Teller economy nearing lift-off stage

bear_and_bullTeller economy nearing lift-off stage

Rick Langenberg

The Teller County economy is steadily climbing out of the pit of the Great Recession and appears headed for a bullish year.

However, even with some positive growth signs, a few dark clouds remain.

These were some of the main conclusions made during the annual economic forecast forum, held last week at the Ute Pass Cultural Center, and featuring local financial experts and government officials. The forum, presented by Teller County Assessor Betty Clark-Wine, gave a detailed outlook regarding future real estate, banking and construction trends and pending development projects.

The vast majority of speakers gave a positive outlook, but contended that the region is still exhibiting battle wounds from the Great Recession of 2008/2009 and the fires and floods, following the Waldo Canyon disaster.

Some of the big economic hurdles deal with a high unemployment rate, stagnant wages, an affordable housing shortage, a steep decline in gaming revenues and a tight market for loans. But the future looks solid, according to local experts.

“We are cautiously optimistic,” said Ray DuBois, the city administrator for Cripple Creek. “We are becoming a full-service economy. We are seeing a strong indication for growth,” added Brian Fleer, the economic development director for Woodland Park.

DuBois conceded that gaming has experienced some hard times due to the closures of Hwy. 24 from the Waldo Canyon floods and a change in the marketplace. “Black Hawk has changed the game a little bit,” said the administrator, in citing concerns over a new gambling landscape that is much different from what voters originally approved in 1990. From a statistical standpoint, he said the town is still suffering from a 20-year low in overall betting devices and has experienced continual declines in the total amount of bets wagered at local casinos, referred to as coin-in numbers.

But the good times may be returning, noted DuBois. He said the former Gold Rush casino will see renewed life, courtesy of an expansion by Bronco Billy’s. And heritage tourism is becoming a surprising high point in southern Teller, with extremely strong visitation numbers for the Heritage Center, the jail museum and the city’s historic train car, next to the Cripple Creek District Museum. In fact, the train depot, which serves as a popular hub for tourists, is experiencing a nearly 35 percent hike in visitors. “We are seeing many families coming up to Cripple Creek,” said DuBois, who also reported that the recent Ice Festival was a huge success.

With lower gas prices and better flood mitigation along Hwy. 24, coupled with the completion of the main street makeover, DuBois says city officials expect a good year. He also says city officials are doing a number of plans to increase local and regional transit service, with even talk of expanding transportation possibilities between Cripple Creek and Woodland Park.

A similar upbeat tone was taken by officials of Woodland Park, who mentioned the Charis Bible College as a big economic “game changer.” Fleer noted that the $100 million development of the Andrew Wommack Ministries campus and related facilities in Woodland Park has already attracted 700 students and has been a major boom for the area. Plans are underway for a new 3,185-seat auditorium that would exceed the size of the Pikes Peak Center and a five-story garage.

This project has paved the way for an unpreceded increase in building permit values, which climbed to $51.3 million in 2014, a nearly $20 million increase from the previous year, according to Woodland Park Planning Director Sally Riley. And sales tax revenue has now exceeded the $5 million mark, a nearly $1 million-plus increase- from 2009.

Plus, Woodland Park may soon showcase a number of new projects, including a new Starbucks, an aquatic center and the completion of the Trail Ridge Apartments. More recently, the city welcomed a new Arby’s restaurant.

Tough times remain

But the news is not all good, with Woodland Park experiencing a 6.1 percent unemployment rate, well above the state norm. Plus, the region is still reeling from a clobbering recession. “We still haven’t caught up,” said Fleer, in describing the vast amount of vacant structures and shut-down businesses, following the recession. In addition, the Woodland Park RE-2 District continues to lose students, as part of a trend towards a community featuring many more seniors. By the end of this year, the Woodland Park area will bustle with an 18.3 percent population of seniors. “This is a real-life reality. We have a gray population,” said Fleer.

The Teller trends are a byproduct of the regional and national economy.