basket of local food and agriculture.”
Mining has been a significant industry traditionally, but that sector has faced serious job losses in recent years. “The coal that we produce here is excellent coal. It is safe mining and the mines have a great history, but there are forces beyond our county that are impacting the mining industry.” Even though mining jobs have declined by approximately 40 percent over the past two years, “it is still a significant industry and it still supports manufacturing throughout the county and other businesses in the county. It is still very important to us.”
County leaders have been working hard to offset the loss of mining jobs and strengthen the local economy. “What we are doing as a county is looking at how we can start to diversify and make our county resilient,” Ms. Thibodo reports. The county is utilizing an Economic Development Adjustment Assistance Program Grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to help the region overcome the recent closure of the Oxbow coal mine in neighboring Gunnison County and forge a new path for the community.
Delta County’s agricultural assets will likely play a role in the community’s diversification efforts. “There is a lot of potential in the resources here,” Ms. Thibodo points out. “If you look at ag technology and what is happening in that sector, if you look at food tourism, if you look at the local food movement, if you look at sustainable agriculture – there is great potential in this county for that… We are looking at how we can develop those industries.” County leaders are also looking to attract more manufacturers to complement existing industry. “We do have some unique manufacturers that are developing different products here that really help to strengthen the economic foundation of the community.”
A recent development with the county’s electrical utilities is expected to have a positive effect on incoming businesses and the community as a whole. “Our local electric co-op (Delta Montrose Electric Association) can now purchase locally produced renewable energy,” Ms. Thibodo explains. “This is significant as Delta County has ample opportunities for renewable energy with hydro and solar, and it will have a very positive economic impact on our county to ‘grow and purchase’ our power locally, keeping the money and resources in the county – and grows sustainable practices.”
To be sure, companies relocating to Delta County to take advantage of the community’s amenities and low cost of doing businesses will find plenty of support. “The county is willing to work with businesses coming in and see what we can do to support them and help them grow and be successful here… In this past year, we have been really successful in [helping] local businesses access state funding for capital improvements in order to support job creation. We have been a leader in the state in helping businesses get rural economic development initiative funds. We have been able to help business get to the next level to expand their operations. We assisted 10 businesses in obtaining over $400,000 of grant money for projects valued at over $2.6 million and in creating 18 new jobs in 12 months.”
As a relatively small community, Delta County can give each incoming business individual attention. “We can really be personal and hands-on, finding out what they need, advocating for those businesses,” Ms. Thibodo explains. County leaders work closely with municipalities, surrounding counties, and a variety of organizations to ensure the greater good. “We have a philosophy of working collaboratively. [We] work with different partners, both public and private, in order to support businesses.”
Delta County is a world away from the booming, population-dense cities of the Front Range, so any approach to economic development must be specially tailored for the area’s unique needs and lower incomes. “We can’t do it how Denver does it, or how Vail does it, because it is a different economic reality here,” Ms. Thibodo points out. The DCED is focused on foundational improvements, particularly building basic infrastructure and bringing in necessary amenities such as high speed broadband. “We have been working on it hard and are seeing success in that area.”
Even more success is just around the corner. “The potential here is huge. With agriculture, with manufacturing, with all the things that are happening here. I think that there is huge potential in the areas of tourism and agriculture. I think we are in a really great position to build on those things in Delta County.”