By Edi Sheldon
WALSENBURG- The latter part of the 1990’s seemed to catch Walsenburg at a particularly good time. As stated, the 2000 census reported the population of the town was up, and there were new businesses in town. Most of the businesses had located on Main Street, it seemed like prosperity was arriving, and the community’s mood was good.
The new prison, Corrections Corporation of America had opened its doors, and the new hospital and veteran’s nursing home were doing well. However, a quick analysis of the population trends revealed that the student population in Re-1 was dropping slightly each year, indicating that fewer families with school-aged children were moving in or staying here. The median age of the population was listed at 37.9 years and found to be increasing. There were more housing units occupied in Walsenburg than had been in the previous 10 years, but as the decade has passed, more vacancies were noted and the real estate market slowed in the city.
Unfortunately, the underlying story was discouraging. The increasing median age of the general population was an indicator. The potential labor pool shrinks when families must leave the area to find jobs with an income that adequately provides for the family. The prison and the hospital are then forced to recruit from surrounding communities for employees. The money earned by employees from out of town is taken out of town. The average annual median income has not risen above the poverty level for many years in Huerfano County.
And in general, this gives rise to a negative attitude among citizens. Even though the summer months bring tourist traffic and summer residents, there is nothing to sustain the retail and service businesses in the community during the long months of winter without the benefit of businesses that will provide a reason for working aged people to remain here.
Meanwhile, the cost of living keeps creeping up. The business owner is faced with the difficult dilemma of attempting to keep prices affordable for the community. As each retail, food or service business discovers that debts are increasing and income is not keeping pace, they make the only logical choice, to sell or quit doing business. When the doors close on a business, the community is left with an empty space that is not only hard to fill during hard times, but adds to the disparaging appearance perceived by locals and visitors. When the comment is made that “first appearances mean a lot,” this is so true in the case of visitors traveling through the community. Only if the main shopping section appears to be healthy and attractive, will the visitor be tempted to stop and peruse the local shops for some mementos.
In the final analysis, this community needs to focus on economic development in order to survive the next several years. The current national economic stresses mean that less government and private funding will be available for completion of necessary infrastructure projects which would ordinarily create cash flow into the economy of the community. It will take more effort to find money with which to drive the local economy.
The community needs to work together to find ways to improve its outlook. Many rural communities are finding ways to combat the economic stresses and Walsenburg can learn from these efforts. As has happened so many times in the past, this community will survive its challenges if it can find ways to work together. Challenge and adversity can bring successes.