FINALLY a positive Leadville story!
LEADVILLE — They persevere through economic busts and beastly winters. They joke about the recession: "Losing a job in Leadville isn't such a big deal, because you still have two left." They weather embarrassing headlines: Local woman accused of terrorism. Deputy Tasers students.
Discouraging? Not really. The people of Leadville, population about 3,000, don't spend much time sulking these days. They are too busy building things, too focused on exploiting the one thing other than minerals they have in abundance: high-mountain wilderness.
Acre by acre, they are battling the bad images by transforming their town into a haven for hikers and cyclists, for people packing fishing rods, nordic skis and climbing ropes —
instead of mining picks and terrorism how-to manuals.
"There is a feeling here that recreation is our economy," County Commissioner Mike Bordogna said.
That feeling isn't just pie-in-the-sky, political sweet talk. Regular folks have it too.
Local mountain bikers will spend months this summer clearing brush for 12 miles of single-track trails. (The long-range plan is for 150 miles.)
Nordic skiers held fundraisers and bought a Sno-Cat last year, which they used to turn a 12-mile, paved loop around the city into a cross-country skiing path.
The ice-skating rink is getting a roof, hockey boards and a Zamboni; the sledding hill is being moved and lengthened; a terrain park for skiers and 'boarders is going up; tennis courts are becoming a skate park; and a motocross circuit just might get finished.
The county's recreation department, which did not exist five years ago, now supports a variety of activities, including elk-calling seminars and drop-in soccer leagues. A list of offerings that occupied two or three sheets of paper a few years ago now fills a 32-page guide.
And after five years of fundraisers and hard work, the town is finally enjoying its artificial-turf field
— the highest of its kind in the country, at 10,152 feet.
Pushed by people power
The town's recent string of achievements is "driven by people who want to see it happen and who are giving an inordinate amount of time to seeing it get done," said Peter Frykholm, half of Lake County's busy recreation department.
Among other things, Frykholm was instrumental in bringing the $1.8 million artificial-turf field to Leadville. He and others say the effort to build the field was the spark for everything else that is happening in Leadville.
Given the price tag and Lake County's relative lack of financial resources, the idea seemed outlandish at first. But people in the community made it happen, donating, working.
The field quickly captured a piece of the town's heart, attracting ultimate-Frisbee players from Colorado Mountain College, soccer fanatics from the thriving Latino community, high school kids.
It has been used constantly since it opened last August, never mind the snow. (Volunteers removed it from the turf.)
The day the field opened, "I was just lying on the field, I was so excited," said Arianna Vierczhalek, 17, a junior at Lake County High School.
The high school didn't even have a soccer program until a few years ago. Now, the team can host games.
And the football team will begin playing on the field next year, giving the town its introduction to Friday-night games.
"My whole family comes out to play," said Maria Campos, 16, who wore a Mexican flag like a cape while she practiced with her team on Cinco de Mayo.
The field is booming — something the people of Leadville understand.
Since 19th-century miners found silver in the nearby hills, the city has seesawed between big booms and wrenching busts. A century ago, there were 40,000 residents.
With the big employer, the molybdenum mine, shuttered since the 1980s, the town remains stuck by some measures in "bust" mode.
Everybody wants jobs in the city, instead of miles away in other counties.
Some dream of the return of mining, but many have rejected visions of minerals being yanked from the earth. Instead, they simply want people to visit Leadville and open their wallets.
The changes cost — the skate- park bill, for example, could reach $750,000. Some of the money comes from government and more from grants. For the changes to take place, though, a lot will also come from volunteer labor.
"Now it's not, 'It can't happen.' It's, 'Who is the right person to champion this?' " said Bordogna, the county commissioner.
Tourist draws all around
The ultimate goal — persuading outsiders to spend time in Leadville — is not far-fetched. The Sawatch Range — especially big mountains such as Mount Massive and Mount Elbert — dominates the horizon. The possibilities for hiking, biking, hunting and more are profound.
Chris Albers, 35, moved to Leadville from Vail five years ago and opened Provin' Grounds, a coffee shop on the historic main street. The shop succeeded, and Albers and a partner opened Cycles of Life, a bike store across the street.
His story, he said, is becoming routine.
"There is a younger, newer crowd moving here and embracing it," he said. "I can't afford to buy a house in Vail, no matter how much I like living there. I'm a farm boy from South Dakota. I've done this all by myself."
Albers has become one of the city's most aggressive advocates. He led the drive to buy the Sno- Cat, and he usually grooms the trail. He was there when the idea for the new mountain-biking trails first rose up.
"It was a bunch of us sitting around the bike shop one day after work drinking beer, the way a lot of things happen," he said.
The cyclists starting holding meetings. They bought a Global Positioning System device to map trail corridors and gave county commissioners a detailed plan. They attended seminars about trail-building strategies.
Albers believes the town's work is paying off. As the owner of a bustling coffeehouse, "we have secret ears," he said. "We know there are more and more people coming here."