“Spotlight on the Region” video from 2015 Mountain Rural Philanthropy Days conference in Rifle, CO.
Special thanks to Align Multimedia.
Learn more about the five counties of the Western Slope Region
Named for its location on the delta of the Uncompahgre River, Delta County is located in a large mountain valley at the confluence of the Gunnison and Uncompahgre Rivers and is surrounded by some of Colorado’s richest ranch land. The area was first explored in 1853 by Captain John Gunnison of the Army Topographical Engineers, who was surveying the region for a suitable route for a transcontinental railroad. Delta County was officially created by the Colorado legislature in 1883 from portions of Gunnison County.
The city of Delta is the headquarters for the Grand Mesa – the world’s largest flat-top mountain – and the Uncompahgre and Gunnison National Forests. Delta County offers a mild climate with warm, dry summers and moderate winters, making the Delta area ideal for year-round outdoor activities including skiing, gold-medal fishing, hiking, and hunting.
Delta County’s wide range of elevation, with a low of 4,758 feet and a high of 11,396, allows for secluded valleys within the county. These sheltered, quiet valleys provide a perfect environment for growing unique fruits and vegetables that grow in few places in the world. Agriculture is, in fact, one of the main industries of Paonia – Spanish for “peony” – which is known for producing delicious peaches, apples, and other fruits.
Delta County showed steady growth in the number of farms between 1987 and 1997; in 1987, the number of farms in the region was 900, but had reached 1,041 by 1997.
Delta County has a population of 30.401 persons (2006 U.S. Census estimate) and six unique communities: Cedaredge, Crawford, Delta, Hotchkiss, Orchard City, and Paonia (24% urban, 76% rural). Over one-third of the population lives within five miles of the town of Delta, the county seat and largest incorporated community in the county. Almost 20% of the people of Delta County are 65 or older, and over 18% are persons with disabilities.
Although steadily improving, Delta County’s Median Household Income remains about 30% below the state and national averages, with 12.5% below poverty level.
With adequate water sources, a diverse climate, and over 281,000 acres dedicated to agriculture, Delta County has always been a major producer of high-quality produce and livestock. Mining, retail trade, healthcare, and government are major sources of employment in addition to agriculture. Agritourism is a significant contributor to commerce in the county, with ready access to organic farms, ranches, wineries, art studios, bed and breakfasts, and many outdoor activities.
2008 cost of living index in Delta: 86.0 (U.S. average is 100).
Health and Emergency Services
Delta County has the lowest healthcare costs of any county in Colorado. A modern JCAHO-accredited 50-bed hospital built in 2004 offers general and specialized medical services.
Delta County is equipped with a 911 system that routes calls to the Delta County Sheriff’s Office, located in the City of Delta. The Delta Ambulance Service is a 24-hour advanced life support service serving the City of Delta and surrounding areas. The North Fork Ambulance Association, Inc., an all volunteer nonprofit, serves the areas of Hotchkiss, Paonia, and Crawford.
History and Geography
Eagle County is blessed with incredible natural beauty, a favorable climate, and numerous recreational amenities. The county is made up of many small communities, each as unique and diverse as the people who live here. The geographic diversity includes lushly forested Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff to the spacious ranches of Eagle and Gypsum. Eagle County’s population is a rich blend of American, Hispanic and European cultures. The Ute Indians utilized Eagle County lands for summer hunting and fishing grounds before Europeans explored the area. The first reliable account of European presence in the Eagle River Valley was in 1840 when Kit Carson guided the Fremont party through the region.
Fortune hunters and settlers scoured the state, striking lead carbonate ore in Leadville in 1874. The strike brought many prospectors to the valley, and by 1879 a permanent camp was established and the town of Red Cliff was born. Eagle County, originally part of Summit County, became a separate county in 1883 and Red Cliff, named for the surrounding red quartzite cliffs, was the first county seat. The county government moved west to the town of Eagle in 1921.
