Dreams for sale in Leadville, Colorado

  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 year.

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.

Since 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.

"But 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."

Straight talk. 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.

Stephen Voynick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He lives and writes in Twin Lake, Colorado.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.