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Three county area joins to rebuild damaged economies in Raton Basin

HUERFANO-LAS ANIMAS- COLFAX — Stronger Economies Together (SET) Initiative a joint project launched in 2009 by USDA Rural Development in collaboration with the nation’s Regional Rural Development Centers (RRDC) and their land-grant university partners have teamed up in a multi-county effort with Huerfano County and Las Animas County, Colorado, and Colfax County, New Mexico, to rebuild the damaged economies within the Raton Basin. “The geological, cultural, and historical connection between the three counties is very strong,” Priscilla “Pete” Fraser, Executive Director for the Southern Colorado Council of Governments said. “Since we’ve all been through similar cycles of boom and bust, together we can find greater opportunities in growth.” The State of Colorado recognizes Huerfano and Las Animas Counties as a region in several areas: Judicial District, Council of Governments, and Health Department. However, Colfax County, New Mexico shares economic and demographic similarities with these Colorado counties. Agriculture, primarily ranching, is a strong economic engine throughout the region. Tourism is another major driving force of the collective economy. The region shares abundant wildlife, outdoor recreation opportunities, climate, and culture. Interstate trade is common to the region’s population. The primary infrastructure that ties the counties together is the interstate and secondary road system. Trinidad State Junior College in Las Animas County has a reciprocal agreement with Colfax County that clearly links the participants as a region. The three counties are very rural in nature with an average of four persons per square mile. The region has relied on coal mining and gas production from the Raton Basin, a large coal and natural gas deposit on which the three counties rest. The significant decline in coal exploration and production and the closing of a private prison has impacted the region creating a high poverty level, a decrease in employment, and a regional decline in employment opportunities. According to the draft Regional Economic Development Plan prepared by the Raton Basin Regional Economic Development (Raton Basin RED) task force, the plan is the product of a collaboration of various stakeholders and individuals from the three county area. It is noted in the draft statement that, “The SET process was successful in bringing government employees, economic developers, ranchers, international business developers, broadband local technology leaders, recycling specialists and advocates, energy producers (coal, natural gas, oil, and wind), childcare specialists, healthcare specialists, students, and artists together to create a strategic plan.” The effort was supported by technical assistance provided by Colorado State University extension systems to the region over a period of several months. Fallout from the closures of many coal mining operations in the tri-county area has extended itself over several generations most markedly in the decline of middle class families. That coupled with the collapse of the housing bubble in 2008 has resulted in the expansion of family economic insecurity. A study released by KidsCount Colorado shows that in Huerfano County, Colorado, with a population of around 6,500, the median household income is about $29,700. And in Las Animas County, with a larger population of 15,500, median household income is about $40,600. Median household income in Colorado is about $59,000. Median household income in Colfax County, New Mexico, is about $38,000 with a population of around 12,700.