In 2018, residents of La Plata County will likely learn more about the years-long murder investigation involving Mark Redwine, the La Plata County man accused of killing his 13-year-old son, Dylan. They will see changes in Colorado’s political scene, especially with the election of a new governor in November, and on the mesa, Fort Lewis College is expected to name a new president at the end of June.
But perhaps more profound to the lives of Durangoans could be the consequences, for good or ill, of the recent federal tax revisions on an economy largely driven by locally-owned businesses.
In Silverton, we should have a clearer understanding of how the Bonita Peak Mining District, an Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site, deals with the legacy of 19th century and early 20th century mining around the mountain hamlet, now more known as the terminus for one of the main engines of Durango’s economy, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
It’s always the unexpected that tops the news, but here’s a crystal-ball gaze into what might be making headlines in 2018:
Police and courts
Mark Redwine in court: Redwine, 56, faces 16 to 48 years in prison if found guilty of second-degree murder or child abuse resulting in death.
A grand jury issued an indictment earlier this year accusing him of killing his son in November 2012.
He was arrested July 22 in Bellingham, Washington, and waived his right to an extradition hearing, which allowed the La Plata County Sheriff’s Office to bring him back to Colorado.
The Sheriff’s Office named Redwine as a “person of interest” in August 2015, and hikers found Dylan’s skull on Nov. 1, 2015, about 1½ miles from where his previous remains were found in 2013 in a remote location about 8 miles from Redwine’s home, north of Vallecito Reservoir.
Redwine, who has maintained his innocence, is scheduled for a second status conference on April 13, but a time and place for a jury trial has not yet been set.
City of Durango
Lake Nighthorse: Durango City Council committed to opening the lake on April 1 to recreation. The long-awaited opening is planned to allow recreationists to use the lake from April through Nov. 15. Councilors are forming an advisory group to help guide decisions about how to manage boating, and a recommendation from the group is expected in March. Residents advocated throughout 2017 to make Lake Nighthorse a no-wake lake. In June, the Quiet Lake Nighthorse Coalition turned in a petition with 1,200 signatures supporting a 5 mph speed limit and, since then, has voiced support for other compromises.
Affordable housing: As housing prices continue to rise, the city could formalize an affordable housing plan in 2018. A draft of the plan lays out short-term and long-term goals to help ease the housing shortage and outlines lofty goals, including making 1,000 units permanently affordable by 2035. Some goals are aimed at encouraging developers to build more housing, including plans to ease some development requirements, such as density, height and parking restrictions. It also outlines more long-term goals, such as a possible land-banking program and permanent housing trust fund that would support housing construction.
Suicide study: Greater focus on teen suicide through a state-funded study could help launch more prevention efforts in La Plata County. Focus groups are planned to meet between January and May to help identify factors in La Plata County that may trigger suicide and measures that can prevent it. Nineteen people died by suicide in 2017 in La Plata County.
Homeless camp: Durango city councilors and La Plata County commissioners have voiced support for finding a new location for homeless campers to stay in the new year. Officials are concerned that continuing to allow homeless campers north of the Durango Tech Center poses a fire danger and health risks. Identifying a location for a permanent camp has been a major hurdle for officials in the past, and it is likely to remain a challenge in the coming year.
Public lands, environment
Superfund: The Environmental Protection Agency has made it well-known the Superfund site near Silverton could take years to complete, but there could be some interesting developments in 2018.
For one, the EPA plans to release several studies that look at possible ecological and human health risks associated with pollution left from mining. Also, we should have a better idea about the agency’s actual plan for cleanup.
It also will be worth watching how policy in Washington continues to affect the EPA. While President Donald Trump has called for drastic cuts to the agency’s budget, the EPA has made the Bonita Peak Mining District Superfund site a priority.
Bears: It was a bad year for bears in Southwest Colorado. Breaking a record, 60 bears were euthanized by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, landowners and Wildlife Services after the animals displayed unwanted behavior.
While the problem was exacerbated by a bad natural food year, local officials may take more strict measures, either through the city code or by hiring a part-time enforcement officer, to make sure people do their part to curb the problem.
Food sources made available by humans (such as trash, bird feeders, livestock) are by far the No. 1 cause for human-bear conflicts. While it’s anyone’s guess how the natural food year will go in 2018, local officials hope regulations may help.
Land-use code: La Plata County hasn’t updated its land-use code since the 1980s, but 2018 could be the year the county adopts its first phase of revised codes with the biggest change being the institution of zoning laws.
The introduction of land-use codes in the county has created a deep divide among residents. Some say the new codes will help the county prepare for future growth. Others say it’s another example of government overreach.
Regardless, 2018 will be the year where the county will iron out the first phase of the new codes. The subsequent phases will include public process and development standards.
Solar activism: More than 900 residents and 111 businesses petitioned City Council in October to transition to 100 percent renewable energy by 2050. Councilors, especially Mayor Dick White, committed to working with La Plata Electric Association to encourage renewable energy development.
