Rise & Recover
Durango Recovers & Thrives Again
With funky jewelry and hilarious coffee mugs as top sellers, 30-year-old locally owned and operated Animas Trading Company usually sparkles as one of downtown Durango’s perkiest shopping destinations. But when the government shutdown forced nonessential Colorado businesses to roll up their welcome mats, even Animas Trading Company felt like another prop in the ghost town that was downtown Durango for an eerie month and a half.
Fresh off a wave of the Gold King Mine spill, an endless drought, and the 416 Fire of 2018, Durango is practically famous for its reputation of grit and resiliency. So while tumbleweeds drifted about Main Avenue, and the future of a once-vibrant economy teetered with the unknowns of COVID-19, Durango’s movers and shakers wasted no time uniting, poised yet again to overcome another unforeseen crisis.
“I never thought I’d say that much good came out of the 416 Fire, but that disaster created a tight-knit group of people. We knew that if we rallied then, we could rally now,” says Tim Walsworth, executive director of Durango’s Business Improvement District.
Hunkered down at home, trying to figure out how to homeschool his second-grade son, Walsworth jumped on the first of a gazillion Zoom calls with that core group of wildfire recovery responders. Together, they formed the La Plata County Economic Recovery Task Force, a grassroots collective of 40 community-minded, business-serving organizations in southwest Colorado, including the Durango Chamber of Commerce, the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado, the Small Business Development Center, Purgatory Resort, the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad, Visit Durango, the Colorado Restaurant Association, Region 9, and many more.
“Our community is so special, full of the smartest, most creative, passionate people who end up in this little corner of the world,” says Walsworth. “You get them in a room (or Zoom) together and big things can happen.”
Before the “big things” materialized, the task force coalesced around one strategic goal: to “Rise and Recover Together.” With this mantra emblazoned on his desktop, Walsworth would spend the next 72 days straight working to ensure that longstanding businesses, like Animas Trading Company, would not only survive this disaster but find a way to thrive.
He and fellow task force members focused on getting local businesses to row in the same direction armed with accurate, timely information—even if it changed hourly. One of the signature resources that emerged from the ashes of the 416 Fire was Southwest Colorado Disaster Assistance, launched by the Community Foundation Serving Southwest Colorado as a one-stop shop for giving and receiving help. With the talents of MJ Carroll, local marketing and website specialist, swcoda.org was adapted to incorporate resources relevant to COVID-19, including how businesses could apply for relief packages, grants, and the illustrious Paycheck Protection Program loan opportunity.
As the federal government delivered good news of available money, local businesses scrambled to make sense of an application process that was clear as mud. So, the task force created a playbook to help businesses navigate funding options. Thanks to their speedy assistance, La Plata County businesses received 1,646 loans amounting to $115 million and affecting 12,896 jobs—that is, 42.2 percent of the entire labor pool, according to Mike French, executive director of the La Plata County Economic Development Alliance. These early successes put Durango in the spotlight across the state, with other Colorado communities calling Durango for ideas when there were no experts to turn to for advice, Walsworth says.
Bolstered by relief buoyancy, most businesses were able to push through the darkest days of the shutdown and concentrate on the future. With tourism representing 30 percent of Durango’s economy, all eyes were on the emerging trend of a driver’s market that would soon find visitors descending on downtown Durango in droves. While Durango’s remote location and sparse population have often been weaknesses in the economy, these traits have turned out to be Durango’s greatest allure for travelers seeking uncrowded mountain towns and wide-open spaces within driving distance of their cities and suburbs.
According to Visit Durango, hotel occupancy as of September 2020 is up 56 percent over the national average, and Durango is ranking in the top percentages of tourism destinations internationally. Task force members are working mightily to maintain the delicate balance of promoting business while protecting the community. To this end, adds Walsworth, the City of Durango has been an invaluable team player, especially with the expeditious rough-and-ready build of outside commercial spaces for downtown businesses called “bump-outs.”
On Friday, June 12, members of the task force and the City of Durango set up barricades and bump-outs, transforming Main Avenue in three days from four lanes into three lanes with a center-protected left-turn lane and sidewalks lined with new spaces to sit, sip, eat, and reactivate summer nightlife. The bump-outs generated an additional 10,000 square feet for business operations. At a minimum, these makeshift new spaces account for 20 percent of business sales, says Walsworth. For some, that’s the difference between keeping the doors open or closing shop for good.
Walsworth recalls sitting at a table outside El Moro Spirits & Tavern sipping an old fashioned on one of the first nights of the bump-outs, relishing the simple joy of watching friends gather at restaurants and seeing the smiles of servers returning to the work they love and rely on to feed their own families.
“These bump-outs create a vibrancy in the heart of our town that we desperately needed,” he says.
With the revived walkability of downtown Durango, liveliness also returned to Durango’s iconic stores, like Animas Trading Company, and, more importantly, to bank accounts that were once again starting to see numbers in the black. Despite being closed for a month and a half, Cathy Wakeman, owner of Animas Trading Company, says sales were up 1 percent compared to last summer.
“It’s exceeded anything I would’ve expected,” says Wakeman. “But the biggest thing for me is when people come in and say they just had fun shopping. We have stuff to make people laugh, which is what’s needed in these times right now. It makes me feel good knowing that I made somebody’s day. That’s worth it for me.”
“Businesses reopened, the tourists came back, and our [COVID-19] case counts haven’t gone crazy,” says Walsworth. “So, we got through the initial craziness, but so much work remains to be done. Now let’s get through the slow months. We’re asking the community to continue being doubly conscious of where you make your purchases, and we need our local people to do what they always do: show up and support local businesses. ‘Rise and Recover Together’ reminds us what we’re trying to do here, so let’s do it today, and let’s do it together. Let’s look local first. Let’s start thriving again.”