LEADVILLE — On any given summer day here at 10,152 feet above sea level, locals and tourists dart in and out of shops that line this town’s main thoroughfare, Harrison Avenue.
Adults rummage in antique stores, families try on hoodies at Melanzana, children lick ice cream off cones. A few locals take refuge from the sun at tables under a large white tent erected in front of the county courthouse, where Jane Harelson sells hot dogs from a cart.
Harrison Avenue, less than a mile long from start to finish, is the heartbeat of Leadville. Two of the highest mountains in the contiguous United States — Elbert and Massive — serve as a backdrop.
Leadville is a scrappy Colorado mining town that has boomed and busted more than once. Given its isolation, residents are accustomed to figuring out problems on their own, with little of the polarizing conflict that tears apart other communities.
“We’re able to lean on people when we need them the most,” said Kayla Marcella, a 32-year-old commissioner for Lake County, which includes Leadville. “We take on issues together, not in silos.”
Three Denver Post reporters, a photographer and an editor spent a day in Leadville this week, asking residents what we and the rest of the state should know about them. It was the second stop on The Post’s listening tour, a seven-stop undertaking to connect with Coloradans during the break between elections and legislative sessions.
While the town’s population of 2,600 is a fraction of its all-time high of 40,000, Leadville and its economy have been on a noticeable upswing. As the town’s cash registers ring from an uptick in tourism and an influx of new neighbors, the prosperity also translates to a dearth of affordable housing and stressed infrastructure. And while the town and surrounding Lake County are profiting from a revival at the Climax Mine and Mill, leaders know it won’t last forever: The mine is scheduled to close in 2038.
“Now, we’re ‘boom.’ I don’t believe booms last forever,” Harelson said as she tended to her hot dog cart. “What goes up must come down.”
We met dozens of Leadvillites — civic leaders and tradespeople, natives and recent transplants, teens and retirees — about the topics that matter to them. Housing, health care costs and immigration are top issues — issues that, while familiar to other Coloradans, take a different form in the highest-elevation city in the United States.
Here is more of what we heard:
A housing crisis
When Katie Anderson and her husband decided it was time to leave Fort Collins for the mountains after a decade living near Colorado State University, they wanted to avoid the astronomical rents their friends were paying in places such as Frisco.
“We heard Leadville was one of the last affordable places,” Anderson said.
The couple found a bargain: a three-bedroom home for $1,300 a month. The deal didn’t last long. When it was time to renew their lease this year, their landlord hiked the rent by nearly $400 a month.
Unable to afford the steeper price tag with their jobs in retail and construction, the couple opted to move into a camper they park in a nearby forest.
“We try to make the best of it,” Anderson said, and the view of the mountains in the morning is still breathtaking. “I’m not sure where else we’d go in Colorado. I’m just trying to live day by day.”
Anderson and others like her are being squeezed out by what leaders say is a surge in second-home purchases and a growing short-term rental trend. Supply has not kept up with demand.
“We’re the last affordable place, and we’re becoming less affordable every day,” said Mayor Greg Labbe.
To turn things around, Labbe has put together a team to find solutions that will work for Leadville. Traditional incentives, such as tax breaks for developers, aren’t as viable in small communities with even smaller budgets, he said.
Increased housing is key to the region’s economic stability in two ways. First, more affordable housing is needed for the lower-wage workers who live in Lake County and, often, commute to wealthy Pitkin, Eagle and Summit counties to work in construction or at the resorts.
In addition, the Leadville Lake County Economic Development Corporation’s plan to wean the area economy off mining by the time the Climax closes in 2038 counts on building up its tax base through new commercial and residential construction, said the agency’s Kim Jackson.
Colorado Capitol issues
For the first time in her adult life, Eudelia Contreras feels as if lawmakers in Denver are working for her.
“We aren’t used to that,” she said.
Contreras is a renters rights advocate for Lake County Build a Generation, a project of the Lake County Public Health Agency. She spends much of her time in Lake County’s mobile home communities, where she lives and works with clients.
“I think people who live in manufactured home parks are sometimes not seen as part of the community,” she said. “And they’re very vulnerable.”
She said the state’s new protections for renters — especially those who live in mobile homes — will help, though more work is still needed to close equity gaps.
Other residents praised Gov. Jared Polis and lawmakers for finding the money for full-day kindergarten, which will alleviate some pressure on the local school district, and a package of bills that aim to drive down the cost of health care.
However, the rural-urban divide is still palpable for some Leadvillites.
“Across the board, rural communities don’t feel represented against the Front Range communities,” said Betty Benson, a spokeswoman for the Lake County Office of Emergency Management and chair of the county Republican Party. “We have a different lifestyle than they do in the Front Range.”
The ethnic divide
Leadville’s Hispanic population has been growing, local leaders say, from almost 29 percent in the 2010 census to an estimated 40 percent today.
At times, the community has fractured along ethnic lines, and it is still geographically segregated. Most Hispanic residents live on the outskirts of town. However, progress has been made, Contreras said, recalling the Fiesta Patrias parade last summer.
“It was really cool to see a lot of different colors of people finally in town,” she said. “It was the first time I said, ‘OK, we’re coming together.’ This is the integration we’ve been talking about. It’s happening.”
And then there’s the national debate over immigration — a top 2020 election issue for residents such as Becca Katz, who coordinates outdoor learning at the local school district.
“There are so many families in our district who have genuine fear,” she said. “It is so rife. … I want an open border with sensible systems where people can be where they need to be so they can be happy and healthy.”
Fritz Howard, owner of the clothing retailer Melanzana on Harrison, said none of his employees are worried about their own immigration status, but they are worried for friends and family.
“The issue is at our doorstep to a certain level,” he said.
But the most common thread in The Post’s conversations across Leadville and beyond didn’t relate to politics, the economy or residents’ personal issues.
“This is paradise,” said Kim Jackson of the Leadville Lake County Economic Development Corporation.
The Denver Post’s Jessica Seaman, Saja Hindi, Cindi Andrews and Kelsey Brunner contributed to this report.