What’s next for Craig? Community, county look ahead to an economy without coal
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When Jennifer Holloway was hired as executive director of the Craig Chamber of Commerce, “I didn’t know what I was getting into, I’ll be honest,” she says.
“I thought this would just be a fun little community job where you throw parades,” she remembers with a laugh.
Then Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association announced in early 2020 that the Craig Station coal-fired power plant would be shutting down in 2030, along with the local Colowyo Mine that supplies it. With the looming loss of hundreds of jobs, Holloway now is part of a broad-based effort to reimagine the future of Craig and Moffat County as the area looks to transition away from a coal-based economy in coming years.
“It’s scary but it’s also a cool opportunity that we can get people to put in their ideas and thoughts and kind of create something together,” she said.
“It is an interesting time,” said Tom Kleinschnitz, the former owner of a Grand Junction-based, multi-state rafting company who now works for Moffat County as director of Visit Moffat County and is a Craig City Council member.
“I think that what’s coming can be jarring. Some of the people in my community have not fully accepted the change that’s coming.”
The 2030 shutdown at the plant will entail ending operations at the last of three generating units at the 1,285-megawatt Craig Station, which still will be operating at that point. Called Unit 3, it’s owned solely by Tri-State, the plant’s operator. Units 1 and 2 are owned by Tri-State and several partner utilities, and are slated to shut down at the end of 2025 and on Sept. 30, 2028, respectively.
Tri-State’s move to close the plant came in response to state greenhouse-gas reduction requirements, and demands from some of the local power Tri-State cooperatives it serves to move toward cleaner and increasingly cheaper power sources.
More than 250 people worked at the plant when the closure plans were announced. Current staffing is about 150 employees there; Tri-State hopes the plant’s workforce will largely be reduced over the years by retirements and attrition. Records with the state Division of Reclamation, Mining and Safety show that the Colowyo Mine employed 176 miners as of the end of September. It employed 219 at the time the shutdown plans were announced.
The power plant also is supplied by the nearby Trapper Mine, which is owned by multiple utilities. It employed about 185 people at the time that Tri-State announced the shutdown plans in 2020, and 99 people at the end of September. The plant is its only customer, so it also is expected to shut down in coming years.
The plant and mine jobs are high-paying ones for Moffat County, and the facilities are responsible for much of the property tax revenues in the county. Tri-State alone accounted for nearly a quarter of the county’s 2022 assessed valuation, with a tax obligation for the year of nearly $7 million, according to county assessor data. Kleinschnitz said power plant and coal operations account for more than half of the property tax income coming into the county, so the county is in for monumental change.
“We’ll need some innovative thinking, out of the box, trying to find the best solutions for our community,” he said.
Kleinschnitz, who started his career in the rafting industry in Moffat County when he was young, before going on to run his Adventure Bound company in Grand Junction, thinks that tourism “certainly can be a strong contributor to Moffat County’s future.”
He said the county has nearly 2 million acres of public lands, and the potential for more river access along the Yampa River corridor “is huge.”
Kleinschnitz was involved with the riverfront improvement efforts in Grand Junction for years.
“It’s so cool that it is what it is now. It’s absolutely wonderful,” he said of that riverfront.
He said Craig has received nearly $4 million in grants for a whitewater park to be built south of the city, and he thinks it can be a centerpiece for further riverfront development there.
He also pointed to the single-track mountain bike trails already available in the area, and the potential for developing more trails for biking, hiking and motorized use. Already, off-highway vehicle use is allowed on all county roads, he noted.
Spurred in part by more people getting outdoors during the pandemic, Kleinschnitz said people have been discovering remote, backcountry spots in the county. They’re looking for less crowded areas and opportunities to camp for free, something that’s becoming harder to find in a lot of places elsewhere. Kleinschnitz said there’s a company that escorts people out to the Sand Wash Basin west of Craig to see the wild horses there, and others are talking about providing such types of professional guiding services.
Kleinschnitz said it is important to prepare for more outdoor tourism through means such as putting in places for people to properly park, working with federal land management agencies and doing leave-no-trace messaging.
The Craig chamber likewise is involved in outdoor recreation initiatives, working with agencies such as the federal Bureau of Land Management and Colorado Parks and Wildlife. Holloway said the chamber has received a grant to help pay for infrastructure in the Sand Wash Basin. She said some of its outdoor recreation efforts are focused on providing things such as staging areas, signs and good maps, so people will know what uses are allowed where, and designating more camping sites where overuse is a concern.
She said that in other places in Colorado, tourism, if an area is not ready for it, “can be pretty damaging. We want to make sure we’re staying ahead of it and have some great infrastructure in place.”
The chamber also is looking at how the Craig area can tap into more tourism traffic based on visitation that’s already occurring more regionally, at Dinosaur National Monument and in the skiing and summer resort of Steamboat Springs.
“I believe 300,000 people go to Dinosaur every year. How do we get them to come this way?” Holloway said.
Already, said Josh Veenstra, who with his wife, Maegan, owns Good Vibes River Gear in Craig, “when you go out to restaurants here you see people who are staying in the hotels in Craig because it is only 40 minutes from Steamboat and the hotels are like a hundred bucks” a night.
Holloway said the chamber is reaching out to numerous recreational interests, such as hunters, cyclists, motorcycle riders and horse enthusiasts, to get input about outdoor recreation and make sure that what is pursued is something the community can come together and support, “because this transition is a big shift for us.”
