Authenticity in towns draws people and jobs


Carbondale,  Colo., located 30 miles west of Aspen, ceased to be a coal-mining town more than 30 years ago, and it has thrived.  Photo/Allen Best

Creating authentic places will draw people even as the mines shut down

by Allen Best

Clark Anderson returns often to the word “authenticity” when he speaks about economic development of smaller towns and cities.

“People are looking for more authenticity, and I’ll return to this time and time again,” he said when he spoke on April 20 in Denver at a regional forum for coal-reliant communities in transition. He contrasted authenticity with the homogenization that he said largely describes places like Grand Junction and Boise.

“Jobs follow people,” he said. “What that means is that when we think about economic diversification, we think about rolling out the carpet with tax incentives. That is not really how you bring jobs to the community,” he said. “It’s a little like telling children that the stork is where babies come from.”

Rather, the key decision motivating companies is the overall quality and character of a place.

“The No. 1 factor is whether it’s a good place to visit,” he said. “Only when you to get to the bottom third of the list do you get things like favorable zoning and tax incentives. They can play a very useful role, and you should align your incentives. But if not paying attention to quality of place, you’re missing the point.”

Anderson grew up in Vail in the 1970s and 1980s, when the resort was still relatively young. Now, he lives 60 miles to the west in Glenwood Springs, where he has a consultancy called Community Builders.

Hemmed in by canyon walls, Glenwood Springs has a well defined downtown lined with sturdy structures. In its core, Glenwood is a park-and walk place, although the drive-to-the-front-door stores can be found on the edges. “They did it right the first time,” he said of Glenwood Springs.

Other places like Gypsum, located on the opposite side of Glenwood Canyon, are trying to create a center for their communities. Silt, located along the Colorado River, much like Gypsum in its agrarian roots and its lack of centeredness, also struggles, he suggested.

Carbondale, located 10 miles south of Glenwood, was a coal-mining town that has survived the closing of the coal mine in the early 1980s quite nicely. Today, it is a vibrant place of tinkers and thinkers, if also a sizable segment of immigrants, mostly from Mexico, who work in the Aspen-area economy. Aspen is 30 miles up the Roaring Fork Valley.

Located at the foot of Mt. Sopris, at the confluence of the Crystal and Roaring Fork Rivers, Carbondale has an enviable setting.

After his speech, Anderson acknowledged that Carbondale has other assets that not all coal-mining towns might have. Not only is Aspen one of the wealthiest places on the planet, the backdrop of Carbondale is one of the loveliest in all of Colorado: the twin-summited Sopris Peak, rising to 13,000 feet, with the addition of the splish-splash of the Crystal and the Roaring Fork rivers. This is the Colorado of calendars.

Still, Anderson maintains that Carbondale made conscious decisions that make it an attractive place. He did not define what those may have been prior to the closure of the coal mine.

“People will sacrifice salary for an ideal community,” he said. Studies by the National Board of Realtors have found that those neighborhoods with a strong sense of place, with a sense of authenticity, command higher values.

That means denser neighborhoods. “It’s less that people are excited about walking. What people really want is convenience and access to amenities combined with a sense of place,” he said. “Walkability is a byproduct of good infrastructure.”

One study found that 62 percent of people wanted more dense development such that it improves walkable convenience, as opposed to 38 percent who preferred larger lots, even at a loss of convenience.

Anderson also advised that manufacturing should be seen as a variety of pursuits.

“Manufacturing as we did in the ‘70s and ‘80s isn’t going to come back the way it was, but there is still a demand for manufacturing. He then pointed to Bonfire Brewing, which is based in Eagle. Town officials in Eagle “don’t really recognize what they have there.”

Anderson also cited the Gunnison County’s One Valley Prosperity Project. Community buy-in which resulted in creation of the Ice House incubator in Gunnison, which provides what Anderson described as a “lot of cool entrepreneurial space.”


About Allen Best

Allen Best is a Colorado-based journalist. He publishes a subscription-based e-zine called Mountain Town News, portions of which are published on the website of the same name, and also writes for a variety of newspapers and magazines.
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