You wouldn’t know it by driving through town other than to catch a glimpse of a sign announcing the site of a new senior center or the availability of smoked meats at the Sinclair station, but Dove Creek, Colo., is experiencing a renaissance.
“Dove Creek and Dolores County are waking up after a 30-year slumber,” said Dan Fernandez, retired CSU Extension agent in Dove Creek and a long-time member of Dolores County Development Corporation.
The underpinnings of this rebirth lie in dedicated and patient people in Dove Creek, many of them newcomers, who are finding ways to harness the potential of this resource-rich but economically poor community.
“Dove Creek really is somewhere special,” said Cristy Jenkins, facilitator for The Community Voice, a recently formed community group. “I think the best part is the people. We have some amazing artists, thinkers, musicians and engineers. You can visit a neighbor and be blown away by the beautiful garden they have created, or an off-the grid house they built with their own two hands. We have farmers working hard to bring food to America’s tables. We are raising the next generation of young people, with skills and talents all their own.”
Pay it forward
While it is difficult to precisely identify when the alarm clock sounded that roused Dove Creek from its slumber, one of the groups that set that alarm was the Community Pay It Forward Club, formed by a small group of volunteers in 2013.
The founders of the club challenged the community to keep Dove Creek “Somewhere Special” (the town’s tag line) by investing in their future. They set the bold goal of raising $100,000 over three years to create a community endowment.
According to the club’s 2013-14 Giveback Catalog, “The earnings on the endowment will be directed to the Dove Creek region’s community needs and projects, such as senior care, early childhood education, promotion of the arts, emergency services, and a recreation center.”
The club partnered with the Paradox Community Trust, a regional non-profit investing in community development, to hold contributions from local folks who care about Dove Creek.
While the Community Pay It Forward Club did not reach its cash goal, they did build a community endowment by catching the attention of the Colorado Trust, a non-profit that is working to support challenged communities in Colorado.
Jenkins explained that the trust has shifted its focus from “dumping money into communities for project work” to effecting change. Dove Creek was one of eight communities selected by the trust to participate in a process designed to give voice to residents and include them in identifying and implementing solutions to community problems.
About 15 residents have consistently participated in the ongoing process, which started in October 2015. Initially, the community formed a “resident team,” many of them members of the Community Pay It Forward Club, that developed the general approach for identifying problems and solution. The resident team dubbed the process “The Community Voice” and hired a part-time facilitator with Colorado Trust funds.
The first phase involved interviews to collect comments about likes, dislikes, and what to change in the Dove Creek community. With this information, and input from ongoing community meetings with the resident team and others, the group plans to have a firm plan for sustainable change prepared by March 2017, Jenkins said. “The plan will be submitted to the Colorado Trust for further support on learning and planning.”
In the next phase, the group will dig deeper to find root causes of community problems such as a widely dispersed and declining population, poverty, a lack of health and shopping services, and a shortage of modern housing and commercial buildings. While Dove Creek has been using a similar but more informal process in the past to seek solutions, this is the first time there has been outside support to specifically target voices not usually heard at community meetings. One of the common complaints in community meetings is that “the same folks organize everything in Dove Creek” (although that may be a natural result of the town’s population of just 721).
In addition, Dove Creek is determined to resurrect its Chamber of Commerce, which has all but disbanded because of lack of leadership. The Dolores County Development Corporation (DCDC) won funding from the Paradox Trust Community Challenge to fund a part-time chamber director. Further support from the Colorado Department of Tourism has been made available to train the new director.
“This will be a great boost to the business community,” said Gus Westerman, director of DCDC and the current CSU extension agent for Dove Creek. “The support of the Colorado Department of Tourism will also provide a foundation for promoting annual events in Dove Creek such as the Pick ’n’ Hoe,” a celebration held over the July Fourth holiday.
21st century makeover
The soon-to-be-visible evidence of Dove Creek’s awakening is the groundbreaking for the new Dolores County senior center and public service building. This new campus for Dolores County senior and public services will finally corral far-flung services in one central location in Dove Creek. The public service center will combine three Dolores County departments (road and bridge, GIS, and emergency services) into one modern facility. The senior center is scheduled to break ground in early September and be completed by late spring, depending on winter weather delays.
While a new senior and public service center have been envisioned for years, they were finally able to reach fruition with the help of outside funding.
“It has taken years of dedicated hard work and repeated applications to shake loose the needed funds,” Fernandez said.
For example, the funding for the new Public Service Center was provided in part a by $2 million grant from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs (DOLA), one of the largest grants ever received by Dolores County.
Nita Purkat, director of senior services for Dolores County, listed the three main reasons a new senior center is needed. “First of all, we have been paying increasing maintenance costs on a building we don’t own.” The current senior center is in an old school building in Cahone that is owned by the Dolores County School District. “We just can’t afford to keep paying rising maintenance costs on an old building.”
The second reason for moving the senior center from Cahone to Dove Creek is to provide better accessibility to services. Purkat said the senior population (60 or older) is expected to be the fastest- growing part of Dolores County’s population. Currently, senior services are “10 miles out” from the main population center, Dove Creek.
Purkat estimated the senior-services office serves about half of the 400 to 450 seniors in Dolores County. She expects that they will be able to reach a greater percentage of this population in the new location.
