Saturday, July 27, 2013

Mile High Hi

©2013 Text & Photos by LeeZard
Thursday July 25 – Denver, CO
The State of Colorado actually did better than the rest of the country over the course of the recession and, according to a report from Chase/JP Morgan, its recovery is pacing that of the nation. Yet, Colorado’s unemployment in 2012 still hovered between eight and nine percent. 
I looked up these figures before heading to Denver today and the State Capitol. Unfortunately my busy schedule did not allow time to interview Governor John Hickenlooper, nor did I have time to return more than 15 calls from his office (Ahem). I decided to "stakeout" the capitol's parking area for mucky-mucks with the hope of "ambushing" him. It's an old reporter's gambit. Unfortunately The Hickenlooper was a no-show but I was able to talk to some state employees on their way into the capitol building.
Even though the state fared better than most over the course of the recession, at its worst in 2009, Colorado was right there with the rest of the nation and my interviews reflected that. 
Thirty-seven year old Rachel Fain works in the state’s Child Care Assistance Program (C-CAP), a new position for her. Before this, she held a similar position with the City of Denver.
“It was just crazy,” she says, “we went through furlough days, there were no more raises and a lot of the programs lost funding. Very early on about 10 percent of the staff was cut.”
Rachel’s husband was unemployed for the entire recession and all their plans came to a screeching halt. “We were going to buy a house and ended up stuck in the place we were renting. We stopped using credit cards; now it’s debit cards and that’s it.”
She also echoed what is now a theme throughout my interviews, saying it was good in a way because it’s taught her children to “appreciate more what they have now.”
“The experience definitely changed me, she adds, “I feel more responsible for my family than I did before. It used to be that we’d always make it through somehow but now the whole extended family is a lot closer.”
Fifty-five year old Seretha works on the staff of the Legislative Budget Committee. “In Colorado, we have to have a balanced budget and we were struggling because there wasn’t enough revenue to continue funding many programs.”
Also passing through the capitol grounds this morning was 34-year old Lindsay, a writer for Denver’s popular magazine 5280. She says the recession only slightly affected the magazine, fewer ads=fewer pages but her job was never threatened.
I asked Lindsay what she wrote about. “Everything,” she answered.
“So, then,” I replied, “what was it like out there during the worst of it; what were you seeing and hearing?”
“I saw panic,” she quickly answered. “People really didn’t know what do.”
Understandable; even though Colorado didn’t suffer overall as much as other states in 2009, at the very depths of the downturn, it was dead even with the rest of the country. My interviews in Denver reflect that.
Thirty-seven year old Phil McCormick is an architect and, until the recession, that’s how he made a very nice living, until he was laid off. It took him 10 months to find a new job in a new field, real estate.
“How did you live in that 10 months?” I asked.
“I had savings,” he said. “In one year I took $30,000 from my savings. And, I will always have savings for the rest of my life in case this ever happens again.”
Even though he is single with no children, Phil does have a mortgage. He says, “it was very tough but I leanred to never under estimate the power of friendship and the power of love. I had people I could rely on; I had family. I will no longer take for granted the things that really matter.”
“Still, I had self-worth issues. I sat around and watched other people get jobs and wondered, ‘why not me? Why won’t they hire me?’”
McCormick did get hired but took a 50 percent cut in pay.
Fifty-two year old Georgine is Director of Internal Audit for the Colorado State Department of Revenue. “We lost a lot of positions; a lot of people lost their jobs,” she says, none of us received raises and medical insurance went up.”
“At the same time, my husband lost his job. He was a mechanic in the boat business. It was very tough. Unemployment insurance helped quite a bit and we cut way back on expenses. The whole experience made us much more conservative with our money. We already were conservative so we had some savings but it definitely affected my retirement. I’ll probably have to work for the state at least three years longer than I planned.”
Almost everyone with whom I spoke is optimistic about the future. Construction around the state is beginning to pick up and people seem to sense that Colorado’s recovery is well underway.
I have two other observations about my week in this beautiful state. Number one, just about everyone is looking over their shoulder and living like the whole nightmare will recur. Secondly, and this is not news, the people who live here absolutely love living here.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Granby, CO - A Different Rocky Mountain Hi

©2013 Text and Photos by LeeZard
Tuesday July 23 – Superior, CO-Granby, CO
The Colorado Rockies might be my favorite region in America. Maybe that’s because I’m here now but it’s always been special for me.
I’ve driven through the Rockies many times; it’s always been on Interstate-70 – nice, but not like this. Today I am winding my way through the mountains on U.S. 40 twisting and turning upward to The Continental Divide at Berthoud Pass (elev. 11,307 ft.). There are spectacular views at almost every turn as the speed limit varies from 45 MPH on the safer curves down to 15 MPH on the hairpins.

