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‘Jobs and tax revenue. But at what cost?’

Over the last 20 years, magazine articles and research papers have been written on how much of America has become homogenized. Everyplace looks pretty much like any other.

The same big box stores and the same chain restaurants. As those things came into an area, small businesses were forced out of business. They couldn’t compete economically with the large corporate entities. Anyone driving across the country has seen this.

At first, it was mostly along the major routes, such as the interstates. Small towns in the East and Midwest were the first to see these changes. Here in the Intermountain West, smaller towns off the beaten path were somewhat resistant to this. Tourist towns had more of this development but still not to the degree as farther east.

Here in Durango, we ended up with some of the big boys, such as Home Depot, Denny’s, Applebee’s, etc. Fast food restaurants were built on the major thoroughfares. Each of those had an impact on local businesses.

During the coal methane boom, a lot of people moved in to work in the industry. Real estate values climbed to the point where a number of people were priced out of the market. This was somewhat offset by the income gains of other local people who went to work in the good paying jobs, and the landowners who had wells on their property.

This was pretty much the status quo here for 25 years or so. We did gain a lot of population growth and new subdivisions sprouted up, along with large houses built farther and farther up the slopes of the surrounding mesas and mountains. The city started spreading farther to the east, annexing the Three Springs area.

COVID-19 changed everything. Because of the restrictions on businesses, employees were laid off. Some businesses closed their doors for good. As people fled the more populated areas, many came here to spend their time in the outdoors. Consequently, campgrounds got overcrowded and deteriorated.

In the mountains, ATVs ran rampant, ignoring the rules to stay on the trails. Trash and human waste accumulated.

There seemed to be an idea among many that they were entitled to do anything they wanted, including trespass. I once found visitors inside a neighbor’s greenhouse. They told me that they were visiting the area and wanted to see what was growing in there.

People with more disposable income and the ability to work online started buying up houses. They would often offer more than the asking price. Some homeowners got calls from potential buyers, even though they had not put their houses on the market.

As property values increased, so did taxes and insurance. Some people struggle to pay those bills. Investors bought up long-term rentals, raising rents or turning them into short-term rentals. In turn, many in the labor force could no longer afford to live here.

Although the housing market has cooled some, and we are taking steps to provide housing for the labor force, we are still facing issues. Big box stores and chain restaurants are creeping in. We hear how these will provide jobs and tax revenue. But at what cost? Smaller businesses will be forced out. The people working there will lose their jobs or just move over to one of the bigger places. Unlike the local businesses, the profits from the corporate chains will leave the area.

I’ve never understood why people move to small communities but also want the conveniences of big cities. I have also never understood the desire of corporations to just grow forever and keep padding their bottom lines at the cost of destroying the diversity that has made this country unique in the world.

Can we keep our community from looking like everywhere else? The answer is entirely up to us.

Scott Perez is a Durango area-based former working cowboy, guide and occasional actor. Perez has a Master’s in Natural Resource Management from Cornell University.