Steeped in trading history, Otero County continues its search for economic growth
Writer’s note: For the past several weeks we have been focusing on Southern Colorado counties, where they came from, what they have to offer and why more Coloradoans should pay them a visit. In this ninth and final edition we explore the county that once served as Colorado’s trading capitol: Otero County
There are few individuals to have a county in the United States named after them – even fewer have two counties carrying their name, but such is the case of Miguel Antonio Otero.
Instrumental in bringing economic development to the New Mexico Territory in the 1800s and the founder of the town of La Junta in Southeastern Colorado, Otero’s name lives on in both New Mexico’s Otero County and Colorado’s Otero County.
Otero County is one of the Centennial State’s 64 counties and remains a focal point of economic development in Southern Colorado. With its county seat located in La Junta, Otero shares many of its key historical sites with many of the area’s surrounding counties. It marks another stop on the Santa Fe National Historic Trail and the American Discover Trail. Comanche National Grassland also runs through Otero County by way of Timpas – which lies just south of La Junta County – and into both Baca and Las Animas counties. The Grassland is recognized for the marks of ancient American Indians found in petroglyphs on the rocks and cliff faces in the canyons. Some of the rock art is believed to be as old as 8,000 years, while other petroglyphs depict Spanish settlers from the 16th century.
A lone nation historic site unique to Otero County is Bent’s Old Fort National Historic Site, which for over 15 years was the only major permanent settlement on the Santa Fe Trail between Missouri and western Mexican settlements. The fort was erected in 1833 and served as center of the Bent, St. Vrain Company’s trade empire. Though primary trade at the site was with the Southern Cheyenne and Arapaho Indian tribes – particularly for buffalo robes, the U.S. Army, explorers and other travelers would stop at the fort to replenish supplies such as water and food while also performing maintenance on their wagons. Famous frontiersmen like Kit Carson and John C. Frémont were known to frequent the fort.
Much of Southern Colorado has seen its population decline since the area’s primary growth industry– mining – began to decline after World War II. Otero County is no different, but rather than drastic declines the county, whose primary industry remains agriculture, has seen a rather stagnant population. From its high point of 25,275 in 1950, according to the U.S. Census bureau, Otero County now counts an estimated 18,295.
Of that number, 54.6 percent are Caucasian while the largest minority population is Hispanic of any race at 41.7 percent. American Indian (3.6 percent) make up the next largest minority demographic.
With Otero Junior College serving as a catalyst for both employment and preparing employees of the future, Otero County continues to strive for economic growth. In the 2015-2016 over 50 percent of the junior college’s 1,464 enrolled student population hailed from Otero County with the remainder being made up primarily of students from surrounding Southern Colorado counties.
Though a portion of those students transfer to four-year universities in search of advanced degrees, they all end up in the same competitive workforce. In an effort to keep that workforce fluid and competitive, the Southeast Colorado Small Business Development Center (SBDC) was established. Based in La Junta with satellite offices in Rocky Ford, Ordway and Lamar, the Southeast Colorado SBDC offers business consulting and training that maximizes the economic potential of entrepreneurs within Southeastern Colorado.
According to the organization’s website, the SBDC “combines information and resources from federal, state and local governments with those of the education system and private sector to meet the specialized and complex needs of the small business community.”
For more information on how to take advantage of the services provided by the Southeast Colorado SBDC visit www.southeastcosbdc.org.