 I am heading for Granby, CO in Grand County, 93-miles west of Boulder. I chose Granby because it is the largest town in a county with a per capita income of $38,000 compared to Boulder County’s $52,000. And, don’t mistake “largest town” in the county with “large town;” Granby’s population today is 1,857, down from 2,080 in 2008.

Winter Park, CO
While only 20-miles from the cabins and condos in the heart of ski country’s Winter Park, Granby might as well be 20,000 miles away; Granby is the economic other side. The Great Recession came late, hit hard and hasn’t quite left.
Wally Beard is Granby’s Town Manager; he runs the place. His timing was impeccable. Beard started work on July 14, 2008. “There was still some building and things going on,” he says, “but it deteriorated very rapidly.”
While most of Granby’s revenue comes from the sales tax, it was the property tax that took the biggest hit, down a whopping 40-percent and that’s a third of the town’s general fund, according to Beard. The town also relies on a “use tax,” levied on cars and services not purchased in Granby. Beard says that dropped from about $600,000 per year to less than $100,000 now.
Beard knew what was coming when he arrived in 2008 and immediately began preparations. He either cut or curtailed services across the board. Despite his preparations, however, the tsunami hit harder than his projections, especially for the property and use taxes. Miraculously, only one person in Town Hall was let go while another left voluntarily.
Today, Beard says Granby is a different town. “There was a lot of home construction going on when I got here and that has just about zeroed out. I know of seven businesses that closed in the past five years while four new ones remain for a net loss of three.”
Perhaps the toughest part of the recession for Wally Beard was personal. He came from Bethel, Alaska to take the position in Granby. His wife remained behind to sell their home. Because of the bust, it took two years to sell the house. She was also six months from being fully vested in her employer’s pension plan so she opted to stick out. Beard didn’t see her in all that time. “It was two years, 10 months and 15 days,” he says wryly.
At age 66, Beard thought he’d be retiring soon. “Our retirement fund took a big enough hit that I’ll be working another four years.”
Thirty-seven year old Robert Cox has worked in the local Edward Jones investment firm’s office for the past 18-months. Before that he was the Chief Financial Officer for a local resort developer. “When the recession hit, bonuses went away, salaries were frozen and then we all took a five percent cut. Benefits started disappearing. Eventually, 30 jobs were cut, more than half the staff. In 2012, I was let go myself.”
It took Cox four months to land the job at Edward Jones, not bad except it was a 50 percent cut in pay. He is married with three kids. “I’ve had to cash out my entire 401K to get by,” he says.
“I went from the luxuries in life, doing what I wanted when I wanted to having to plan for things, save for it. I think it’s actually come out better for me, a blessing in disguise; I appreciate things more. If I want something I have to work for it now. The other way was too frivolous, wasteful. Even if I got back to the old level of income, I wouldn’t change anything.”
Then, Cox shared an even more profound lesson, “I learned I was probably not raising my kids the most appropriate way, ya know, to have them learn what a dollar is, that ya have to earn it.
Kathy Burke manages the Edward Jones office in Granby. I asked her for an overall sense of how their clients felt during the recession. Her answer wasn’t really a surprise, “Overall there was more fear and there is still fear now for another potential downturn. As a result people are investing more emotionally. If they hear something on the news good or bad they will react and move to change their portfolio.”
Ski country never seemed further. 

SIDEBAR: Tanks, But No Tanks
This is also a recession story and, it’s a sad one, but it’s also too good a story not to tell. A clerk in an appliance store first told it to me and, Town Manager Wally Beard confirmed it.
In 2010 a local landowner – let’s call him Jack – found himself in a battle with the town council over some water rights or, more precisely, income from water rights. It seems Jack was experiencing severe recessionary financial pressure and the town was looking to purchase some water rights. Jack wanted, no, Jack needed that income.
Much to Jack’s dismay, the town purchased the rights elsewhere. As they say, payback’s a bitch. Jack came up with a plan.
He took an old Cat dozer and turned into a tank. That’s right, a tank. He engulfed the dozer with several inches of heavy armor, mounted a gun on top and literally went to town.
Jack started by bulldozing several downtown businesses on the main drag into rubble. He pointed the big gun at the local newspaper’s building and somehow missed with his shot. Not to be deterred, he rolled on to Town Hall and, likewise, reduced it to nothing.
The police mobilized and prepared for the coming standoff and apparent suicide by cop but it was not to be. Jack’s final demotion was, indeed, final. The rubble came down on his tank and he was trapped inside.
I guess every cloud, no matter how violent its thunder, has that silver lining. The buildings downtown are rebuilt and Granby has a brand-spanking new Town Hall – a beautiful building, I might add – and a new library that replaces the old one under the demolished Town Hall.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Rocky Mountain Hi