The evolution of Vail, from a quiet sheep pasture to an international resort, is credited to the famous 10th Mountain Division ski troops who were introduced to the valley while training at Camp Hale in the 1940s. Following World War II, a group of former Army buddies returned to the Gore Creek Valley to fulfill their collective dream – to develop a ski resort. Vail later emerged as a ski giant and the county has been economically vibrant since. Just over 30 years ago, the primary industry in Eagle County was agriculture. Today, over 80% of the land is comprised of National Forest, United States Forest Service Wilderness area, Bureau of Land Management open space, and Colorado public land, preserving the rural integrity of the county.
Over the last decade, Eagle County’s population has increased 25%, to 52,197 residents in 2010, with an estimated population of 53,655 in 2015. The Hispanic immigrant population has increased significantly in the last two decades, serving as an important workforce base for the resort community while increasing the need for Spanish-language resources and services. Additionally, Eagle County has seen small populations of Nepalese and West Africans emerge. The median age of the county’s population is 34.7 years. However, Eagle County has seen a shift in age demographics with a larger percentage of people over the age of 45 living in the region than in previous decades.
It is predicted, over the next 10-15 years the second home and tourism industry will continue to exert a significant influence on Eagle County. The region is becoming one of the most desirable places in the nation for second homes, with over 80% of the county’s 42.5% vacant housing units designated as “seasonal, recreation or occasional home use.” This overwhelming demand for mountain property is escalating the cost of housing and real estate, and forcing middle and lower class workers to seek housing elsewhere, while simultaneously generating service-level jobs for second-home construction, maintenance and other services. The second home and tourism industry has been the leading job-generator in Eagle County for the last two decades.
However, other sectors continue to grow; more and more businesses ingrained in the year-round residential communities continue to open and flourish. Leading employers in the area include Eagle County, Town of Vail, Vail Resorts and the Vail Valley Medical Center.
The cost of living in Eagle County is 66% greater than the national average; however, the average hourly wage of $19.78 is significantly lower than the State average of $24.00. A 2008 study ranked Eagle County among the most difficult living situations in Colorado. About 20% of families were living below the self-sufficiency standard before the 2008 economic crisis began. Eagle County experiences vast isolation from metropolitan areas due to dangerous mountain passes and limited public transportation.
Nearly 50% of Eagle County residents boast a Bachelor’s Degree or higher, showcasing the county’s investment in higher education. Eagle County Schools (ECS) provides comprehensive education to more than 6,400 students. Class sizes range from 17.5 students/ teacher at the middle schools, to about 20 students/class in high schools. ECS’ small schools and class sizes promote increased interaction and relationship between teachers and students, along with customized education.
Over 42% of students attending ECS partake in the free and reduced lunch program, and 33% of 4th Graders are not proficient in reading. According to Kids Count Colorado the high school graduation rate in Eagle County of 72%, which is slightly lower than the state average. Minority enrollment in Eagle county public schools is 53%; however, minority enrollment in the private school system is only 19%. While ECS has higher graduation rates overall and among subgroups, significant academic achievement gaps exist between white and Hispanic students, and for those living in poverty.
Health and Social Well-Being
Eagle County has more than twice the rate of hospital admissions for preventable medical conditions. According to the Colorado Health Institute, over 4,000 children are eligible for Medicaid or CHP+, yet only 74.7% are currently enrolled – this is below the state average. There is room for improvement in persons accessing medical insurance, this can be seen by the 17.7% of peoples who are currently uninsured in Eagle County. Although this number is fairly average in comparison to other Mountain Region counties, it is still above the state average of 14.3%.
Children 0-18 in Eagle County have a high prevalence of chronic and acute medical, dental, and mental and emotional needs that are not being met. Colorado Healthy Kids reported nearly 26% of students in Eagle County self-reported they were “depressed most days.” In 2011 Eagle County reported a suicide rate of 18.3%, making it the fourth leading cause of death in the county. With only 15 licensed clinical social workers, there is a need for the community, families, schools, and workplaces to promote emotional health and reduce the likelihood of mental illness, suicide and substance abuse.
The Eagle County Regional Transportation Authority was made official on January 1, 1996, but regional bus services were available in the Eagle Valley as early as 1980 – then funded by Vail Associates. The initial bus service was designed primarily to transport skiers between Beaver Creek and Vail Mountain but also to carry employees between Edwards and Vail. It also brought workers residing in Leadville to the valley.
