Colorado Boom Town Defies Economic Trends

A sagging economy has made headlines in most of the country. But in Rifle, Colo., and other towns in the Rocky Mountain West, it's boom time.

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JACKI LYDEN, host:

There actually is some good economic news to report. Parts of the Rocky Mountain West are booming.

NPR's Jeff Brady visited one town where seldom is heard discouraging words, like recession.

JEFF BRADY: Rifle, Colorado is one of those mountain towns you might see on a tourist brochure. The Colorado River is nearby; in the other direction there are tall, white cliffs. When Mayor Keith Lambert took office seven years ago the pace of life was slow. Potholes and snow removal were big issues.

But now traffic is heavier and Lambert spent a lot of time figuring out where to put a bunch of new houses.

Mr. KEITH LAMBERT (Mayor, Rifle, Colorado): Four thousand two hundred new residential units in a town of 9,000. That will more than double our population.

BRADY: Outside Rifle you'll find the reason for all those new people: tall drilling rigs are punching hundreds of gas wells into the ground. In Colorado nearly 6,000 drilling permits were issued last year. That's almost triple the number in 2002. New Mexico and Utah are experiencing similar booms, and in Wyoming the numbers are even more dramatic.

Mayor Lambert said the gas boom is keeping unemployment low and creating some amusing anecdotes.

Mr. LAMBERT: I heard a story where — and I can't remember which company — but one of the big extractive industry companies walked into a Wendy's in Grand Junction and said to the staff, we will pay you X amount of dollars to come to work for us, and the entire staff walked out.

BRADY: A spokesman for Wendy's couldn't confirm that and said it sounds like an urban myth. But the story is repeated often around here, and it speaks to the carnival-like atmosphere in this boomtown.

Jody Swallows' husband and his family run a local oil company. They deliver to gas stations around the region.

Ms. JODY SWALLOWS (Rifle Resident): Keeping up with the demand is hard. Seems like our employees are working a lot more than ever and we've, you know, we've had to buy new trucks and hire on more people to take care of the demand here.

(Soundbite of doorbell ringing)

BRADY: Before the boom, Gary Miller of Miller Dry Goods says he carried all the items you'd expect to find in a small-town clothing store. Now the doorbell is ringing a lot more often and the racks are full of special clothes for gas workers.

Mr. GARY MILLER (Owner, Miller Dry Goods): You know, we carry a lot of work boots, you know, that have to be waterproof and frocks that are fire retardant, like all of this stuff, all of these Carhartt products right there.

BRADY: There are boomtowns like Rifle all over the Rocky Mountain region, according to Richard Wobbekind. He's an economist at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Wobbekind says just about all the natural resources that come from here are fetching high prices.

Mr. RICHARD WOBBEKIND (Economist, University of Colorado in Boulder): We're talking about coal, natural gas. We're talking about other types of metallic minerals — gold, silver, uranium, molybdenum, all of which have had meteoric rises over the past year in terms of their price.

BRADY: If you're wondering, what is molybdenum, it's used to make stainless steel, and its price has gone up 500 percent in the last few years. Wobbekind says higher agricultural prices also are boosting the bottom line in the Rocky Mountain West. And he says the outlook for the region is good.

Mr. WOBBEKIND: Really, people can't walk away from energy very easily, and they have to eat.

BRADY: So he says the region's economy likely will continue to outperform the nations.

Jeff Brady, NPR News, Denver.

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