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As Durango grows and becomes more expensive, is its culture changing?

Yes, some say, and that carries both good and bad
As Durango grows, some residents argue that its culture is changing, transforming from a small mountain town for ski instructors and rafting guides into an elite town for the wealthy like an Aspen or Telluride. U.S. Census Bureau data shows Durango’s demographics and cost of living are shifting, but those who have lived in Durango for decades say the town has long been evolving, and any changes are both good and bad. (Wes Rowell/Durango Herald illustration)

Kyle Stewart often gets the same question: How did he ever live in Telluride?

With its reputation as a pricey and increasingly elite ski town, Durangoans wonder how Stewart managed to live in the new-aged Aspen or Vail.

But for Stewart, living in Telluride was no different from Durango.

“I lived here for 15 years before I moved to Telluride, and when I moved to Telluride, I paid 100 less dollars in rent,” said Stewart, who now works in the service industry in Durango. “Everything’s getting more expensive and nobody’s getting paid more, so it gets harder and harder to live here.”

Speak with a sampling of locals about a changing Durango and inevitably some grumblings will arise about a shifting culture. The argument goes that amid an affordable housing crisis and remote work boom, Durango is becoming less a place for ski bums, desert rats and those seeking a small-town mountain community centered around the outdoors.

But according to some Durangoans, including Stewart, Durango and its culture have always been changing, and the current culture shift, while real, is not such a bad thing. It is simply another iteration of decades of change.

A demographic transformation

By many metrics, Durango is undergoing a transformation as the appeal of the city and Southwest Colorado attract new residents.

An aging Durango

Between 2010 and 2020, Durango’s population increased by about 13% from 16,887 to 19,071.

Over the decade, the city’s 20- to 24-year-old population decreased by 2.5% and its 35- to 45-year-old population decreased by 1%, according to Census Bureau data.

The 25- to 34-year-old population remained stagnant at about 19%.

During that same time, Durango’s 45 to 54, 60 to 64 and 65- to 74-year-old populations all grew by at least 1%.

The 65- to 74-year-old population grew the most by 2.8%.

The most visible manifestation of this transformation is the affordable housing crisis gripping the town.

As of Feb. 15, Durango proper had 16 homes for sale, said Rick Lorenz, who serves as a real estate agent for the Wells Group. Of those, exactly two were affordable according to the city of Durango’s January 2018 housing plan, which says a roughly $375,000 home would be a stretch for a teacher making $44,000.

The cheaper of the two “affordable” homes was a $275,000 condo along Florida Road.

“You’ve got doctors having to live over in Bayfield,” Lorenz said.

“We actually sold us a few less units in 2021 than we did in 2020, but the dollar volume was considerably more,” he said.

From 2010 to 2019, the median home price in Durango increased from $380,500 to $463,700, according to the most recent statistics available from the U.S. Census Bureau. Median rent has also increased over that time frame from $1,000 to $1,259.

The lack of affordable housing drives people to leave, said Laura Lewis Marchino, executive director of the Region 9 Economic Development District of Southwest Colorado.

“If people cannot afford to buy a house, they will look to leave because they can’t set up roots,” she said. “Someone who’s been here a long time, if they have a house, they probably have some assets and they’re able to make it here. But if they don’t have a house and they don’t have an income level where they can ever get a house, they’re going to move on.”

Skyrocketing housing prices, though not the only reason, have helped contribute to widespread demographic shifts in Durango.

As Durango has grown, its population has gotten older. The city’s median age was 34.5 years old during the later half of the decade, up from 31.9 years from 2010 to 2014 and 30.1 years from 2006 to 2010, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

Durango has also gotten wealthier. In 2010, 18.4% of households made $100,000 or more. A decade later, nearly a third (30.8%) made $100,000 or more.

Durango’s median earnings increased at a rate of about $2,000 per year from 2015 to 2019, butin the arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation and service industries, which is how the Census Bureau groups its data, workers saw their earnings increase by about $1,500 over the entire five-year period.

In 2019, workers in those industries were earning about $17,000 less than Durango’s median, though they were the city’s second largest group of employees.

“People who get a job and then relocate here are the ones who are getting pinched,” Marchino said. “They have a job, but they are not able to afford our cost of living.”

Many workers in the recreation and service industries struggle to find a place to live.

“It’s a big issue for our work staff and it’s something we’re looking into to try to help them address, but it’s not easy,” said Alex Mickel, the co-owner and president of Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Tours.

Kyle Stewart, who works in the service industry in Durango, has watched Durango’s culture change since 2003. Stewart said Durango was once the “Wild West,” but it has since mellowed out and become increasingly dominated by the wealthy. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)
Cultural change

As Durango’s demographics evolve, its culture changes, too.

In 2003, when Stewart first moved to Durango, he remembered the town being “a lot of fun.”

Durango used to have a “Wild West atmosphere” and there was a sense of adventure among the town’s eclectic crowd, Stewart said. Workers could afford to live in town and some of the best skiing and snowboarding instructors and winter-terrain park builders called Durango home.

But since 2003, Durango has been mellowing out and increasingly becoming a place for the wealthy, he said.

“I think the cowboy days in Durango are just gone,” he said.

Some of the best employees at Purgatory Resort have moved on in search of more opportunity in places like Telluride where employee housing is more accessible and affordable, he said.

Stewart’s friends no longer live in Durango. Those who have stayed in the area have moved to places like Bayfield.