In the mid-eighties, Eagle County operated the regional bus service by way of contract with various transportation providers. In the winter of 1987-88, the Town of Avon took over the operation of the regional bus service and continued operation through intergovernmental agreements until April 2001, when ECO Transit officially assumed day-to-day operations for regional bus service. The cost of a one ride bus ticket is upwards of $4, which is about $2 less expensive than a ticket in Denver County.
Although the bus fare is inexpensive, 66% of people living in Eagle County use private transportation. In the winter, Eagle County boasts the second busiest airport in Colorado following the Denver International Airport. Its close proximity to Vail and other large ski resorts makes it a chartered destination for ski enthusiasts and other tourists.
History and Geography
Garfield County is in a geographical transition zone between the Rocky Mountains and the Colorado Plateau, where lower elevations and longer growing seasons permit more agriculture. Elevation of communities ranges from 6,300’ in Carbondale to 5,200’ in Parachute, and peaks such as Mt. Sopris extending up to 13,000’. The average snowfall is 42” per year with year-round moderate temperature averages offset by occasional deep freezes and hot spikes. The current communities of Garfield County include Parachute, Rifle, Silt, New Castle, Glenwood Springs, and Carbondale.
The early inhabitants of the Glenwood Springs region were the Tabeguache Ute Tribe, who lived throughout the 7,000 square mile region. In 1883, Garfield County was established, named in remembrance of President James A. Garfield. The first county seat was held in Carbondale, but was later changed to Glenwood Springs.
The early settlements were positioned along the Colorado and Roaring Fork rivers, the Union Pacific Railroad route (that led from the Rocky Mountains west to Grand Junction), and as crossroads for routes to Aspen. Economic activity revolved around ranching, mining, agriculture, such as sugar beets in the Colorado River Valley and potatoes in Carbondale.
Vanadium and Uranium milling in Rifle employed many through the middle of the 20th century. In the 1970s, the construction of Interstate 70 improved Garfield County’s connection and travel to Denver and Grand Junction. Enhanced visitor access to the area, the development of nearby ski resorts in Aspen and Vail, and Garfield’s own Sunlight Resort helped to power the transition from a manual labor economy to a recreation economy.
The influx of visitors for hunting (including President Theodore Roosevelt) in the plateaus and forests near the Colorado River Valley has long been an economic support for local businesses. Natural gas and crude oil production continue to play a large role in employment and tax revenues.
Garfield County is projected to be one of the fastest growing counties in Colorado due to several factors. Major resorts in Pitkin and Eagle counties are nearby job centers and Garfield County has a more favorable topography for population growth than do those higher elevation mountain counties.
The current county population is approximately 57,302 people, and is estimated to grow at a 3% for the next twenty years, with 73,000 people expected by 2020. The factors contributing to this expected growth rate are Garfield County’s growing tourism and energy extraction industries.
Another reason for expected growth lies within the senior population. The US Census Bureau predicts that the 65 and older population will increase by more than 250% by 2030, creating thousands of jobs to support these retirees.
Garfield County has an ethnically diverse history, with the majority of first settlers coming from Italian and Austrian origins. Currently the population is comprised of 69.3% white, 33.8% Hispanic, and 2.5% other minorities. The Hispanic population has increased substantially in Garfield County, growing 5.5% between 2010 and 2013.
Garfield County is experiencing a slow economic recovery relative to the Front Range. By 2012, total employment in the county had only recovered to 88% of the pre-recession employment peak of 2008. A large decrease in “well starts” in the natural gas industry had a negative effect on the economy. However, many economic indicators such as sales tax revenue began to trend more positively in 2014.
Despite the slow economic recovery, the current median household income is $57,022, only $1,000 less than the Colorado state average. The current unemployment rate in Garfield County is lower than the state and surrounding Colorado counties at 3.3%. Major employers in the area are the Garfield School District, Valley View Hospital, Mountain Arc Mechanical HVAS and Walmart. Other booming industries include natural resource extraction including natural gas and crude oil production. In 2014, Garfield County was ranked 1st in Colorado for natural gas production and 3rd for crude oil production.
