Residents of Silverton are getting creative to diversify the town’s tenuous winter tourism economy, especially because this year’s abysmally dry and warm season has hit local mainstays hard.
“For so long we’ve relied only on the train and Silverton Mountain,” said Molly Barela, owner of Golden Block Brewery. “But you can’t rely on one or two things. You have to learn how to diversify to attract different winter users.”
In many ways, the economy of Silverton is somewhat backward, said DeAnne Gallegos, director of the Silverton Area Chamber of Commerce.
Most Colorado mountain towns bring in the biggest bucks during the winter, mostly through ski mountains and high-end resorts, but the height of tourism for Silverton is the three or four months over the summer.
During that time, Silverton becomes a bustling nexus of outdoor recreationists drawn to the beauty of the San Juan Mountains and visitors from the internationally renowned Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad.
Historically, after September, the town has tended to assume the characteristics of a ghost town, with businesses boarding up their windows as they enter the shoulder season before snow arrives and skiing begins.
Even a good chunk of residents head for warmer climates. The mountain hamlet 50 miles north of Durango has a fluctuating population of about 600 people during the summer that typically drops to 400 to 500 as the cold sets in.
About 15 years ago, Aaron and Jenn Brill purchased Silverton Mountain – an expert-only ski area that touts the highest terrain in North America – with the hopes the ski mountain would boost the winter economy.
The ski mountain is not only Silverton’s biggest attraction during the winter, it is also the largest employer with about 40 employees.
“I definitely feel a responsibility,” said Jenn Brill. “All the businesses rely on us doing well.”
While most residents recognize the ski mountain brings in tourism dollars, years like this – where Silverton Mountain didn’t open until Jan. 18 and the region hadn’t received significant snowfall until February – remind residents of the need to offer a variety of attractions.
Town Clerk Michelle Hamilton said the best indicator of the town’s financial health – sales tax – was down 13 percent this December from last year, according to the most recent numbers available.
Gallegos said the main focus has been introducing winter events to draw people to the high-country town.
But even this year was riddled with bad luck.
The town’s Skijoring race, considered the “Fourth of July” of the winter (in reference to Silverton’s massive summer celebration), was canceled because of pending litigation from last year’s event when someone was injured.
The town fully expects the highly attended skijoring event, in which skiers hold onto a rope as a galloping horse pulls them through a series of gates and jumps, to be back in 2019, Gallegos said.
And, the town’s attempt to host a dog-sledding race failed for the second consecutive year – this year because there wasn’t enough snow and last year because there was too much snow to construct a safe race course for the dogs.
Ever the opportunist, the town finagled a weekend-long series of events to celebrate Mardi Gras last weekend, which included a casino night and masquerade ball, a Cajun cook-off and live music, among other events.
The town will host a live music series every Saturday in March at Kendall Mountain Ski Area, called “Spring Fever Music Series.”
“All I can say is we are making progress spreading out our events calendar to offer more attractions and give people something to do,” Gallegos said. “Not only for residents, but for folks to come to Silverton 12 months out of the year.”
Indeed, the town is taking an “it-takes-a-village approach,” Gallegos said. Whereas in the past businesses would close for the winter, restaurants and other stores are toughing out the rough winter months to keep the town alive.
Casie Lashley, who co-owns Avalanche Brewing Co., said the popular restaurant and brewery has stayed open every winter since the business was founded nine years ago. But it wasn’t until the past two years or so that the couple made a profit.
“I think being in business this long we know exactly what we need to save to get through the winter,” she said. “And for us, it’s worth it because of our employees. They are like our family.”
Lashley said Avalanche Brewing has skirted the worst effects of this nearly snowless winter, as more Durango-area residents and tourists are making the trek over two mountain passes they probably wouldn’t have driven if there were snow or ice on the roads.
Barela of Golden Block said she changed her business from a jewelry store that would open only in the summer to the popular restaurant/brewery in 2014 with the sole intent of staying open year-round.
“Skiers don’t come up here to buy T-shirts and trinkets,” she said. “They come up here to ski and then go get something to eat and drink.”
Yet over the past week, the drought-like conditions seemed to have been temporarily relieved in Southwest Colorado, with a series of storms dropping nearly 4 feet of new snow, according to OpenSnow.com.
“We’re definitely super excited about the snow,” Lashley said.
Even the town’s smaller community ski area, Kendall Mountain, was finally able to open for the first time this year.
Silverton Mountain’s Brill said even though the ski area’s opening was delayed for three weeks, there’s still plenty of skiing opportunity.
“Sure enough, winter turned on, and conditions are great now,” she said.
And, perhaps more significantly, Gallegos said Silverton is seeing more year-round residents, which she believes will lead to the town establishing a more self-sustaining economy.
“That will ultimately benefit our community,” she said. “Not just tourists, but actual residents.”