By Edi Sheldon
WALSENBURG- Recalling the 1970’s, I think about what seemed to be the very high cost of gasoline. At that time, my husband, two children and I lived in the San Luis Valley. We would come to Walsenburg to visit my folks. His mother had moved to Colorado Springs by then.
We watched as Walsenburg shrank and businesses quit doing business. By 1980 the census report for Walsenburg was about 3300 people. There was only one newspaper, a few bars and restaurants, three hotels and several motels. At least one large motel which was being planned finally took root and was built, but was only open sporadically. The community did support the local Safeway Store which had expanded several years before, but a competing grocery outlet had burned.
The tourism business had definitely picked up, but it seemed most people who got off the interstate drove in, gassed up their cars, ate lunch and then left again except in the summer time. Summers in Huerfano County are always beautiful. Lathrop State Park, which is adjacent to Walsenburg, was Colorado’s first state park and drew visitors as did Cuchara and La Veta. Walsenburg was still very worn and weary though increased business from tourism seemed to be giving a much needed shot in the arm to most of the county.
A few ambitious souls began looking for economic opportunity to assist the community, and as a result a committee formed to see if it were possible to get a Colorado State Veteran’s Home in town. Lots of hard work went into this effort. The existing hospital, which had opened in 1964, was built on a patch of ground that contained lots of Bentonite Shale. When moisture would collect in the shale, it would swell and the floors in the building would buckle. A large crack in the building’s back entrance could sometimes spread nearly wide enough to admit a person while during drier times it was not even evident.
It was decided that if the Veteran’s Home were to be located here, a new 24 bed hospital could be built attached to the Veteran’s Home. This effort eventually was successful, and a 125- bed Colorado State Nursing Home and the Huerfano County Hospital began to take shape three miles west of town across the highway from Lathrop State Park on donated land.
Construction took some time. After the building was completed, the hospital could take patients, but until the Veterans Administration finally determined that it would pass muster on the Nursing home, no patients were allowed. At last, the entire facility was put to use, and it finally employed nearly 300 people by 1995. It is still a major employer in the community.
As the 90’s progressed, the presiding board of County Commissioners began working on attracting a private prison to the area. At first the citizens were somewhat outraged, but finally accepted the idea, and as a result, Corrections Corporation of America opened its doors in 1997.
Walsenburg’s population had increased again to 4100 hardy souls and the future looked promising. CCA was going to employ about 240 people and a scramble was made to develop some affordable housing in the community. The Huerfano County Economic Development Group undertook to build an apartment complex with tax credit money available from Colorado Housing and Finance Authority and State Division of Housing. This project was the first new construction in at least 25 years.
Walsenburg seemed to be enjoying a growth spurt. The local theater had undergone a complete renovation and opened its doors to show current movies on weekends and be available for other productions. Small businesses began to venture forth on the Main Street. It was a better time.