Finally, transportation for Dolores County’s senior and disabled populations is now dispatched from Cahone. “The 10 miles each way between Dove Creek and Cahone really add up – up to 10,000 dead head miles per year,” Purkat said. The senior-services office is not reimbursed for those miles.
“The new senior center will be an important addition to a healthy community,” by supporting both social and physical health of the fastest growing part of the Dolores County adult population, she said.
Another improvement has been an expansion in the services of the popular DC TV station, broadcasting from the tower atop the county courthouse in Dove Creek and transmitted to the greater community by Southwest Colorado Television Transmitter Association. DC TV is already known in the community for its evening news broadcasts featuring local students and 4-H participants, which have been produced for 16 years.
Wayne Johnson, director of the SWCTTA, provided funding for a pilot local news program at noon on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday each week as well as Talk Tuesday, a live interview show. He said in an interview on Talk Tuesday on July 26 that “we’ve always been a believer in local because the big stations don’t have the money and manpower to come out and do stories in small areas unless it bleeds.”
Kendra Cook, station manager for DC TV and News at Noon, explained that the broadcast also includes a detailed local weather report, important for Dove Creek since it is outside regional radar views, as well as High County Happenings with upcoming local events.
Each news show is rebroadcast through the day and available on youtube and through the Dove Creek Broadcast News Facebook page. Cook reports that they are gathering more viewers each month, and several feature stories have had thousands of Facebook likes.
One local resident that has the potential to hinder development in Dove Creek and Dolores County is the Gunnison sage grouse. This ground-dwelling bird was recently listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a threatened species requiring new regulations that will protect the bird and its habitat.
When the Dolores County commissioners saw that the potential critical habitat for the Gunnison sage-grouse included most of the western part of Dolores County, they immediately rallied residents to oppose this listing. But, seeing the writing on the wall, they also supported state and private habitat conservation efforts. Early meetings hosted by the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife to sign up landowners to participate in a volunteer sage-grouse habit-conservation program met with mixed reviews. The remark that imprinted on me at the meeting that I attended was “they’re gonna use that chicken to take your land.”
Despite the opposition, several brave landowners stepped up to protect the grouse habitat they owned. Working with the Montezuma Land Conservancy, they put their land in conservation easements with the specific purpose of enhancing and protecting grouse habitat.
Dan Fernandez and his wife, Anita, changed their retirement plans to conserve habitat. “I purchased the land to develop and to use the proceeds for retirement. We even put-in utilities,” he said. “But I just couldn’t see houses on that land. I just couldn’t do it.”
At the annual MLC picnic in July held on Fernandez’s property, conservancy director Jon Leibowitz proudly showed off a map of MLC’s easements in Dolores County. They have conserved enough private land adjacent to state and federal plots to create more than 5,000 acres of mostly contiguous sage-grouse habitat. Is it enough to save the bird? It is too soon to say, but it is an important regional success story that highlights the new partnerships forming between private landowners, the state, and federal land managers around Dove Creek for better resource management.
Beyond the Pick ’n’ Hoe
The Dove Creek economy has been based on mining and agriculture (famously pinto beans) that are both celebrated on the Fourth of July with the annual Pick ’n’ Hoe celebration. The DCDC’s efforts to expand and diversify Dove Creek’s business base are starting to pay off.
DCDC operates the Weber Industrial Park in Dove Creek on land donated by the Weber family trust. DCDC invested in infrastructure and utilities to lease locations for future businesses in the park. Once home to a now-defunct biodiesel facility, the park is seeing new activity with a variety of businesses moving in.
Carhart Customs was recently featured in the Region 9 Economic Development District newsletter. Kyle Carhart, the owner, purchased one of the buildings abandoned by the biodiesel operation and has grown his fabrication and heavy equipment repair business to support five employees.
DCDC also supports local entrepreneurs with a revolving micro-loan fund. Some of these loans have been used to revive Dove Creek’s retail and restaurant scene. The owners of the Sinclair station, Laurie and Mike Steele, have expanded their convenience store operation to include smoked meats (with their on-site smoke house), and recently added an ice-cream parlor.
Stateline Bar and Grill, located west of Dove Creek on the Colorado-Utah border, has been open weekends and hosting live music in a beautiful outdoor patio and large paneled bar. And there are even rumors of a new bakery coming to Dove Creek.
The future of agriculture in Dove Creek may also expand beyond beans. Extension agent Westerman has been overseeing trials of industrial hemp at the CSU Experiment Station in Yellow Jacket. Industrial hemp is defined as plants with 0.03 percent THC (the psychoactive component in marijuana) or less. The station is in the second year of trials to test hemp varieties for growing characteristics and water use.
“The results are promising,” Westerman said. “However, seed availability is a big issue.” Westerman noted that the Colorado Department of Agriculture is working on a hemp-seed certification program that should improve seed availability in the future. And since the county commissioners have lifted the prohibition on industrial hemp growing, there could be a new source of green for Dove Creek.
The future looks bright for a rejuvenated Dove Creek. But can it be sustained? Each of the new developments have made an effort to recognize the “invisible infrastructure” of community knowledge and support needed to sustain these new buildings, programs, businesses, and conservation efforts. The community has consciously developed grass roots solutions that include a diversity of members and voices. Let’s hope they don’t hit the snooze button and go back to sleep again.