A mining town gets a second chance

 

Historically, the mining industry has not given its towns a second chance. When ore runs out or metal prices head south, as both always do, the industry waves good-bye and leaves mining towns to confront their fates alone.

They can either join the West's long list of ghost towns, or figure out some way to replace mining with tourism, skiing, gambling or anything else that works.

But a few mining towns are too big to die, and yet not in the right place to manage a successful economic transition. These end up not in post-mining heaven or hell, but in an economic and cultural purgatory. Stripped of their traditional identity and purpose, they go through the years directionless and adrift. Their remaining residents, helpless and frustrated, look on as other communities grow, while their own continues to slide further downhill.

Consider Leadville, Colo. For 60 heady years, Leadville sustained itself on the hefty paychecks of the huge Climax Mine, then the world's largest source of molybdenum, a steel-toughening alloy metal. But when the molybdenum market unexpectedly collapsed in 1981, Climax suspended production, turning Leadville into a national poster child for economic unpreparedness. In 1983, as businesses closed, neighbors moved away, and the tax base dried up, The Denver Post aptly described Leadville as "a classic example of a busted mining camp," and a town "that had carried all its eggs in one basket."

Since then, Leadville hasn't had a lot of eggs to carry. Its plans for economic diversification and development — the usual menu of business parks and light manufacturing — didn't pan out. But, then, residents had never really agreed on the need for economic development. While the younger crowd wanted new jobs, many of the older set collecting Climax pensions didn't need jobs or, for that matter, business parks or tourists, either.

Sure, Leadville attracted tourists during its brief, alpine summer, but the cash registers that rang in July didn't pay the bills in January. A form of economic diversification did come along in 1986, but it wasn't quite what town fathers had envisioned. Drawn by the availability of cheap housing, resort workers in neighboring Summit and Eagle counties soon made Leadville their bedroom community. Hundreds of seasonal and transient workers, who often didn't assimilate into the community and spent most of their money elsewhere, put a huge drain on city and county services.

During the 1990s, while researching and writing a book about the Climax bust, I realized that for the past 90 years, the fortunes of Leadville had become inextricably entwined with those of the mine. And that's still true today: As long as Climax remains closed, so, too, it seems, does Leadville's future.

But now, all that is about to miraculously change. In April 2006, the Phoenix, Arizona-based Phelps Dodge Corporation, which owns Climax, announced its intent to restart the mine. In just over a year, the reopening will first provide some 500 construction jobs, followed later by 300 long-term, good-paying mining jobs. That's a lot of jobs.

Interestingly, to illustrate the reality of globalization, Leadville owes its sudden good fortune to events in distant China. After decades of phenomenal economic growth, China and its booming steel industry now need all the molybdenum they can get. A former major molybdenum exporter, China became a net importer in 2002, in the process driving the price of molybdenum to record levels and giving Leadville hope for its future.

Some observers have recently suggested that Leadville is no longer a mining town at all. But when the Leadville Herald-Democrat announced the mine's planned reopening in banner headlines, everyone from local merchants and bankers to retired Climax hands responded with unbridled joy. No one seems opposed to the reopening, certainly not on the grounds that it might discourage tourism or upset the status quo of housing in this "bedroom community." I can only conclude that Leadville, even after enduring years without an operating mine, has remained a mining town at heart.

The mining industry is about to give Leadville a rare second chance. This time around, after learning from its own past mistakes, Leadville will hopefully better prepare itself for that inevitable day, perhaps 20 years down the line, when Climax shuts down for what really will be the last time. Leadville had better be ready then, because it's not likely to get a third chance.

Stephen Voynick is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Twin Lake, Colorado, and is the author of Climax: The History of Colorado's Climax Molybdenum Mine.