Rains have boosted daily trips on the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad giving Silverton businesses and the local economy a much-needed shot in the arm.
Tourism driven by the train and outdoor recreation has led to a strong start to Silverton’s peak economic season after the COVID-19 pandemic spurred record activity over the last two years. But even as Silverton reports sustained growth, the town is combating challenges such as affordable housing as it looks to reshape its economy.
“We’re seeing a very strong summer season,” said DeAnne Gallegos, executive director of the Silverton Chamber of Commerce. “We went into it knowing that the train was close to 40% up in bookings. Our campgrounds were going in booked, our lodgers were going in booked. We knew we were heading into a healthy summer and that is what we’re seeing.”
For many of Colorado’s communities, the COVID-19 pandemic was disruptive with public health closures and other precautions taking a toll on local businesses.
But in Silverton, the only incorporated town in San Juan County, the opposite was true.
An initial “locals-only” policy in early 2020 gave way to a wave of travelers seeking recreation and an escape around the small town nestled in the San Juan Mountains.
A March 2021 analysis of visitors by the Colorado Tourism Office found that San Juan County was the county least impacted by the pandemic in Colorado. It wasn’t just that San Juan County was unaffected, but visitation boomed.
“We saw 160% growth in people in our tiny little county, and we were already skyrocketing in growth compared to 2019, which was already our high watermark,” Gallegos said.
Silverton’s 2022 tourism season began with a hiccup when D&SNG was forced to pause operations for a few days because of fire risk, but with consistent rain in the second half of June the train has been operating unimpeded.
“The monsoons have been so welcoming for a number of reasons, but one of them has been that the train has been running consistently,” said Beth Kremer, economic diversification and resiliency coordinator for the San Juan Development Association.
Bob Boeder’s Silverton Train Store revolves around the railroad. In 2021, he saw a big rebound in business when D&SNG returned to its normal Silverton operations after suspending them throughout 2020.
“For me and a lot of these other businesses, last season was the best we’ve ever had,” Boeder said. “This summer isn’t quite as good as last summer, but we’re doing fine.”
Silverton will not have its sales tax figures for May until later this month, but in March sales tax was down 2% and in April 4%, backing up Boeder’s assessment of the year to date.
Silverton’s explosive growth is plateauing, but the town is sustaining a level of economic activity that is about double what it was before the pandemic, Gallegos said.
The start to 2022 has been mixed for Natalia’s 1912 Restaurant.
D&SNG’s choppy start affected business, but the railroad rebooked many passengers and some visitors chose to drive to Silverton anyway, said Bill Walko, owner and operator of Natalia’s 1912 Restaurant.
“The majority of our business is lunch business with the train and that’s been very strong this year. We’re very grateful for that,” he said.
But last October residents voted to ban off-road vehicles, ATVs and unlicensed dirt bikes within town limits.
Natalia’s 1912, which serves both lunch and dinner, has seen a significant drop in its dinner diners, which largely consisted of visitors in Silverton to recreate off-road, Walko said.
“I think this will probably turn out to be a pretty good year overall. It is disappointing that it’s not going to be as (good as) it could have been,” he said.
While Silverton’s businesses eye another strong year, they also face the same pressures that have challenged businesses throughout the country.
Cliff Pinto, owner of Pedal the Peaks in Silverton, has watched bicycle traffic and outdoor recreation boom in the area. But supply chain disruptions have left him unable to buy complete bikes from manufacturers.
“I’ve seen increase (in people and interest), but I haven't been able to capture that increase because my inventory levels have been one-third of what they should be in a typical year if I could get product,” he said.
Silverton has also not been immune to labor shortages.
“We pay attention to inflation, gas prices, all of that, but I would say the No. 1 thing that’s impacting our business community is the staffing shortage,” Gallegos said. “There are times that they can’t open their doors because they don’t have the human capital to do that.”
The residual effects of the pandemic have further driven action that was already underway to reshape Silverton’s economy.
Tourism accounts for 87% of the town’s economy and 57% of its workforce, Kremer said.
Kremer said the town of Silverton and San Juan County are working together to diversify the economy and extend the spring and fall shoulder seasons.
The San Juan Development Association has helped to recruit two new companies within the last year – Sasquatch Expedition Campers, which manufactures heavy-duty camper trailers, and TripOutside, an online booking service for outdoor gear and tours.
The Silverton Creative District has also been looking at putting on more events that can attract visitors outside the summer peak season, Kremer said.
The goal is ultimately to create a robust economy where businesses can stay open year-round and where employees can maintain a consistent paycheck without having to shift between jobs.
“We are super aware that most of our economy is tourism and outdoor based, but how we use both of those and create a more sustainable year-round economy is really important,” Kremer said.
To achieve that goal, Silverton will have to address affordable housing, with the town struggling much like Durango to meet the needs of its workforce.
Plans are already underway. San Juan Development Association recently received a grant from the Colorado Division of Housing that will help to build four affordable single-family homes beginning later this year.
A second phase aims for the construction of 10 to 12 townhomes with construction starting next summer, Kremer said.
In the long term, San Juan Development Association and the town of Silverton hope to build four additional single-family homes and an apartment complex with about 20 units, a development that was aided by a grant that the town of Silverton received from the Colorado Department of Local Affairs to support its purchase of about an acre of land for future housing.
While years out, those plans are visible on the horizon, and they represent a not-so-distant future that Kremer and others in Silverton envision in which businesses such as those of Boeder, Walko and Pinto can make the most of the train and outdoor recreation during the summer while also tapping into a strong local economy during the rest of the year.
“Silverton will find its way to a more stable economy, but it’s something that we need to be active in (pursuing),” Kremer said. “I’m really hopeful with what that will look like in the future.”