Dry winter: Dry weather is predicted to be in store for much of the winter thanks to La Niña, and if it persists, Durango could be headed for one of the driest winters on record. If the trend holds, it could bode ill for 2018’s fire season.
Colorado governor: The list of people seeking to replace Gov. John Hickenlooper is already long, and that list could grow.
Democrats seeking the governor’s mansion include: Noel Ginsburg, a businessman appointed by Hickenlooper to the Business Experiential Learning Commission; Mike Johnston, former state senator from Vail; Cary Kennedy, former Colorado treasurer; Lt. Gov. Donna Lynne; and U.S. Rep. Jared Polis, D-Boulder, who represents Colorado’s 2nd Congressional District.
Republicans seeking the same mansion include: Stephen Barlock, the Denver co-chairman for Trump’s campaign in Colorado; Cynthia Coffman, Colorado’s attorney general; Lew Gaiter, a Larimer County commissioner; Greg Lopez, the former mayor of Parker; Victor Mitchell, a former state lawmaker and businessman; Doug Robinson, a former investment banker and nephew of Mitt Romney; Walker Stapleton, the current state treasurer and first cousin to former President George W. Bush; and Tom Tancredo, former U.S. representative in the 6th Congressional District.
U.S. 3rd Congressional District: U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican, is up for re-election. Two Democrats – Diane Mitsch Bush and Karl Hanlon – have already announced their intent to unseat Tipton.
La Plata County commission: One of the three board seats is up in 2018, the seat of Brad Blake, the board’s only Republican. Blake hasn’t formally announced his bid for re-election, but he has indicated it’s likely he will run again. He already has a challenger in Democrat Clyde Church.
La Plata County sheriff: Current Sheriff Sean Smith, a Democrat, who displaced longtime Sheriff Duke Schirard, a Republican, in 2014, already has one challenger: La Plata County resident Charles Hamby, a Republican. Smith hasn’t formally submitted his papers for re-election, but he did tell The Durango Herald in May that he intends to run again.
Saying goodbye: Fort Lewis College President Dene Thomas announced she will retire June 30. She was hired in March 2010 as the eighth president of the four-year institution and is the first woman to serve in the role.
During her tenure, Thomas helped oversee the redesign of the college’s curriculum ahead of the 2016 re-accreditation effort. She also made getting federal support to help cover costs of the Native American tuition waiver a top priority.
The Board of Trustees for FLC launched its national search for a new college president, which included appointing a 12-person presidential search committee that includes faculty, students, administrators, staff, alumni and community members. The next president is expected to be named in late June.
FLC’s declining enrollment: Lagging student numbers at Fort Lewis College have been a cause for concern over the past several years. A little more than 3,000 students call FLC home – the lowest enrollment the institution has seen in more than a decade. The college is considering several ways to stem the enrollment decline, including renaming the institution, which could happen in 2018. A feasibility study on potential new academic programs at the college is also being conducted, with a long list of new programs being considered, including new bachelor’s and master’s degrees.
Business and economy
New tax code: How will the revision of the federal tax code at the twilight of 2017 play out for small businesses in 2018? If the tax code does ignite more economic activity, everyone from individual businesses in Durango to the coffers of the city of Durango and La Plata County will benefit. If corporations hoard their tax bounty, employment and wages may not see the gains predicted by the GOP congressional leaders in Washington.
Minimum wage increase: On Jan. 1, the minimum wage increases from $9.30 to $10.20. Economists don’t expect much impact in Durango, where the prevailing entry wage is higher than $10.20, but economist Richard Wobbekind, senior associate dean for academic programs at the University of Colorado-Boulder, said the increased wage may lead to sluggish job creation among minimum-wage employers and ma-and-pa operations elsewhere in rural Southwest Colorado.
Natural gas turnaround: Any kind of turnaround in the natural gas industry centered in northwestern New Mexico and spilling over into Southwest Colorado could result in a financial shot-in-the-arm for many, including local governments and area businesses.
Natural gas is the sector Wobbekind believes holds the most potential for a turnaround that could boost the regional economy, which consistently fails to keep pace with improvements seen on the Front Range.
The reason you could see brighter times among regional gas-production firms is the switch from coal to cleaner-burning natural gas.
Sluggish wage growth: Can wages increase beyond a snail’s pace in Southwest Colorado? It’s a particularly pernicious issue because Southwest Colorado’s housing prices are so high.
FLC economics professor Robert “Tino” Sonora said the mismatch between sluggish wage growth in the area and increasingly expensive housing is driving more and more people to commute to Durango.
Despite La Plata County’s 2.2 percent unemployment rate, which is below the state average of 2.7 percent, wages can’t match rising regional housing costs.
The problem, Sonora said, is that the area’s attractiveness to second-homeowners drives up housing prices and a reliance on low-skill service industry jobs creates an environment of stagnant wages.
Herald staff writers Patrick Armijo, Jonathan Romeo, Mia Rupani and Mary Shinn contributed to this report.