Hickenlooper focuses Hayden discussion on roles of tourism, ag in economy absent of coal | SteamboatToday.com

Hickenlooper focuses Hayden discussion on roles of tourism, ag in economy absent of coal

Stakeholders from Routt and Moffat counties gathered at the Hayden Center in Hayden for a meeting about recreation, agriculture and the transition away from fossil fuels with U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper. (Photo by Dylan Anderson)

HAYDEN — Josh Veenstra was born and raised in Craig after his grandfather helped start the Trapper Mine. As he got older, his dad asked when he was going to get a real job.

“That’s why I decided to go get a real job out at the coal mine and figure out what path I was going to go down,” Veenstra said.

At the mine he worked with an insulator mechanic, which required him to use a sewing machine to make custom insulation pads. Eventually he got pretty good.

“I would always sit out there and kind of dream,” Veenstra said. “There has got to be more to life than this. I got to be happy during the day.”

On a river trip that launched from near Craig, he got the idea to start making his own gear. He quit his job, ran out and bought a sewing machine and started making mesh bags.

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“Here we are five years later, one of the leading mesh manufacturers of outdoor river gear,” said Veenstra, founder of Good Vibes River Gear based in Craig.

Veenstra made a transition from an extraction-based energy job to starting his own recreation-based business in the Yampa Valley. As power plants in Hayden and Craig are scheduled to shut down within the next decade or so, many coal miners and power plant workers are going to have to alter their career path.

A group of stakeholders from across Routt and Moffat counties gathered Thursday in Hayden for the third stop on The Wright Listening Tour to talk about the intersection of agriculture and recreation in the Yampa Valley and how it will be key to the economic transition ahead with U.S. Sen. John Hickenlooper, D-Colo.

Hickenlooper, who joined the meeting virtually because he is quarantining from COVID-19, sits on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee in the U.S. Senate. He wanted to start getting aggressive in congress about assisting communities such as Hayden and Craig transition their economies.

“To make sure that we have new jobs to replace the old jobs that are in many cases being lost because of that transition,” Hickenlooper said.

In the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed last month by the Senate, Hickenlooper said there is money for water infrastructure projects, to clean up old mines and oil and gas wells and to help increase broadband locally.

Tim Wohlgenant, executive director of the Yampa Valley Community Foundation, said the valley is different than other parts of Colorado because the river defines it. Because of this, the local economies all along the river are closely connected.

“It’s an economic ecosystem that mirrors that natural ecosystem that we have here,” Wohlgenant said. “We, in this region, have an opportunity or perhaps an imperative to change portions of our economies, to remake portions of this economy to adapt to the changes.”

Tom Kleinschnitz, director of the Moffat County Tourism Association, said he feels tourism needs to be promoted correctly, with the support of the community.

“That means having buy-in from all people that live there and the culture that’s there,” Kleinschnitz said.

While Moffat County is not equipped to handle tourism like Steamboat, they need to prepare to be visitor-ready, Kleinschnitz said. This means building more trails, parks and amenities in partnership with residents and agricultural landowners.

Jeannie Jo Logan, grant project manager for the Yampa Valley RISE grant earned by Hayden and South Routt County school districts, said the agriculture-based education is also important for the local economy, and it’s closely connected to tourism.

The two districts share a $1 million grant that is allowing students to graduate with various certificates in agriculture from Colorado Northwestern Community College.

“This is allowing our students the opportunity to learn something and move forward,” Logan said. “This is giving them another opportunity to walk out of the school and be career-ready.”

John Bristol, economic development director at the Steamboat Springs Chamber, said that his takeaway from Thursday’s discussion was that Yampa Valley is on the “right economic track” by focusing on recreation, agriculture and where the two industries can support one another.

“These are opportunities that produce good jobs, high-quality jobs that pay well and have good benefits,” Bristol said. “When we are looking at this transition with coal fired power generation, that is what we need and these are two pathways forward.”

Hickenlooper largely listened during the meeting, but said a lot of the work he intends to do when the Senate resumes is to make sure money ends up in rural areas to help with economic transition.

“As we’re dealing with climate change, the wildfires, the record heat, we are going to have to accelerate this transition,” Hickenlooper said. “That means we make sure that we help communities like the Yampa Valley do everything they can to make this transition reasonable and fair.”

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