If you go
What: Fueling Thought Energy Summit 2008
When: May 15 to 17
Steamboat Springs Growth from an expected energy boom to the west could have a huge local impact.
Natural gas and oil aren't necessarily powerhouse industries in Routt County, and the massive Green River Formation oil shale deposit doesn't sit under local soil. But those fields may expand in nearby counties such as Moffat, and that will be significant for Routt County, said Noreen Moore, business resource director for the Routt County Economic Development Cooperative.
A study done for the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado outlined the area's socioeconomic conditions and took a look at the future. The study predicts steep increases in populations and jobs in Moffat, Rio Blanco, Garfield and Mesa counties.
Moffat County's population, for example, is expected to grow from 13,426 in 2005 to 26,356 in 2035, according to the study. Those counties don't have the infrastructure for that growth, the report stated.
Moore expects Hayden to see a big impact.
"They can't handle the housing," she said of the counties west of Routt. "Hayden is going to become very attractive. : The other thing we have to monitor is how Craig is filling up."
The effects on southern Routt County are tough to predict, Moore said, because towns such as Oak Creek and Yampa are less accessible than Hayden.
The housing scene across the region is changing, the study noted. For years, counties such as Moffat offered lower-cost housing for people working in resort communities such as Steamboat Springs.
But "this absorption capacity is largely gone, and the resort area counties will have to act much more aggressively to find and house workers," the study noted.
Energy jobs often pay thousands more than jobs that sustain tourism, Moore noted.
"As a lifestyle community, we're more at risk," she said. "If you can go over there and work in oilfields for 60 grand and live in Craig, who's going to travel all the way here to clean toilets?"
Aron Diaz, executive director of the Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado, said the dynamic between Routt and Moffat counties was similar to that of Garfield and Pitkin counties. Routt can look at those counties' issues to see what its future holds, he said.
"You do have an immigrant community, and some people don't mind living in very crowded quarters just to make it for a while," Diaz said. "But you also have a lot of mid-management and professional jobs that you can't get filled because people need a place to live."
He cited one severe example.
"In Garfield County, in one of their school districts, they had five teachers sign contracts to teach in the schools there," Diaz said. "They got there, they couldn't find a house, and they just didn't go to work. : We have to look at zoning, housing, what we're bringing on line, how we're doing things and are they affordable."
Communities have to buckle down and seek higher-density housing for their communities, he said.
"Here's the dilemma that we're looking at," Diaz said. "We can't continue to look at the single-family, 3-acre ranchette as viable housing in our area, because we're going to continue to sprawl, and we're going to build things" that don't match the community's needs.
Changes in Routt
Moore said she has witnessed a 180-degree shift in how housing works in Routt County. In the 1980s, she said, people lived in Steamboat and worked in the energy industry to the west. That added diversity to the community. But even workers on $150,000 salaries have a hard time buying homes here now, she said.
It doesn't help that the U.S. is headed for a massive worker shortage, Moore said. Data show that by 2012, the country will have zero labor replacement, she told a recent affordable housing forum.
Steamboat will be fighting for workers, she said.
"We run the risk of becoming an entirely gated community, in a way, because we'll have only one economy, and it won't be diverse," Moore said in an interview. In her opinion, Steamboat should look at lower-cost housing as crucial infrastructure rather than charity.
"If this community were to apply its focus on work force attraction like we do tourist attraction," it might be able to draw employees to sustain the industry, Moore said.
Choosing their own path
In the face of the energy industry boom, towns can guide their fate, Moore said.
"Hayden, for me, is a great barometer to watch," she said. The town is investing in ventures that represent its ideals and its view of itself, such as the high school vocational technology program, Moore said.
Towns can grow on their own terms if they plan ahead, Diaz said. He said growth and affordability issues in Northwest Colorado are the responsibility of residents and leaders.
"You need political leadership to pick up the ball and say, 'We're going to grow our communities the way we want them to grow and not have them grow beyond us or without us,'" Diaz said. "You need good planning and good support throughout the community, and you need to say, 'This is the way I want my community to work.'"