Changing the Future of Small-town Colorado

The West End of Montrose County’s signage and wayfinding improvements, driven by Region 10 Economic Development and Planning, create awareness of the trails, historical sites, and other key attractions in and around the Naturita area.


Colorado has long been a recreational mecca. Skiing, hiking, biking, rafting – the list of outdoor recreation opportunities is endless. But the state is coming to a point of no return now as it makes way for a recreation-dominant economy, pushing beyond its industrial and mining past to embrace a more diverse set of economic drivers. On both sides of the Continental Divide, many communities are driving positive change through the implementation of recreation-focused plans.

Ann Christensen
Principal, DHM Deign

The recent closing of the uranium mine in Naturita, for instance, in addition to the soon-to-be closing coal power plant there, marks the end of the lingering industrial era in Montrose County. Locals swallowed the lump in their throat upon the news, but with a young population of newcomers moving into town for agricultural, recreational and even aviation-related business opportunities, attitudes are shifting. The community sees opportunity in change and has come together to develop a unified vision for the future of the town.

“Everyone’s excited,” said Sara Bachman, local attorney and Naturita area native who helped jump-start the parks and recreation master plan. “We reference the plan a lot – and between the economic development team’s studies and this plan, we’re ready to start implementing.”

Outdoor recreation companies, as well as adventurous individuals, are finding new tourism opportunities in and around the San Miguel River, a tributary of the Dolores River.

Our office helped guide the town’s visioning as we assisted with developing the plan and securing grants for its implementation. We put a big effort into engaging residents in the planning process. Input from local students was also incorporated into designs for parks, river access, and other practical, affordable solutions. The resulting plan stays true to the culture of the town and the people who live there. We were part of a team of professional ecologists, engineers, and architects whose collective expertise and guidance helped Naturita create its plan for a sustainable future.

Bachman says, “It was really helpful and gave us a lot of confidence to know that we could rely on Walker (Walker Christensen, DHM Durango principal) and the whole DHM team to drive the process, answer our questions, know the right people, and get us from point A to point B.”

The town has already put up new signage, has new slogans and logos, and has taken steps toward implementing other recommendations from the plan that ultimately will transform Naturita into a new destination.

Economic shift is often followed by displacement of people. It’s painful when jobs are lost or families are pushed out by rising property values. Naturita is no stranger to that – the fear is real, but the town is making enormous efforts to prevent such from happening.

“More property in the area has been purchased in the last 18 months than in the last 18 years,” says Deana Sheriff, economic recovery coordinator for the West End Economic Development Corp. But there are a number of programs, in addition to ideas for affordable housing, already in the works to offset potential displacement.

The town is participating in the Markle Foundation’s rural pilot program called the Skillful initiative, which aims to help people transition into a new profession based on skills and knowledge from past jobs that don’t exist anymore – in this case, people who previously worked at the mine. This is the first time the Skillful initiative has targeted a rural community, but the program is seeing success, having already transitioned over a dozen individuals, with more to complete the program soon.

Naturita is not alone in its efforts. Regional cooperation with Nucla, Norwood and other neighboring towns has been key to identifying priorities and creating a regionally inclusive plan. Together, with other communities that lie within the West End Economic Development Corp.’s umbrella, they are able to draw people to this part of the world who don’t want the crowds of Moab or Mesa Verde but still desire a world-class recreation destination.

What started as a vacant dirt lot in downtown Victor is now a community plaza that sees year-round use, including the Victor Christmas Bonfire, Sinkhole de Mayo, the Gem and Mineral Show, and regular concerts and outdoor movie showings.

Fast-forward to Victor, another town with deep roots in the boom and bust cycle that is just one step ahead of Naturita in its timeline to develop and implement its parks and recreation vision.

“Victor has implemented everything from its 2012 parks and recreation master plan. Looking back on it all, the involvement of the community in the planning process is what created ownership and appreciation for the improvements that came over the last decade,” said City Administrator Deb Downs.

“People are asking more and more to host events in the plaza downtown. Maintenance of the soccer field and ice rink is completely volunteer-based. And the people trust the local government now more than ever because they feel like they were listened to and heard,” continued Downs. Victor is now noticing that other towns of similar size are using Victor as an example of how to make infrastructural improvements that are authentic and attract visitors.

For those who live, work in or want to help other communities that fit within the recreationally inclined line of growth, it can be daunting. It takes time, a common vision, funding creativity and communication to drive the process.

Economies, even micro-economies, take years to change and for a community to grow with it. It takes time for attitudes to change. The more communication and listening that is built into the process, the easier everything will fall into place.

“In working closely with these communities, our planners have discovered that the more communication and listening built into the process, the easier everything will fall into place,” Walker said.

Gateway monumentation is one of the infrastructure pieces that Victor invites travelers to spend time in town while emphasizing its historic, mountain town identity.

A critical lesson learned from these communities is to have a written, physical plan to reference moving forward. That helps to create buy-in and efficient decision-making and gives the community a more cohesive direction and identity. Another key piece of the puzzle is finding professional planners that “get” you – someone who understands your community’s potential and wants to help find the funds, create the plan, and see it through.

Funding is out there. Often communities don’t get funding on the first try.

“DHM’s knowledge of the grant process, the resources to access funding and the relationships we’ve developed over the years have allowed us to develop creative funding strategies for many of these small communities,” Christensen said. The more local foundations and legislators on board, and the more community support is demonstrated, the better. Great Outdoors Colorado, the Department of Local Affairs, and county grant programs are just a few of the resources.

By fully embracing and including the community members throughout the process – using their own words, and celebrating the wins together – even small steps lead to big change.

Every mountain town in Colorado is full of life. The well-known resorts draw residents and visitors in with skiing and year-round festivals. The smaller, off-the-beaten-path-towns with their own special appeal haven’t gotten much attention … yet. But their future is bright.

Published in the September 2019 issue of Building Dialogue.

Edited by Building Dialogue