Holloway hopes such efforts are laying the groundwork for more businesses like Good Vibes. Besides serving as a traditional rafting shop offering things such as boat rentals and sales and shuttle services, the company makes its own mesh river-related gear.
Veenstra had worked at the power plant, and brought to his new business skills and knowledge gained from sewing insulating pads there as an insulator mechanic. He was born and raised in Craig, and said that when he grew up it was understood that he was pretty much destined to work in something coal-related.
But he felt the coal industry itself was destined to end, and says that while on a long local raft trip he decided to get out of “the rat race,” stop making money for another entity and open his business.
“I wanted to try to do something that I always had a passion for, and that was being outside and having a fun time,” he said.
He first ran the business out of his garage.
“From there it’s just kind of blowing up,” he said.
Now it’s also selling different sizes and shapes of durable, heavy-duty bags that can be used for grocery shopping. They have proven popular as a new Colorado law goes into effect this year requiring stores to charge 10 cents for paper and plastic bags, and largely banning businesses from providing single-use plastic carryout bags starting next year.
Veenstra said Good Vibes sold 400 or 500 of the bags last month alone.
“With the law that got passed, 2023 is going to be a pretty interesting year for Good Vibes,” he said.
He would like to see Craig become home to more artisan, craft-based manufacturers, adding that the key for Good Vibes has been offering customized products that can’t be found anywhere else, and marketing the company and its products over the Internet given Craig’s fairly isolated location.
A challenge for Craig is looking to a future when the high-paying power plant and mining jobs are gone. Both Holloway and Kleinschnitz said most outdoor-recreation and tourism jobs aren’t going to match those jobs in terms of pay, at least for entry-level jobs. They did point to the opportunity for business owners in those sectors to become wealthy, however, and Kleinschnitz said people also can work their way into middle-class and upper-middle-class management positions in tourism and outdoor recreation.
Shannon Scott, Craig’s economic development manager, said that while tourism and the outdoors industry are one focus of local economic development efforts, they’re just a small slice of those efforts. She said there’s also a focus on bringing in jobs comparable to those that will be lost, in areas such as manufacturing/industrial, transportation, energy and technology.
“We have a couple of projects in the works,” she said, adding that they’re still in their early stages so she can’t go into much detail about them.
She said one focus for her, working with an economic development advisory committee, has been aggressive marketing to show businesses and entrepreneurs that Craig is a great place to do business, work and live, and to highlight incentives available to companies, the area’s lower cost of living, and amenities such as a local hospital and college.
As exemplified by Veenstra, coal and power-plant workers also have valuable skill sets, and Scott said efforts are focused on bringing in industries offering jobs those skills can easily be transferred to, or for which such workers can be fairly easily retrained.
Some such efforts are focused on the future of the power plant site itself once coal-fired power generation ends there. Discussions on that possible future have included community representatives, Tri-State and others.
One idea that has been suggested is producing nuclear power there. Tri-State spokesman Mark Stutz said Tri-State has met with officials at Associated Governments of Northwest Colorado to discuss that idea, but those have been largely informational meetings to date.
“It is our belief that the Craig plant site provides significant opportunities for future use after 2030, perhaps as a hydrogen hub facility, with its existing transmission network, access to available land and water, and a strong and capable workforce,” he said.
Hydrogen can be produced from sources such as natural gas, or by extracting it from water.
One thing neither Scott nor Holloway is hearing discussion about is using the site as a molten salt power storage facility. That’s something under consideration by Xcel Energy in Routt County for the coal-fired power plant now operating in Hayden. The salt can be heated up and store that heat, which can be used to generate steam that produces power via a turbine. Scott and Holloway said their understanding is that a molten-salt project might not be an option for the Craig site. Stutz said all options for the future of the site “remain on the table and up for consideration.”
Xcel plans to retire the Hayden plant in 2028 under its clean energy plan for Colorado, approved by the state Public Utilities Commission last year. It has floated ideas for the site including not just molten-salt power storage but biomass power, produced in part by burning beetle-killed trees harvested from area forests.
Xcel spokeswoman Michelle Aguayo said Xcel expects to have bids on potential projects by early March and then present a plan to the PUC.
’Back In Craig, Veenstra is embracing the change coming to Craig.
“I don’t really believe in the coal industry, fossil fuels, so I was really just kind of wanting to get out of the whole thing,” he said.
He feels confident about Craig’s future, noting that it has had a strong housing market since Tri-State’s announced plans for the power plant and mine, with houses for a while selling within days of being put on the market.
“People want to move here who aren’t associated with the coal industry,” Veenstra said.
Still, the region’s transition will produce palpable pain. Holloway said what the Craig area is going through “is personal for our whole community.”
Everyone knows people who work at the mine and plant, she said. She said her brother works at the plant now as a contractor.
“My stepfather was a coal miner and it gave us a really great lifestyle,” she said.
“Growing up here, it was almost like the coal miners were astronauts, the level of respect (they received), because our community really grasps the concept that we are providing electricity for other people that’s making their lives better, and it was an honor to do that.”
She said she also understands the big picture, and the scientific data saying that something has to be done about the burning of coal for the sake of the environment. But she recognizes at the same time the need to do everything possible to address impacts to local families from the transition.
While there long has been a level of respect and community pride attached to coal-related jobs in the area, Holloway said, “we have to create a new identity.”
Scott thinks the community has come together and come up with good plans for the future.
“We work well as partners. We understand that it’s going to take the entire community to ensure that this transition is successful,” she said.