©2013 Text and Photos by LeeZard

Friday July 19 – Rawlins, WY to Superior, CO

I must drive Interstate-80 east for almost 100 miles to Laramie before I can get off the freeway and turn south on U.S. 287 toward Colorado. Before leaving Wyoming, I see small oil operations and huge wind farms, reminders of the state’s economic underpinnings.
Crossing the Colorado state line almost magically changes the scenery from the wide-open range to the beginnings of a more mountainous terrain. First small, then larger rock outcroppings appear on either side of the two-lane highway and soon the front range of The Rocky Mountains floats on the western horizon.
I always feel at home in Colorado. I love the mountains and the lifestyle. I’ve almost moved here twice. I’m headed to Superior, near Boulder, to visit my nephew, his wife and their two sons. Of course, I will interview in several different, diverse communities.
Frankly, I must stay in the Denver area for at least a week. I’ve been on the road a lot early in my journey and gas prices are killing me. I’ve driven more than 1,500 miles since leaving the Seattle area eight days ago. That’s about 83 gallons of gas at an average price of $3.70 for a total of $308.33. I’m not complaining; it is what it is and it’s worth every penny. I am having the time of my life but I am also on a tight budget.
Saturday July 20 – Louisville, CO
Louisville, CO is a 12-minute drive from my nephew’s home in Superior. I’m here because in 2011 Money Magazine named Louisville the most livable city (under 30,000 population) in America. According to Money:

"Top 100 rank: 1
Population: 18,400
Unemployment: 6.3%
This sunny, lively mountain town is safe (crime rates are among the lowest in Colorado) and easy to navigate. Lots of good jobs in tech, telecom, aerospace, clean energy, and health care can be found right in Louisville, and more are on their way. And there’s world-class mountain biking, hiking, and skiing in the nearby Rockies. Real estate prices have barely budged since 2005, yet a typical three-bedroom house here still runs less than a comparable one in nearby Boulder. Its schools consistently rank among the top three academically in the Denver area."
Money’s unemployment number for this hip little town strikes me, however. “Full employment” is technically four percent and Louisville’s easily exceeds that. I am certain there are recession stories here, even in a place where the median home listing price is $383,569.
Louisville – you pronounce the ‘s’ – is located 23 miles northeast of Denver. On this beautiful summer Saturday evening Main Street’s many cafes, restaurants and bars are jumping, their large outdoor patios jammed – plenty of potential interviews.
Thirty-five year old Christopher is an electrical engineer at Ricoh, the copier/printer manufacturer – one of those tech jobs mentioned in Money. At first, Christopher insists the recession didn’t affect his life but, as we talked, he admitted it did affect his company, causing instability and anxiety amongst his co-workers.
“Many of our customers are banks,” he explained. “When they got in trouble our revenues went down. I didn’t feel threatened. If I lost my job, I was confident I could land something but many of my older co-workers were very anxious. Some were planning to retire in one year and now figure they have to work another ten. There was a lot of negativity in the workplace.”
Twenty-nine year old Bill is a project manager for a general contractor. I seem to attract construction industry people like a magnet but every story is different, yet the same. Work with me here.
As the recession neared its “official” end Bill lost his job; the work just wasn’t there. It took six months for him to find a new gig at a much lower salary because he was “starting” over with the new company.
“I lost my job two weeks after my son was born,” Bill said. “My wife obviously wasn’t working so it was very difficult. We had to scale back tremendously. We couldn’t afford to pay rent anymore and had to live with family until we could save some money and move. It was tough.”
“We scaled back on everything, groceries, gas, where we buy, how we buy. Now, we’ve started to implement all the things that got us through, to make us more fiscally responsible for the future.”
I always ask my subjects how the recession changed them personally. Bill told me, “It gave me thicker skin. I used to be very happy go lucky and open. This just hardened me a little bit.”
Shae is a 43-year old divorcee who is a supervisor of the training department for a local business. Her divorce came toward the end of the recession and she went back to school for re-training. Today she is making more money than she ever has in her life. Shae went on to tell me how the recession changed everything for her.
When the recession began she was a self-described stay-at-home mom with no income of her own. As with many women in that position, she was running a small business; she managed the family finances. After the divorce there were times when there was no second income from her former husband and Shae worked two jobs while still going to school. (I LOVE tough women!). “With four kids, it was very scary at times,” she says.
And, even though she is making good money now, Shae says the experience makes her “more conservative with my money.”
“Before the recession, when I was married, it was house and cars, that was really important to me. Now those things don’t matter; they’re just metal and walls. I don’t have to drive a Lexus to feel important. Now I drive a much more practical Honda Accord. I’d much rather go out and spend the evening with my kids, be with friends, travel a little bit. The recession gave me a better perspective.”
Another single mom, 36-year old Erin Millikin, says the recession played a part in her divorce. She currently manages one of Louisville’s downtown restaurants. Five years ago it was a different story.
“We were a dual income family, even though I was not working full time,” she says. “When the recession hit, I had to take a night job as a waitress.
“Certainly my husband and I already had issues. But with me working nights and him working days, we never saw each other. As things got tougher, tensions rose. It certainly contributed to our getting the divorce.”
Even in America’s most livable small town, recession happens.