Anticipating a bust, the Colorado coal town of Craig gets an unexpected boost |

Anticipating a bust, the Colorado coal town of Craig gets an unexpected boost

Northwest Colorado is grieving the looming loss of a major industry and the pandemic has hurt. But the broader economy is beginning to perk up. "We are not victims," Craig chamber boss says.

Kristin Jones / The Colorado Trust
Craig Station, March 2020.
(Kristin Jones, The Colorado Trust)

If there was one thing everyone agreed on in Craig back in early March, it was that predicting a future without coal was impossible.

Two months earlier, the operator of the Craig Station power plant said it would close one of its units by 2025, and the other two by 2030. The coal-fired plant is the economic engine of this city of 9,000 in northwest Colorado. The move by Tri-State Generation and Transmission threatened 300 jobs tied directly to the plant and over 400 more who worked for it indirectly, for instance as truckers or railroad workers. Two coal mines feeding the plant would also close down.

But that wouldn’t be a full tally of the losses.

Jennifer Holloway, executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce, said they started listing the businesses in town that would be impacted —hotels, restaurants, health care and child care providers —

“and we just stopped, because it’s going to be everybody.”

Craig residents packed a school auditorium to offload their concerns before a visiting advisory committee to the Office of Just Transition, a state effort to ease the pain of Colorado workers and communities affected by the worldwide decline in coal. Their union jobs were disappearing; their health care benefits were going away for good. There was a mental health crisis in full boil.

Days later, another profound shock hit the community — this one without warning. In Craig, as in other communities across the country, the national spread of the coronavirus shut down schools, restaurants and businesses. Craig Memorial Hospital — the city’s other big employer — experienced a precipitous drop in revenue as non-essential procedures were called off.

Craig looked doomed.

But the year’s surprises didn’t stop there. Perhaps the biggest surprise over the last few months is the way that Craig has adapted to the shocks of 2020. Some people in the town see a lesson in resilience that is as applicable to the decline of coal as it is to a global pandemic.

A time to grieve

I’m from the government and I’m here to help” is a message that the largely conservative community of Moffat County is primed to reject out of hand.

Wade Buchanan, head of the Office of Just Transition, had the unenviable job of delivering precisely that message without using those words.

He was only partly successful.

“We’re here to help you think through what your future should and can look like, and we’re here to figure out how the state can be helpful in that process,” Buchanan told a crowd of several hundred Craig residents who had assembled on March 4.

His office, created last year by state legislation, has a mandate to protect workers and usher in new economic development to the areas of Colorado hardest hit by the closure of coal plants and mines. Despite promises from the Trump administration to revive the nation’s coal communities, competition from low-cost natural gas and a shift in demand for renewable energy have decimated the industry.

Many people in Craig put the blame squarely on policies coming out of Denver, where Gov. Jared Polis has set a goal of 100% renewable energy by 2040.

The visit to Craig from an advisory committee to the Office of Just Transition — made up of legislators, labor department officials, union representatives, economic development experts and affected workers and community leaders — was a chance to express that view.

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