Speaker for Moffat County CRAFT lays out steps to shift to tourism economy | CraigDailyPress.com

Speaker for Moffat County CRAFT lays out steps to shift to tourism economy

Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt talks about how his county changed from a mining economy to tourism at Colorado Northwestern Community College.
David Tan/staff

CRAIG — Embrace the tourists.

That was the main advice Chaffee County Commissioner Greg Felt gave the Moffat County Tourism Association and business owners on Thursday, Sept. 25, at Colorado Northwestern Community College.

Felt, who was invited as a guest speaker for the Moffat County CRAFT Studio 101, spoke about diversification of the local economy and transition from an energy, resource-based economy to a tourism-based economy.

Chaffee County — southeast of Moffat County and nearer to central Colorado — had a high number of mining jobs, Felt said, until the mines closed in 1983. This brought high unemployment rates, and the price of homes dropped severely, prompting people to leave the county.

“You might be seeing that going on here,” Felt said. “People with specialized skills want to continue that job. That was happening where we were.”

What eventually put Chaffee County on the map was “adventure tourism,” Felt said. The Arkansas River runs through the county, and people came to float it.

River-rafting was already becoming popular at that time, and the Arkansas was a magnet for tourists. In 1988, Felt estimated, 50,000 tourists came to river raft. Now, about 250,000 people come annually for the activity.

The county got help from state parks, the Bureau of Land Management, and other governmental entities to help build up the Arkansas River as a summer tourist destination, Felt said. County residents grew to respect the tourists and saw significant revenue coming into the county.

“Money that comes from the outside stays in the county for a long time before it leaves,” Felt said. “Those new dollars can really make a difference.”

The county also started to grow an arts community, which also drew tourists, Felt added. People began to settle in the county, and it began to grow again.

Even with mining and railroad companies pulling out of the county in the 1990s, the burgeoning tourism industry continued to grow with investments. Chaffee diversified its economy even more to include mountain biking on its trails.

However, when the Great Recession hit in the late 2000s, Felt said the county slowed its efforts to develop tourism. County leaders learned they weren’t impacted as badly as others and were still able to sell homes, even if it took them longer to do so. In 2013, the county was generating $350,000 in building permits, and this year, it has generated $1.2 million, with anticipation for further growth.

Chaffee County didn’t always embrace tourists as it does now, Felt said. He said his father hated tourists and would go to bars to pick fights with them. County residents saw tourists as someone who were going to “shoot their elk.”

Felt said he was able to convince his father that a tourist is someone to embrace, pick their pockets, and walk away with their wallets. Today, his dad is more amenable with tourists, and so are other county residents.

“The tourism jobs don’t pay as well as industrial type jobs,” Felt said. “It is better than nothing. Many people are able to convert. They might take a cut in pay, but they still get to live where they want.”

Tourists don’t go on vacation to save money, Felt pointed out. They have pocketfuls of money and are looking to spend it.

Felt left Moffat County residents with several things to keep in mind, including the following.

• Know what the appeal is. Moffat County sees itself as isolated, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. There are people who like living in isolated places. Turn negatives into positives.

• Think like a tourist. Give tourists what they are looking for. See what is missing in Moffat County, and try to provide it. This can create business opportunities and a new source of revenue.

• Develop partnerships. A tourism-based economy is a community effort, and working with other businesses and organizations can create a loop to help grow business.

• A tourism-based economy eventually turns into a real estate economy. Set aside land for future development.

• Educate the public about the benefits of a tourism-based economy. Getting support from the public will go a long way in establishing a long-term tourism-based economy.

Contact David Tan at 970-875-1795 or dtan@CraigDailyPress.com.