“None of them live in Durango, because good luck finding a place in Durango to buy,” he said. “And there’s no such thing as employee housing.”

In Durango, Stewart lives in a renovated two-car garage and pays $100 more than he did for an apartment in Telluride.

“This town is being bought up by rich people and pretty soon we’re going to be in the same spot every other ski town is in where nobody who works here can actually live here,” he said. “I don’t think we’re on a fast road (to becoming a hollowed-out town) because luckily Durango is a big enough town that we can kind of get by for now, but 10 to 15 years from now nobody who works here is going to be able to live here, where everybody’s going to be living in Bayfield.

“Telluride and Durango are way more similar than Durango would like them to be,” Stewart said.

Jasper Welch, an executive consultant twice-elected to Durango City Council, has lived in Durango for more than four decades. Over the years, Durango has largely been able to maintain the culture that makes it such an attractive place, Welch said. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Jasper Welch, an executive consultant twice-elected to Durango City Council, has lived in Durango since 1976. During that time, he has seen Durango undergo many changes.

Modern Durango was birthed in the mid- to late-1970s, he said.

Over the last four decades, Durango has shifted politically, becoming more liberal. The tourism industry has grown and economic opportunity has expanded.

In the 1980s, “you had the ski area in the winter and the train in the summer and not a whole lot more from a tourist point of view,” Welch said. “You still had more farming, ranching, timber and natural resources (development).”

One of the more significant shifts occurred recently during the coronavirus pandemic. A sizable number of Durangoans leave during the summer “because the whole world comes here,” he said.

“Traditionally, we all just get out of town,” Welch said. “Well, during COVID-19, we all stayed in town plus people came to town (and) it was just a mess. It wasn’t so much that the tourists made it a mess, though they contributed; really, everyone in town stayed.”

Over the years, Durango has largely been able to maintain the culture that makes it such an attractive place, he said.

“One of the things that makes the Durango culture unique is that Durango is a little bit screwed up,” he said.

For as long as Welch has lived in Durango, the city has had competing interests. The recreation industry, ski area, railroad, college, downtown business people and environmentalists have all influenced Durango, but no one has emerged as the dominant force.

“In most of Colorado ski towns, they’re really like a company town,” Welch said. “Durango is not really a ski town. It’s not just a college town, it’s not just a railroad town, it’s not just a place where environmentalists come to retire or trust-funders. All those factors are in the community at the same time.”

Other elements of Durango’s culture have also remained the same. A tension has always existed between locals and tourists and those from out of town. And, by Welch’s telling, Durango has stayed down to earth.

“In Durango, we don’t really care who you are, so we have a lot of pretty interesting people who live in town,” he said. “If you’re in an Aspen or a Telluride, it’s all about who you are, and here we don’t care.”

Tom Compton moved to Durango in the 1950s. Over the last five decades, he has seen a rural-urban divide form between Durango and La Plata County. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

Tom Compton moved to Durango when he was 10 years old in the early 1950s, and he, too, has seen a change in its culture.

“There is a bit of a rural-urban divide that really didn’t exist 50 years ago,” he said.

Those who lived in Durango five decades ago knew that many ranchers and farmers lived and worked outside of town, and they supported them. But the awareness of agriculture and larger La Plata County has faded as Durango has grown and urbanized, Compton said.

As Durango has grown more popular and people have flocked to the area, its culture has also been shaped by those who have moved from places like California, Texas and the Front Range.

“Sometimes, those folks will bring in thought processes that reflect where they came from and see a desire to change things in Durango to fit a little better with what they were used to,” he said.

Is Durango’s culture shift bad?

Durango’s changing culture is not necessarily a bad thing, Compton said.

“(Durango) has changed tremendously; it is not a sleepy little town at all anymore. And there is good and bad,” he said. “Lots of very interesting people have moved here and it’s always fun to get to know them and hear about their life experiences, how they look at the world and what they want to see happen.”

“Often, we find we have many things in common,” he said.

Stewart agrees.

“I don’t necessarily think (Durango’s culture change) is a bad thing as far as that Wild West atmosphere there used to be,” he said.

“It’s almost like we’re growing up as a town,” he said.

According to Mickel, the co-owner and president of Mild to Wild Rafting and Jeep Tours, the evolution of Durango and its culture is inevitable.

“There’s going be growth and there’s going to be changes within a community,” he said. “That can always be hard, without question. People can feel left behind or left out or even shorted by it. I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault; it’s an unfortunate aspect of living in a thriving area. It’s really up to the community to find ways to adjust that’s equitable to everybody.”

This question of how Durango adapts to ongoing change is one that residents have struggled to answer.

“How do you preserve what’s best about Durango, still have a vibrant tourism business and not lose your cultural identity?” Welch said. “That’s one of the reasons we’ve been having lots of debates.”

Even as the city and its culture are recast, the allure of Durango is hard for Stewart to let go.

“I feel like everybody kind of feels (this) way and everybody accepts it. I’ll be the first one to say I want to live in Durango,” he said. “I’ve moved to Copper Mountain, I’ve moved to Leadville, I’ve moved to Alaska, I’ve moved to Telluride and I came back to Durango because Durango is home.”

But as Durangoans continue their debates, Stewart has already seen a shift to the ski towns like Telluride and Aspen that so many fear.

“Anybody who says Durango is not turning into those ski towns, they’re wrong,” he said. “We’re already there.”


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