Garfield County’s high school graduation rate is 4.3% higher than the Colorado average. The number of pupils attending public schools is around 10,000 students, growing by 20 percent between 2000 and 2010. However, 34.5% of fourth graders are not proficient in reading, and 46% of enrolled students partake in free and reduced lunches. Only 26.6% of Garfield County residents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher, which is 20-30% less than the neighboring counties of Eagle and Pitkin.
Garfield RE-2 and Garfield 16 school districts cover the central part of the county, including the towns of Parachute, Rifle, New Castle and Silt. These districts added the largest number of pupils and grew at the most rapid rates. District RE-1, which serves Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, grew at a much slower pace.
Health and Human Services
Garfield County has two established hospitals, Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, and Grand River Medical Center in Rifle. The current uninsured rate is nearly double Colorado’s state average at 26.8% of the population not covered by any medical insurance. In 2013, Garfield County underwent a Public Health Strategic Plan, where they identified the counties top 3 public health needs.
- Reduce obesity rates among all groups in Garfield County
- Decrease chronic disease occurrence (diabetes and heart disease) among all groups in Garfield County
- Monitor and maintain clean air in Garfield County
The county continues to work on these issue areas, and have leveraged existing initiatives, including but not limited to: the Women, Infants and Children Program (WIC); public health investigations; health education and outreach; chronic disease prevention; and immunizations.
Over 10,000 natural gas wells and associated development and production facilities have been constructed in Garfield County. According to the Garfield County Public Health Improvement Plan, industry projections predict the county will be home to over 20,000 natural gas wells and associated infrastructure in the next 10-15 years.
At the end of 2014, the Center for Western Priorities reported of the 700+ oil and gas spills last year, 128 occurred in Garfield County (nearly 20% of accidents statewide). With oil and gas development predicted to increase, Garfield County Public Health is committed to addressing citizen concerns about activities in the community.
The main modes of transportation in Garfield County are individual car use (65%), carpooling (21%), and other non-public means (14%). Roaring Fork Transit Authority (RFTA) provides commuter bus service from Aspen to Glenwood Springs (Roaring Fork Valley), Glenwood to Rifle (Hogback), and intra-city service in Aspen and Glenwood Springs. The RFTA and the City of Glenwood Springs also provide complementary paratransit service for passengers with disabilities to individuals that reside within three-quarters of a mile of the “Ride Glenwood” fixed-route bus service within Glenwood Springs.
Glenwood Springs recently underwent a needs assessment and strategic planning phase for implementing Long Range Transportation. The City of Rifle has also recently identified further need for public transportation and looks forward to implementing new public transit systems by 2025.
Mesa County is the fourth-largest and 11th most populous of the 64 counties in the state of Colorado. The county was named for the many large mesas in the area, including Grand Mesa, the largest flat-top mountain in the world, and is also home to the Colorado National Monument.
Grand Junction’s history dates back more than 100 years, starting in the 1880s when the area was part of the Northern Ute Reservation. When the area experienced a land rush settlement in September 1881, a town site was staked. Located in the Grand Valley, the town site was initially called Ute, but was re-named West Denver and eventually Grand Junction, an appropriate name for a city located at the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado Rivers.
By 1883, Mesa County was created from neighboring counties, and Grand Junction was named the county seat. Grand Junction began to thrive when the main line of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad came into the area in 1887. Soon after, major irrigation turned the Grand Valley into a fertile agricultural area.
Today, Grand Junction is home to a number of light manufacturing and service industries. There are also four area hospitals, a regional airport and a number of recreational opportunities. In addition, the Grand Valley has become known as ‘Colorado’s Wine Country’.
The population of Mesa County has been steadily developing, with almost 20% between 2000 and 2008. In July 2007 the county’s population was 139,082 (85% urban and 15% rural), and according to the 2006 U.S. Census, 15.2% of the population was over 65 years old. The U.S. Census considers Mesa County to be a Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA).
The 2008 cost of living index in Mesa County was 89.0 (compared to the U.S. average of 100).
