The latest team of economic-development consultants to visit Leadville, Colo., recently presented its cure for this former mining town’s chronic economic ills. According to these experts, Leadville could create jobs, attract new businesses and people and rebuild its tax base by constructing an industrial park and expanding its local airport to handle 737-type jets. My reaction: Ho hum.
In the 20 years since
its devastating mining bust, economic-development consultants have
made a good living in Leadville. Hired either by the city, county
or local development groups, a new guru seems to show up every
The West has been a gold mine for the will-travel,
give-advice practitioners. Scores of towns, their stars once
hitched to such resource-development industries as mining, logging,
ranching and farming, have fallen on hard times. It’s only
natural for these towns, in their desperation, to seek economic
answers and alternatives, and, if necessary, to pay to get them.
That has turned economic-development consulting into a
mini-industry across the West.
Leadville hired its first
consultant in 1983, just a year after the mining crash. After
looking the town over, the consultant suggested that Leadville
should develop tourism. That wasn’t exactly a revelation,
because with more history and heritage than any three or four towns
put together, Leadville already was a tourist town. But to justify
his fee, he specifically suggested that Leadville fine-tune its
tourist draw by staging ice-cream socials to capitalize on its
1880s Victorian heritage.
At the time, half the
population had left, the tax base had dried up, several schools and
many businesses had closed and Newsweek had labeled Leadville the
West’s "biggest economic disaster of the year." In the midst
of that chaos, our first consultant could suggest little more than
ice-cream socials to help remedy the situation.
then, consultants have regularly visited Leadville with ideas in
mind, then left with checks in hand. If I sound cynical, perhaps
it’s because there’s been a professional consensus over
the years that economic revival lies in, among other things,
airport expansion, light manufacturing, and, the perennial
favorite, industrial parks.
Yet today there are no
expanded airports, light-manufacturing plants or industrial parks.
Instead, Leadville has become a bedroom community for 3,000 service
workers, including many transients, who commute to and from Vail
and other ski resorts that are an hour’s drive
away.Interestingly, becoming a bedroom community is itself a form
of economic development, although perhaps it’s not a form a
consultant might feel comfortable proposing.
Economic-development consultants seem to peddle more false hopes
than they do reality. They know exactly what their clients want to
hear: that there is indeed hope, that something can be done, and
that their towns will thrive again. Too often, they simply plug
towns into their general-development formulas of airport expansion
and industrial parks. Rarely do they evaluate each town’s
unique assets and liabilities, then offer realistic and, when
necessary, painful prognoses.
I’m waiting for a
consultant to come to Leadville and, before collecting his or her
check and riding into the sunset, look everyone squarely in the eye
and say: "Folks, you’ve got some real problems up here that
building an industrial park won’t cure. You’re
relatively isolated, you’ve got no railroad and lousy
highways, and you’re 30 miles and two snowy passes off the
interstate. You’ve got a 10,000-foot elevation, seven months
of winter and a little airport that closes a lot with winter
blizzards and thin, summer air.
"Frankly, it seems
unlikely that you will again become what you once were.
That’s not necessarily a fault of your own. It’s just
that not every town is destined for successful economic transition.
And if it makes you feel better, there is no shame in being
smaller, or in adapting to a lower economic level.
don’t spend money that you don’t have chasing dreams of
jetports and industrial parks. Look around you, see what you do
have and what works. Build from there."
But that’s not what the progressive factions of many towns
want to hear for their money, and it’s not what consultants
want to tell them in return for taking their money. So the game
goes on, with desperate towns trying to buy hope for their futures,
and consultants eager to sell it to them. Next year, another
for-hire economic-development consultant will probably come to
Leadville and succeed in selling more worn-out dreams of jetports
and industrial parks. And maybe even some ice-cream socials.