Colorado Heights Hit by Wave of Population : Rockies: Land is expensive, salaries are low. Many employees have no health insurance and cannot afford day care. County governments end up subsidizing both, straining their budgets.


Elegant epitaphs often grace tombstones in old mountain towns, but there are no tombstones here. The land is too expensive in this Rocky Mountain ski resort, and some worry headstones might spoil their view.

Neighboring Minturn is the nearest resting place for the dead.

Few people can afford to live here, either. That has helped make the celebrated mining town of Leadville, 45 miles away, perhaps the world’s highest bedroom community, at 10,200 feet.

Some people believe it’s symptomatic of what’s gone wrong in Colorado’s high country, since the mining industry was replaced by tourism. Mining work was dangerous, but the companies paid well and provided health care and housing.


The majority of ski resort employees in Vail and Aspen drive at least 30 miles to find affordable housing. A starter log cabin 40 miles west of Vail in Gypsum goes for $134,000. At the same time, the median salary in Eagle County, where Vail is located, is $1,400 a month.

Many workers don’t have health insurance and cannot afford day care. County governments end up subsidizing both, straining their budgets.

Five of the counties most heavily affected--Pitkin, Garfield, Eagle, Lake and Summit, whose combined populations grew 33% in the last decade--recently met and formed an alliance to address the problems.

Colorado’s solid economy, second only to Arizona, and perceived quality of life are drawing more people than at any time since the first resort boom. The state showed a net gain of 70,300 last year, the highest since 1972-73.

The backlash from the boom 20 years ago resulted in Coloradans rejecting a plan to play host to the Winter Olympics at an undeveloped site 10 miles west of Vail.

The backlash didn’t slow the boom, though. Vail Associates went ahead with plans to develop Beaver Creek into a major ski resort. Vail became the nation’s biggest and busiest ski resort.

But Vail Associates President Andy Daly said Vail isn’t the driving force in recent development.

“It’s a social trend all over the United States, and particularly Los Angeles and New York,” he said. “People are moving to rural areas for a better quality of life.”

The population in Eagle County grew 60% between 1980 and 1990. Last year, building permits set a record. In March of this year, the county issued 112 permits, compared with 48 in March, 1993.

Aspen Skiing Co. President Bob Maynard said, “They can stop the growth in the city of Aspen. But it will be wall-to-wall people in Rifle and eventually in Grand Junction.”

Grand Junction and virtually Colorado’s entire Western Slope are reporting an influx of people trying to escape urban areas. Many are from California, and some tag them the “New Okies.”

Once-sleepy towns like Montrose are drawing small companies, whose owners and employees want a safer place for their families.

County officials such as Eagle County Commissioner James E. Johnson Jr. are pushing the ski industry and other companies that benefit from tourism to help pay the social cost.

Johnson, who did everything from waiting tables to maid’s work when he first moved to the area, said skiing draws many to the high country.

Mary Ferguson, who is retiring from the Carbondale Town Council just a few days before her 88th birthday, said, “People are leaving California and other places because they think this is the grandest place in the world. We have skiing, fishing, hunting and low taxes.”

Many fear the new arrivals bring their problems with them.

Carbondale, a bedroom community of Aspen, reported a 33% increase in serious crimes last year. Glenwood Springs Police Chief Rick Hollar is worried about signs of gang activity.

“The rat race is catching up with us,” Johnson said.

The five-county alliance said the ski bums who once ran the lifts and cleaned the rooms are now being replaced by working families whose salaries do not match the high cost of living. In 1992, 45% of the births reported in the five counties were to low-income families.

It’s no surprise that the counties turn to the big ski companies for help. The ski companies say they already pay more and offer better benefits than most other businesses in the area.

The Vail and Aspen companies subsidize transportation, day care and housing. The companies offer health care to employees who want to enroll.

When the five counties announced their alliance, Vail Associates was quick to offer to discuss ways it could help.

Daly said the ski industry and associated businesses must “realize that in the long term this is going to come back and bite us all.”

Eugene Lorig, an Eagle lawyer and 33-year resident, said growth itself is the main problem. “The county is going to be full of trailer homes,” he said. “It’s politically unacceptable to be against growth.”

A native of Telluride, another mountain town trying to control growth, Lorig said, “I liked it a lot better when I could take a gun and go out and not see anybody all day.”

Johnson said county officials and others can try to manage growth and persuade developers that building near already established centers will be cheaper and better for the environment.

“Unfortunately, the big money dictates where it wants to build,” he said. “If you’ve got enough money and want to live underground, you can do it and still have the sun rise for you.”

Johnson said too much development will destroy what people come here for.

“The Lincoln Memorial has a lot of people visit it. But they can’t live there,” he said.

Ironically, Aspen, Vail, Snowmass and Beaver Creek are a bit like one of those monuments. When the season is over, they empty out.