The winding, two-lane highway into Lake City hugs the light-green Lake Fork of the Gunnison River as it rushes downward toward the valley, past thick forest and Colorado wildflowers. The first view from above is unexpected, almost startling: a town, though a tiny one with wooden boardwalks instead of sidewalks along its two-block main strip, sits isolated in a valley surrounded by mountain peaks, three to five hours from any major metropolis. The 780 residents who live in Hinsdale County year-round desperately want to entice tourists to drive over 11,000-foot passes, hundreds of miles from a major airport, to visit their breathtaking valley. But Lake City has no ski resort, no alpine slide, no Leadville 100 ultra-running race, nor any other defining attraction, save for a fall wine festival and a free ice-climbing wall. Locals in this former mining town are brainstorming to come up with an “anchor attraction,” one that draws tourists but stays true to Lake City’s identity as a farther-off-the-beaten-path, nonresort, mountain community. A consultant hired by the city recently suggested a zip line that would fly above the 12-acre, former Ute Ulay silver mine just outside town. It did not go over well. Lake City, Silverton and Creede are the county seats of three southwestern Colorado counties that have fewer than half the residents they had at their peak population, which was around 1900. Evidence of that long-dead era lies in the wooden mine shafts crumbled in the hills of Hinsdale, San Juan and Mineral counties, and in the mines that have reopened so tourists can ride trains into the dark core of the mountains, where snow runoff trickles through the tunnels and splashes on their helmeted heads. The struggle to survive, to attract young families to balance out the retirees, to find people hardy enough for year-round, high-elevation living, leads to conflict between preserving an authentic vibe and becoming a gimmicky tourist trap, between retirees and young bloods, between second-home owners and permanent residents. The three one-town counties built by gold and silver miners more than 100 years ago have worked hard since the last of the mines closed in the 1990s to reinvent their economies based on recreation. The work is constant; let down their guard and residents risk their livelihood if too many tourists or would-be residents choose someplace else. All at once, they both envy and turn up their noses at Telluride, the southwest region’s tourism darling. “This is more reality,” said DeAnne Gallegos, who owns The Chocolate Dog fine gift shop in downtown Silverton. “We protect our blue-collar vibe.” The resilient residents of Lake City mention fairly often they would rather not become a Telluride or an Aspen, though that’s hardly a legitimate concern without an airport, golf course or ski resort. When word got out about the zip line idea, Lake City locals began calling their county commissioners, and the town’s Main Street program manager asked people during a June economic vitality summit not to “freak out.” Instead of grumbling about what they don’t want, Main Street manager Kristine Borchers, a mother of two teenagers who moved to Lake City in 2006, encourages people to describe their vision for a Lake City that will survive. “We want to be an authentic community that feels like a small town, a place where kids can ride their bikes, where the rec department sets up a slip-and-slide on Friday nights, where a ski ticket for the Poma lift is seven bucks,” she said. “A place that when people visit, they think: ‘It’s tiny. It feels friendly. Everybody waves at me. I want to live in a place like this.’ ”
This is a struggle many towns here in sunny Colorado are dealing with… To read the rest of this article, click on the text above.