Proposed closures bad news for West Slope

Even as prospects appear bright for continued economic growth in the Grand Valley, the business news is considerably less good for other areas of Western Colorado.

First, the Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced plans to close by 2030 its coal-fired power plant near Craig as well as the nearby Colowyo Mine, which supplies coal for the plant. Then, Russell Stover Chocolates announced plans to close its factory and retail outlet in Montrose by the spring of 2021. It’s believed the closure of the power plant and mine will affect a total of 600 employees. Russell Stover ranks as the third largest employer in Montrose with more than 400 employees.

The closures reflect in part changes in the energy and retail industries.

Tri-State has announced plans to transition to more renewable energy sources in supplying rural electric cooperatives. Russell Stover plans to reorganize its production, distribution and fulfillment facilities in response to changes in the way customers shop for candy.

In Craig, the closures aren’t imminent, but the implications could be profound nonetheless. Given the ratio of jobs lost to the population of Moffat County, it’s the equivalent of laying off 98,000 people in the Denver metro area. Moreover, the high-paying jobs at the power plant and mine support other businesses and jobs in the community. It’s worrisome to contemplate what might happen once the dominoes start falling. The situation is similar in Montrose, although that community has enjoyed some success in attracting new businesses.

The recent news brings to mind for those who’ve lived in the region long enough the infamous Black Sunday announcement in 1982 that Exxon was pulling out of its oil shale development project in Western Colorado.

The lessons apply today just as then, chief among them the importance of diversifying the economy and reducing reliance on extractive industries.

Make no mistake. The natural gas and oil industry remains one of the biggest economic players in the region. According to the results of a study conducted by Nathan Perry, an associate professor of economics at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction, the natural gas and oil industry contributes more than $1.1 billion a year to the economy of a six-county area of Western Colorado that includes Mesa County. That equates to 9.2 percent of gross domestic product in the region,. The gas and oil industry, directly and indirectly, accounts for almost 11,000 jobs.

Still, Grand Valley business leaders are quick to point out the local economy is increasingly diverse with growth in manufacturing and technology. The addition of cannabidiols and hemp has bolstered the agriculture industry. That’s not to mention the contributions of outdoor recreation and tourism. The Grand Valley also remains a regional hub, especially for health care. And CMU constitutes yet another important component of the economy in so many ways.

But what about Craig and Montrose?

There’ll be efforts there to relocate and retrain workers. The State of Colorado will have a role to play in helping those communities find new ways to sustain their economies. At the least, development efforts and incentives should be directed their way. Most of all, it’s going to take some imaginative grassroots work.

The news isn’t good. What’s more encouraging is the resilience and dedication of Western Colorado residents who remain committed to the betterment of their communities and the region.