The reopening of the Huerfano County Correctional Facility may have lasting effects
Huerfano County is close to getting a much needed employment boost.
The reopening of a prison in Walsenburg - which closed during the Great Recession in 2010 - may bring as many as 70 jobs to a county that continues to recover from economic constraints.
According to the most recent data available from the U.S. Census Bureau, Huerfano County’s unemployment rate is at 6.3 percent, double that of the state rate of 3.1 percent. Though a much better rate than the peak of 16.4 percent the county saw at the end of the recession, it still ranks as one of the highest unemployment rates among Colorado’s counties.
“I know a lot of folks began by commuting out of town and then just moved away all together,” said Lawrence Everly, who lived in Walsenburg until 2009, when he felt forced to move his family to Brighton amid better job prospects. “It was just like anywhere else, I guess. You went wherever there was work and once you found it, that’s where you stayed.”
Walsenburg had experienced a bit of a population boom in the early 2000s with an increase of over 25 percent from the previous decade, but that came crashing down at the end of the decade when the recession began to pluck jobs from Walsenburg and surrounding Huerfano County towns.
When the privately owned Huerfano County Correctional Center closed its doors on April 2, 2010, it not only meant laying off 188 workers - a large chunk for a town of just over 4,000 people - it also meant a loss of about $300,000 a year in revenue for Walsenburg from utilities, taxes and fees paid by the prison.
“I remember reading about the prison closing in the newspaper and watching stories about it on the news,” Everly recalled. “We were still working to get back on our feet (in Brighton), so I felt a little removed from the whole situation. But I do remember thinking that (the closure) was the nail in the coffin for that town. It was a pretty dark time for everybody.”
That darkness lingered a little longer in Huerfano County as several businesses felt the impact of the correctional facility closing; the light at the end of the tunnel seems to be closer now, however, as the Colorado Department of Corrections is looking to lease the Huerfano County Correctional Facility as a temporary holding facility for 250 inmates.
The potential lease means the return of about 70 jobs, to an area that has already begun to see an uptick of economic growth amid dire straits thanks to growth and stability in the healthcare, construction and retail industries - all three of which remain the highest employers by percentage in the county.
CoreCivic is the private company that owns the Huefano County Correctional Center as well as nearby Bent County and Crowley County prisons. Though the 70 additional jobs pale in comparison to the 188 jobs the facility housed previously, it still represents and financial boost for the area.
“Ideally, they’d hire from within the area,” Everly said. “It’s going to be a boost regardless, but the impact would be felt more if they hired as much as they can from the area.”
The state legislature approved spending $10.6 million to allow the DOC to add 250 beds to the site, how long those beds will remain at the facility - along with the 70 additional jobs - has not yet been determined as neither the DOC nor CoreCivic have publicly commented on when the facility will reopen or how long it will remain open.
Correction: In the article titled “Getting a temporary boost” published on March 21, 2018, it was reported that the Colorado State Legislature had approved $10.6 million in funding for the Huerfano County Correctional Center. It was also reported that there was an existent lease. According to the Public Information Officer of the Colorado Department of Corrections, Mark Fairbairn, the Colorado State Legislature has not approved any funding for the site, nor is there an existent lease between the two entities. La Voz regrets the error.