Durango is a model of economic resiliency for other rural towns because of its quality of life, economic diversity and leadership, among other factors.
A report by the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade released in November used Durango and Salida as case studies to illustrate how rural communities can thrive.
In both communities, the natural beauty of the towns and outdoor recreation were keys to success, said Laura Blomquist Rodriguez, a senior manager with the state economic development office.
“The quality of life was the most important because ultimately that drives talent to the region and retains the talent,” she said.
In many rural towns young people leave for college and don’t return because no highly skilled jobs are available.
However, La Plata County has seen population growth among those age 30 to 55, an age range most commonly associated with families and greater earning potential.
Robust economic diversity provides employment options for those moving to town. But building this diversity has taken decades, said Steve Parker, who headed the capital campaign for Mercy Regional Medical Center.
“It’s just been a consistent effort for a number of generations that said: ‘We’re going to have a diversified economy,’” he said.
For example, residents preserved the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, moved Fort Lewis College into town and raised $12 million to build Mercy Regional Medical Center, he said.
Tourism supports 31 percent of the jobs in La Plata County. Other major sectors include oil and gas, health care, government, retail, construction, professional, scientific and technical services.
“We want to be more than just a pretty town in the mountains,” he said.
Quality health care and education also help support economic growth by drawing in residents, the report said.
Attracting highly paid workers who want to live in a mountain town and can work from anywhere could keep the economy growing, said Chris McCroskey, vice chairman of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance.
McCroskey is one of those people who moved to Durango after visiting. He now runs his Texas-based business Idea Loop, a website and brand-development company from here.
Compared with bringing in new factories, which could place a strain on the town’s infrastructure and scenic beauty, location-neutral jobs are far more sustainable, he said.
But this growth requires more widespread high-speed internet, he said.
“This is one of the most important things for La Plata County to stay on the right track,” he said.
While other towns can’t replicate La Plata County’s scenery, they can invest in and promote their natural amenities, such as rivers and open space, to attract new residents, the report said.
They can also develop community leaders who can develop the economy through the public and private sectors.
The Durango Chamber of Commerce runs mentoring programs for Fort Lewis College students and young professionals as well as an annual community-awareness and leadership program called Leadership La Plata.
Leadership La Plata was founded 28 years ago, and it took about ten years to see results, said Jasper Welch, one of the program’s founders.
“You really have to let it be organic and take time,” he said.
It’s also important to be open to new leadership and ideas you may not agree with, he said.
While identified as a state model, Durango’s economy faces housing and labor shortages, the report acknowledged.
The housing shortage forces workers to commute farther and farther, creating additional household expenses, said Jack Llewellyn, executive director of the Durango Chamber of Commerce.
“Addressing the housing issue is vitally important,” he said.
Additional rental units, like the apartment complex planned between Walmart and Home Depot, are needed to ease the housing crunch.