Pieces of the economic puzzle

  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 valley.

“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 hurting, too.”

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 operation.

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 U.S. companies.

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.

This “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 fade.

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.