According to the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, the main employers are the Mesa County School District, St. Mary’s Hospital and Medical Center, and Mesa State College. Top industries based on employment include retail trade, health care and social services, and accommodations and food service.
The Median Wage in Mesa County in 2007 was $16.61 per hour, or $34,681 per year.
Health & Emergency Services
As the largest population center on the Western Slope, Mesa County – and specifically the Grand Junction area – is well-equipped with four full medical facilities, including a regional VA Medical Center; seven nursing homes; and 31 assisted living facilities. Fire department services include five stations, 119 employees and 29 paramedics.
History and Geography
Surrounded by the spectacular peaks of the Elk Range in the northern Rocky Mountains, Pitkin County lies in the heart of the White River National Forest. At an elevation of 9,242’, Pitkin County is well-known for its four world-class ski resorts: Aspen Mountain, Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk, and Snowmass. The county covers 973 square miles and includes the communities of Aspen, Snowmass, Woody Creek, Old Snowmass and Redstone, along with portions of the towns of Basalt, Meredith, and Thomasville. Pitkin County is considered rural, with a population density of 17.7 persons per square mile.
Aspen is the main population center of Pitkin County. Highway 82 is the only major roadway that runs through Pitkin County from Glenwood Springs and Interstate 70 in the north, to the 12,000-foot Independence Pass in the south. The rural, mountainous nature of the county is preserved in part by the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails, which protects and maintains 9,000 acres of undeveloped property and ranch-land.
Ute Indians originally discovered this land christening it “Shining Mountains”. The first silver miners arrived in 1879, followed shortly by prospectors hoping to strike it rich in silver in the Valley. Ute City was founded with just 300 residents and was renamed Aspen in 1880. Great mineral wealth drove development in Pitkin, with an abundance of iron, lead, gold, silver, and copper. The silver boon ensued, growing Aspen into a robust town of 12,000 people, with six newspapers, two railroads, four schools, three banks, electric lights, a modern hospital, two theaters, an opera house and a small brothel district. Quickly thereafter, silver was demonetized and Aspen began its decline as a mining center. During the so-called “Quiet Years” (1893-1936) life slowed down throughout the region.
Around 1936, three investors sought to establish a ski area above Aspen, but these plans were halted by the onset of World War II. However, in 1945 after the war subsided, Friedl Pfeifer, a member of the 10th Mountain Division, returned to Aspen, and along with Chicago industrialist Walter Paepcke, began to develop Aspen as a ski area in earnest.
Today, Pitkin County has the widest array of arts and cultural events in the state. Arts and cultural offerings include everything from a world famous music festival to ballet, celebrations of food and wine, gatherings for the intellectual and the environmentalist, as well as activities and inspiration for writers and poets.
As of 2013, Pitkin County’s population was 17,379. The county is on pace for an expected increase of nearly 50% between 1990 and 2015 from 12,661 to 19,009 residents. Many residents, 56.8%, have a minimum of a Bachelor’s degree, giving Pitkin County a considerably well-educated population. Over the last 35 years, job growth in Pitkin County has outpaced that of the state and the nation. According to the US Census five-year estimates for 2013, Pitkin County is approximately 87.3% White, 9.3% Hispanic, and 3.4% other minorities.
Pitkin County’s tourism and resort economy supports a strong second home market, which contributes to high real estate values, and at the same time creates lower paying service and retail jobs. The cost of living in Pitkin County is high and there is a wide range of socioeconomic levels among residents. The median household income in Pitkin County is now $72,745 – one of the highest per-capita incomes in the U.S. However, as of October 2014, the unemployment in Pitkin County reached 6.3%, which is 2.6% higher than the state average. Between 2009 and 2013 the homeownership dropped from 60% to 37.9%. The 2004 Pitkin County Public Improvement Plan, conducted by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments (NWCCOG), found that second homeowners account for 55% of all housing unit property owners in Pitkin County, compared with 49% in Eagle County and 67% in Summit County. Vacant homes encompass 42% of all housing units, 79.3% of which are used seasonally.
