Busy summers foretell Chaffee County’s growth
On a Friday afternoon in September, liquor store owner Mark Wakefield rings sale after sale as a breeze keeps pushing in through the glass door with a nonstop string of customers.
Traffic has already slowed outside on Highway 285, as weekend visitors make their way through Johnsons Village and on to points west. An RV turns in ahead of an F350 pulling a trailer with a set of twin ATVs. A Sprinter van comes next, shiny mountain bikes bouncing off the bumper. Then, another RV. Another RV. Another RV.
Getting into the Gunsmoke parking lot is easy since the road heading east is pretty much empty. But to head west, “You gotta shoot the gap,” Wakefield says, as a kayak-topped Suby zooms out in front of a semi.
The line of cars backed up on Trout Creek Pass becomes longer as it starts to get dark, forming what Colorado mountain town locals call the Denver “snake.”
“I like seeing the headlights better than the taillights,” Wakefield says, which of course will happen on Sunday as everyone goes home.
Growth is happening in Chaffee County and everyone is experiencing it.
- Visitor stays were up by double digits — 21% in 2016, 14% in 2017 and 17% in 2019 — according to lodging tax collections.
- Monthly sales tax collections in Buena Vista topped 20% every summer month in 2019.
“Chaffee County is at the heart of Colorado’s tourism mecca,” Chaffee County Economic Development Corp. Director Wendell Pryor said. “Coming over the pass on 285 literally puts these people at our doorstep.”
- Colorado was the second-fastest growing state in the nation from 2010 to 2015. Ninety-five thousand people moved to the state in 2017, and 3 million more will come by 2050, according to the State Demographer.
- More than 85% of the state’s new residents will live in Front Range communities, many located in the Denver and Colorado Springs areas, where Highway 285 provides easy access to the mountains.
“We’ve not only been discovered, we’ve been found,” Pryor said. “They come here and want to figure out a way to be here, either as second homeowners or permanently.”
Wakefield took a bet on the location of High Peaks Liquor when he purchased the store in 2014. It paid off as his sales grew by 10-20% every year. Like other residents, growth to him is both good and worrisome. “We’re losing our small town atmosphere but at the same time, BV’s economy is growing,” he said. “I agree with the locals who complain about some of the changes but appreciate the tourism at the same time.”