Going south

Oak Creek draws young residents in search of community

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Steamboat Springs has a saying: "Come for the winter. Stay for the summer." On Thursday afternoon, over a cup of coffee at The Mugshot Coffee shop, Chula Wheby, 30, thought of a similar anthem for the town of Oak Creek.

"Come for the prices. Stay for the community."

Everyone at the table agreed. Sitting with Wheby were two other women -- Harmony Harris, 30, and Meghan Kasper, 23, -- who had moved to Oak Creek in the past year. They came in search of the affordable housing no longer available in Steamboat, but they found a lot more than a low mortgage.

The rapidly growing number of Oak Creek residents in their 20s and 30s describe a place where all the business owners know your name, you can walk everywhere you go, and your friends live just blocks away, if not next door. They describe a place where they feel a sense of community. They speak with excitement in their voices and a tinge of surprise.

For many, the move to Oak Creek was a way to live cheaply while commuting to Steamboat. Some thought purchasing an affordable home in Oak Creek would be a step toward buying a house in Steamboat, but the thought of moving back to Steamboat grows more and more distant.

"Oak Creek may be a bedroom community by definition, but I think most everyone I met here would like to see something develop so they could live and work in Oak Creek," Kasper said.

For this new group of young residents, working in the coal mines or on the railroad is not an option. Instead, they are carving their own niches in the town.

Andy and Jaila Benjamin, both in their 30s, bought Chelsea's Szechuan Restaurant two years ago as a way to end their daily commute to Steamboat and focus on raising a family in Oak Creek.

The Benjamins moved to town more than four years ago. There were a few young people living in town then, but the numbers have exploded in the past few years.

"There are probably 10 new couples that I know who have moved out here (since January)," Jaila Benjamin said. "They are having kids, buying houses and fixing them up."

In fact, it's hard to walk a block these days in Oak Creek without hearing the sound of a power sander or a hammer. The people interviewed by the Steamboat Pilot & Today spent between $105,000 and $180,000 on their homes. Their homes have yards and enough bedrooms to start a family, but they also need a lot of work.

"If we got paid for our time fixing up the house, maybe it would be $50,000," Wheby said. "It's been months and months of work."

"All we do when we're not working is work on the house," Kasper said.

They help each other when they can, Harris said, but everyone is in the same boat with their homes -- scraping, painting, insulating and laying new floors.

The renovations are infusing town with a new pride, Jaila Benjamin said. That and the town's recent crackdown on code enforcement are changing the look of Oak Creek.

"You don't see dead appliances in the yards as much anymore. They're giving the town a facelift. There's a lot of energy in town right now and the old-time locals are latching onto that energy as well."

Brad Setter, 29, and Karla Setter, 26, moved to Oak Creek in August. They bought a house across the street from the Chulas and Jonathan Wheby.

The Setters lived in Steamboat for a year and a half and in employee housing at Stagecoach State Park for nine months before that.

They both grew up in small towns in Minnesota and were looking for small-town atmosphere when they decided to buy a house.

"We didn't move to Oak Creek because we couldn't afford to be somewhere else," Karla Setter said. "We moved here because we want to be here."

"This is such a close-knit community," Brad Setter said. "People share tools. They share labor."

Because most of the people moving to Oak Creek are homebuyers, there isn't the same feeling of transience that often exists in neighboring Steamboat, Wheby said.

"Your friendships have a chance to grow deeper," she said. "To me, this place feels like the town my mom fell in love with when she moved to Steamboat Springs all those years ago."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210

or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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