Tourism is the mainstay of the local economy with arts, cultural and recreational events providing year-round attraction. In April of 2013, the Aspen Chamber Resort Association released a new strategic plan to follow up on the 2002 Aspen Community Sustainability Report, which had documented challenges and opportunities facing the Aspen community and recommending a series of public policy initiatives intended to support the community’s long term economic viability. Among the recommendations from the 2013 report for Pitkin County and the Aspen as areas of community focus were:
- Expanding a marketing program and recommitting to visitor events and cultural programming
- Developing new lodging properties in the Aspen core and encouraging renovation of existing units
- Working to improve the vitality of downtown Aspen
- Working to attract higher quality and more diverse air service and carriers
The report’s conclusion speaks to the unique characteristic of Pitkin County’s hub, the city of Aspen:
“Aspen is a remarkable community and produces an equally remarkable and valued visitor experience. But Aspen is not impervious to market forces, demographic change, competitive pressures or community lethargy…For too long our community has argued about the purported tension between our small town character and our standing as an international resort. We firmly believe there is a natural energy, unique to Aspen, because we are both a ski town and an international culture‐driven destination. We need to acknowledge and nurture this special energy to propel Aspen into the next level of excellence. Our overarching challenge is to keep the Paepcke’s spirit alive and to keep pressing to be more than an ordinary community or an ordinary resort.”
Pitkin County’s population is more highly educated compared to the state of Colorado. Pitkin County graduates 96.7% of high school students, compared with 73.9% across the state, and 56.8% of county residents have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with the state at 37%. Pitkin County schools provide comprehensive education to more than 1,900 students. Class sizes are fairly small, ranging from 10 students per teacher in elementary and middle schools to about 15 students per teacher in high schools. Pitkin County has two school districts: Aspen School District and Roaring Fork School District in the Basalt community.
There are currently 12 licensed Early Childhood Care (ECC) providers in Pitkin County for nearly 750 children ages 5 and under. According to the Pitkin County self-sufficiency index, a single parent with an infant child needs to make $83,980 per year; which, is $11,000 more than the median family income. The high cost of ECC in Pitkin County can be difficult for families who are living near or beneath the poverty line, ranging between $16,000 and $18,000 per year. Despite these gaps in ECC, Pitkin County currently has 100% enrollment and attendance rate for Kindergarteners in a full-day program.
Health and Social Well-Being
Following Douglas County on the Front Range, Pitkin County ranks number two in the state when it comes to health factors based on health behaviors, clinical care, social and economic, and physical environment factors. Pitkin County ranks number three in Colorado when measuring the residents’ health.
The 2013 Pitkin County Community Health Improvement Plan reports the results of a community forum held in the summer of 2012 in which the following five health priorities were identified:
1) Access & Cost of Medical Care
2) Aging Care
3) Mental Health*
3) Prevention Services*
5) Substance Use
Improving access and affordability of health care was voted as the top priority from the community forum conducted by Pitkin County Public Health in 2012. This issue, along with the breadth and scope of mental health prevention and services, are actively being addressed by several community-based groups moving forward.
Since 2012, Pitkin County has been supported by the Aspen Valley Health Alliance, a partnership between Aspen Valley Hospital, Pitkin County and the City of Aspen government, Aspen School District, and Aspen Skiing Co. The Alliance “seeks to improve population health, enhance quality care and reduce health care costs.”
Another key health indicator for Pitkin County is the growth of the older adult population. This population is projected to increase at a greater rate than any other age group over the next 30 years. A seven-fold growth in the over-60 population is anticipated between 1990 and 2040, increasing from 7% to approximately 20% of the overall population of the county. The overall population of Pitkin County is expected to grow just 2.5 times in the same 50-year period. The over-80 population in Pitkin County is expected to grow even faster, with a 19-fold growth between 1990 and 2040.
The five leading causes of death in Pitkin County include cancer, cardiovascular disease, unintentional injury, suicide, and respiratory illness. Prostate cancer and female breast cancer are the most common cancer sites for Pitkin and Colorado, and cancer incidence for all cancers in Pitkin County is comparable to the rate in Colorado. Pitkin does have a higher rate of skin cancer than Colorado: 34.2 new cases per 100,000 population in Pitkin County compared to 22.0 new cases per 100,000 population in Colorado.