In normal times, La Veta, Colorado Mayor Doug Brgoch can tell you with near certainty when the long winter is over just by scanning license plates. It’s not a trick. This time of year, said Brgoch, the lure of La Veta and the majestic Spanish Peaks, brings snowbirds back to one of the state’s most beautiful small towns. It may happen again. But with a microscopic virus turning the world upside down, everything’s on hold.
“Virtually everything is closed down,” said Brgoch. “We have a couple of restaurants that are doing limited, take-out only.” And that’s it. Normal in this picturesque town of a thousand that lies just off southern Colorado Highway 160, is now surreal. The sudden fog of uncertainty couldn’t happen at a worse time. “We’re heading into the tourist season,” he said.
Tourists are the economic lifeblood of towns like La Veta. While no real numbers are available, visitors who venture into town shop and eat before heading on down the road. They’re who La Veta counts on for sales tax. “It’s the blood we run municipal government on,” said Brgoch.
While the Coronavirus and Governor Polis subsequent shelter in place order have left an economic scar on Colorado’s big cities, they have put the state’s small towns on life support. “I can’t tell you how many people are without jobs,” said Brgoch. “Virtually all the construction is shut down,” he said. “Ancillary jobs,” too.
This isn’t the first time La Veta has gone through rough times. Two years ago, the Spring Creek Fire burned to the edge of town, forcing evacuations and scorching more than 100,000 acres of Huerfano County. But this time it’s different. “With fires and floods,” said Brgoch, “you know the enemy.” With an invisible virus, “You don’t know.” So far, only one person has been diagnosed with Covid-19.
To alleviate some of the financial pressure on residents, town officials voted to reduce water bills. A decision on extending the policy will be revisited “in our next board meeting,” said Brgoch. In the meantime, they’ve drafted letters to U.S. Senators Bennet and Gardner explaining how the virus and shutdown have impacted the town. “We’re hoping that federal assistance will reach down to towns as small as ours. We hope they’ll speak for us.”
A hundred miles west of La Veta, a similar conundrum is playing out. “We were impacted early on when they closed Wolf Creek,” said Dan Hicks, Southfork Town Administrator. The Wolf Creek ski resort is a sales tax bonanza each spring, just not this spring. “This year there were going to be three weeks of spring breakers,” said Hicks. “They completed the first week,” then the virus landed, erasing the other two. “That more or less made our spring go away.”
Not only did the skiers go away, said Hicks, so, too, did the resort’s seasonal jobs. An economic tsunami followed. Ski rentals, motel bookings and restaurant business suddenly vanished. Restaurants that sizzled with business, said Hicks, suddenly became take-out only. Except for cops and fire, all public buildings are shuttered.
Hicks is worried this late winter of discontent could linger. “My main concern,” he wondered, “is what’s going to happen during the summer?” Southfork’s tourist season is late June through October. As the conversation continued, the traffic that normally flows steadily through Southfork, has slowed to a trickle. “I can look out from our offices and normally see lots of people, lots of cars going in each direction,” he said. “Since we’ve been talking, I’ve seen about ten. People just aren’t traveling.”
Hicks, a fulltime Southfork resident the last thirteen years, has no criticism of the President’s handling of the virus. His priority is just getting his town back on solid footing. “We’re hopeful,” he said. “The Feds are working on it, working on small business.” Being pragmatic, said the San Francisco expatriate, is the only thing he can be about a situation no one could have imagined, that and answer phones, a duty he’s taken on since his staff has all been furloughed.