Can A New State Park Help Level Out Trinidad's Economic Peaks And Valleys?

Nov 26, 2019

Driving south on Interstate 25 toward the Colorado-New Mexico border, right around mile marker 40, a flat-topped peak in the distance begins rising above everything else.

That's Fisher's Peak, and it marks a new named state park announced in mid-September. It's just a few miles south of Trinidad, a city built by coal mining and farming. In the past decades, the town of about 9000 has been struggling to find a foothold in a new economic reality.

The question is, can a 5 million year old peak help to level out the economic peaks and valleys?

In mid-September, Governor Jared Polis announced that Fisher's Peak, just south of Trinidad, Colorado, had been named the newest Colorado state park.

It was the culmination of a long process and ownership of the land is now being transferred to the state.

The land, which used to be called the Crazy French Ranch when it was owned by Evelyn Jung, is full of unique vegetation, cliffs, meadows, and vast overlooks. And there are elk, bear, rattlesnakes - all sorts of creatures.

Troy Legarde managed the former Crazy French Ranch, which is where the new Colorado state park at Fisher's Peak will be located.
Credit Tracy Wahl / KRCC

Troy Legarde has managed the ranch since 2012.

"It's been crazy," he says, referencing the people visiting as part of the transition process.

On this day, there are biologists on scene from the Trust for Public Land, the Nature Conservancy and the Colorado Department of Parks and Wildlife, all groups that were part of the process to create the new park. They're tasked with helping to transform this from private property to a public park by 2021, and are surveying the flora and fauna. They have to figure out where to put roads and buildings while also conserving the natural beauty.

During the nearly 40 years that Evelyn Jung owned the ranch, private outfitters led hunting trips here. Legarde says it was over-hunted.

"She used to get $15,000 an elk during Ranching for Wildlife," he says. "But then she put in some private outfitters and they hurt it."

He stops his jeep near a meadow he called Marion Flats. At the edge, the view of the plains to the east, the Spanish Peaks to the northwest and Walsenburg to the north, is stunning. Scale is hard to tell at this altitude, nearly 9000 feet above sea level.

It's this region that might benefit from the establishment of the state park, attracting people from up and down the I-25 corridor, around the state, and, local tourism officials hope, from around the country and even eventually around the world.

Cy Michaels heads up the City of Trinidad's Tourism Board and is co-owner of La Quinta Inn and Suites. She's standing in front of a photograph of Fisher's Peak as seen from downtown Trinidad.
Credit Tracy Wahl / KRCC

Down near the I-25 exit, Cy Michaels runs a La Quinta Inn and Suites. She also heads up the City of Trinidad's Tourism Board.

There's a wall sized photo of Fisher's Peak behind the check-in counter at the hotel.

Michaels pulls out a desk-top calculator to explain how much money could be generated from the new state park. Assuming 34 or more people a day visit the area, with each person staying two nights and spending $300 on lodging, gas and shopping, Michaels says that could add up to nearly $3.5 million more a year.

Trinidad has always had a boom and bust economy, and this isn't the first time the city has tried to widen its economic base. But national economic crises have hit the city hard.

The closed New Elk Coal Mine, for example, opened to much celebration in 2010. Two years later, most of the 300-plus workers were laid off when the economy for coal tanked. But, an Australian company has entered into an agreement to buy the mine and it could reopen in 2020.

Trinidad has also embraced the marijuana industry, bringing in more than $3 million dollars last year, say city officials. But people expect a bubble as more states legalize recreational marijuana. That's expected to cut into the customer base in Colorado.

Then, there's an abandoned $30 million golf and luxury housing development called Cougar Canyon. The spa and hotel are only half-finished and construction materials still blow in the wind. The complex has sat half-finished for nearly a decade.

A faded sign at what was to be the Cougar Canyon resort spa. Construction was abruptly halted nearly a decade ago. The sign says, "117-room all suite hotel, four-star dining, full-service spa, event and conference space. Four-star hotel."
Credit Tracy Wahl / KRCC

"That one was tough," says Greg Sund, who, until recently, was Trinidad's City Manager.

Work on the project abruptly halted when spending ballooned. Then the bank behind it went belly up in 2010. Now it's tied up in court and developers owe nearly $4 million in back taxes.

But it sits at the base of what will be the new state park, and could possibly help sort out the Cougar Canyon issues.

"If we can get to the point of reviving all of that and give people the opportunity to buy lots to build on them," says Sund, "things like the state park will provide more and more ability and interest in people in doing some of this."

Fisher's Peak rises behind the unfinished hotel and spa at Cougar Canyon.
Credit Tracy Wahl / KRCC

Also, the developer credited with bringing Denver's Larimer Square and Union Station back to life, Dana Crawford, has bought up several old buildings in the area. She has long been interested in historic buildings and Trinidad has a lot of them, dating back to the boom times at the turn of the century when coal brought in money to the area.

She is now working to bring the Colorado Symphony Orchestra to town next year to play a concert in the historic Fox-West Theatre while it is being renovated.

"We're excited to help activate the space, which is already a beautiful facility," says Anthony Pierce, the Chief Artistic Officer at the Colorado Symphony.

Crawford's team said they hope that will generate investment in the $8 million renovation project.

A new ad from the Trinidad Tourism Board about the new state park. It will go in the next Colorado vacation guide.
Credit Tracy Wahl / KRCC

Construction is now underway on both a new downtown hotel and affordable housing for artists called Space to Create, backed by the state. Both are expected to open next year.

And the new state park is a big part of the economic development puzzle.  

Trinidad Tourism Board's Cy Michaels' says all this will connect Trinidad's rich past with a sustainable future.

"At the turn of the century," she says, "downtown Trinidad was the place before you went any further west."

And, she says, it will be that place again.

There's already an ad about the new Fisher's Peak State Park set to go in the next Colorado Vacation guide. It says, "You've seen it, soon you can enjoy it. Opening 2021."