“You know what? We’re optimistic:” Craig’s Head Start on a Just Transition

At first, the outlook was bleak for the city of Craig when the region’s major employers, two coal-fired power plants and three coal mines, announced that they will be shutting down within the decade. The closures are expected to eliminate at least 1,000 direct and indirect jobs, the equivalent of 100,000 jobs for a city the size of Denver. 

Craig, which is the county seat of Moffat County, is not alone. In 2020, Moffat County was designated as one of 11 of the state’s Just Transition communities that are diversifying their local employment base beyond soon-to-be shuttered coal mines and power plants. As part of the state’s Just Transition Action Plan, these communities have dedicated grants, staff, and other resources from state departments including the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade (OEDIT), the Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), and the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE).

While state and federal partnerships will be essential to help Craig overcome the economic hurdles it faces, public and private city leaders are already moving forward with envisioning their future after coal by accelerating economic development opportunities. Craig’s proactive approach is already starting to show success, as three signature projects underway demonstrate.

Yampa River restoration

Conceptual plans to improve the Yampa River corridor through trails, wetlands mitigation, shelters, and parking access had long been in place. But in the wake of the announced power plant and mine closures, city manager Peter Brixius and his colleagues kicked those efforts into high gear. Having identified growing the outdoor recreation industry as an opportunity to diversify the economy, they adapted a U.S. Economic Development Administration grant to focus on building a whitewater rafting recreation park on the river. The park is currently in the design/engineering phase, and conversations with the Army Corps of Engineers will get going in the coming months. If all goes as planned, the whitewater park will be open in late 2023 or early 2024, well before the anticipated plant and mine closures. 

“You know what? We’re optimistic. If we can get these things going while we still have all these coal-related operations still functioning, it really gives us a head start,” Brixius said.

Despite the accelerated timeline, Brixius knows that sweeping economic changes like this don’t happen overnight. He’s gleaned some wisdom from the example of Moab, Utah, where the transition from a resource extraction-based economy to an outdoor recreation and tourism-based economy took 15 years. Despite having made the transition, Moab’s newfound reliance on tourism means that the city’s economic engines effectively shut down when winter hits. 

For Brixius, adding other complementary manufacturing companies is essential to diversifying Craig’s economy and avoiding the seasonal ebbs and flows that come with an overly tourism-reliant economy. The recent relocation of a high-end modular housing manufacturer to Craig, along with new incentives for a future light industrial corridor, will certainly help as they look to complement the tourism economy with sturdy year-round jobs.

The Yampa Valley Adventure Center

Another promising new development in Craig is the Yampa Valley Adventure Center, which is the brainchild of Craig resident and former Moffat County Commissioner Frank Moe. Moe, who with his wife owns the Best Western Plus Deer Park Hotel in Craig, had long had his eyes on the under-utilized Centennial Mall in the city’s commercial corridor. Moe envisioned the mall as a gateway to the region’s many natural wonders, featuring interactive exhibits and shops meant to inspire wanderlust and a love of the local ecology.

With the scale of Moe’s vision, he knew he couldn’t do it alone. So last fall, he applied and was accepted to OEDIT’s Opportunity Zone Capital Accelerator Program, which offers free consulting services for community-oriented businesses in Colorado’s designated Opportunity Zones. Over the course of the accelerator, Moe structured the venture, put together a pro forma, and worked on his pitch to investors and community partners. With the business plan, pitch, and an encouraging economic impact assessment in hand, Moe garnered the support he needed to get the project mostly financed. On October 13, the Craig Urban Renewal Authority passed an agreement to provide $7.6 million in tax increment financing for the adventure center, giving Moe the public support needed to move forward with the project. 

Moe echoed Brixius’ sense of urgency in the face of the economic impact of the mine and power plant closures. “Our community cannot wait until 2028. We need to be acting now on the projects we have before us. And that’s why I’m so excited to get the word out,” he said. 

And with that in mind, the next step for Moe is to form partnerships with conservation-minded environmental groups that might sponsor exhibits in the adventure center. “If we can get that, they’re going to win, we’re going to win, and most importantly, the great outdoors and the environment is going to win,” Moe said.

In addition to serving as a gateway to the outdoors, the adventure center could be a microcosm of Craig’s energy transition. The City of Craig has received an OEDIT Opportunity Zone Technical Support Grant to assess the feasibility of powering the adventure center with a combination of solar, wind, and geothermal energy. If it is feasible, they hope to create a replicable model that can be used for other developments in the area. 

The Warehouse Food hall

Another potential linchpin for Craig’s new economy is the recently opened Warehouse Food Hall. While food halls are a common sight in urban and suburban areas of Colorado’s Front Range, they are a new concept to rural parts of the Western Slope. The team at Four Points Funding, which funded the food hall with Opportunity Zone capital and now operates it, is well aware that what works in downtown Denver might not work in Craig.

“We’re not trying to make a Front Range concept work in Craig. We’re trying to make a Craig concept work in Craig,” said Emma Rush, Director of Outdoor Hospitality at Four Points Funding.

Rather than serving up the latest fleeting gastronomic trends, they are focused on local, high-quality, tried and true classics. Think burgers made with local pasture-raised beef, a farmstand selling local honey and veggies, and an ice cream stand. There will be local craft beers and Coors on tap. 

The food hall will sate not just the appetites of Craig residents and visitors, it will also meet the local hunger for community space. Four Points Funding partner Amanda Montgomery participates in the Craig community Facebook chat, and has seen numerous complaints about the lack of indoor venues for weddings. The Warehouse is filling that void. Since opening, they’ve programmed the community space with musical performances and a trick-or-treat Halloween event in partnership with the Boys & Girls Club of Craig. Unsurprisingly, the Four Points team has already been flooded with inquiries about weddings and private parties. 

So how does the food hall fit into Craig’s broader economic reinvention? Montgomery and Rush hope it will become an entrepreneurial hub. With low-risk six-month leases for stalls, the Four Points team hopes to encourage entrepreneurs who might otherwise not have the risk appetite or resources to start a brick-and-mortar restaurant or shop. 

“If the Small Business Administration wants to host a ‘How to be an Entrepreneur Night’, they’d definitely be welcome at our venue. I want it to be the meet-up place for learning how to start a business,”Montgomery said.

Whether it’s a new stall at the food hall, a new shop at the adventure center, a new tour operator at the future whitewater rafting park, future entrepreneurs will be planting their seeds in fertile soil in Craig’s renewed economy.

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