Whenever I feel the need for a strong dose of opinion, I drive up the street to Reedy’s Service Station. There, any time between 6:30 a.m. and 6:30 p.m., I’ll find three generations of the Reedy family and their friends, drinking coffee and swapping stories. They’re always happy to tell you what they think about almost any topic you might bring up.
The other day, as Bobby Reedy filled my gas tank
(no self-service here), we touched on a familiar subject: the
economic importance of the three underground coal mines in our
“All these new people don’t have a
clue as to what will happen if we lose even one of those
mines,” Bobby said. “There will be a lot of families
hurting, and that means all of these businesses in town will be
I didn’t take these words
lightly: Bobby and his father, Gene, have lived through several
coal-mine busts. They have seen Paonia’s storefronts boarded
up and the streets eerily quiet.
But today, the coal mines
play a smaller economic role than they once did. Every week now, it
seems, someone new pulls up at the pumps at Reedy’s with a
story about the house they just bought, or are building. More than
a few bring equity from homes sold in cities or wealth passed down
from their families.
Well-heeled baby boomers aren’t
the only new economic engine in town. We also have the Chaco sandal
factory. What started as a homespun experiment in making river
sandals has evolved into a 100-employee manufacturing
Chaco adds another important leg to our
economy, and yet, as Hal Clifford reports in this issue’s
cover story, the odds are that the company won’t be here
forever. Outdoor-gear manufacturing in the West has had, by and
large, a shorter life span than coal mining, ranching or logging.
There’s a reason most sleeping bags, sandals, tents and
backpacks are now made in countries like Vietnam, Korea and China:
Free trade and cheap labor abroad are putting enormous pressure on
So what does this mean for Western
communities? It means that we probably won’t see a
renaissance in manufacturing jobs to replace jobs lost in the
traditional Western industries.
It doesn’t mean,
however, that rural Western communities have to accept a
minimum-wage service economy of burger-flipping and hotel-room
cleaning. If we’re imaginative, we can bring new ideas and
people together to create new businesses; and though the
manufacturing component of these enterprises might not stick
around, the management components might stay.
“industry of the mind” isn’t big enough or sturdy
enough to base an economy on. Still, it’s one small piece of
the economic puzzle — a puzzle that many Western communities
will have to piece together as their traditional economies
So, yes, it’ll be a sad day when the coal
mines close in our valley, and, sooner or later, that day will
come. But life will go on, and people will find new ways to make a
living here. That future economy might then come to seem as natural
and inevitable as coal mining once did.