Hispanics Flex Political Muscle

Hispanics Flex Political Muscle


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The region’s growing Hispanic population likely will force county clerks in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties to publish bilingual ballots for the first time ever.And as Hispanics make up a larger and larger population of potential voters, both Democrats and Republicans are looking to Latino voters to boost their parties.

Under the 1973 Voting Rights Act, areas with large Hispanic, Asian, American Indian and Alaskan native groups must provide bilingual voting materials and bilingual poll workers.

Ten Colorado counties already must publish bilingual materials: eight in Spanish, two in Navajo and Ute. After the 2010 census, 16 more counties are expected to be covered by the act, including the counties that make up the Roaring Fork Valley. Six more counties are within the margin of error.

“There’s no doubt about it,” said Garfield County Clerk Jean Alberico. “We’re going to be a covered county.” She said she’s just waiting for a phone call from the Justice Department to tell her when.

Jurisdictions become covered by the language minority provision of the Voting Rights Act when more than 5 percent of all voting age citizens are considered to be of limited English proficiency. Based on the latest census numbers, 17 percent of potential Eagle County voters, 12.2 percent of potential Garfield County voters and 5.6 percent of potential Pitkin County voters meet that standard.

While the overall Hispanic populations of those areas are much higher — Garfield and Eagle county are nearly one-third Hispanic and Pitkin is 9 percent Hispanic, according to the census — the potential voter numbers are based on estimates of voting-age citizens in the American Community Survey, the longer census forms that some households received.

Colorado as a whole will also likely be covered by the Voting Rights Act, Alberico said, forcing any state question on the ballot to be run in both Spanish and English. Towns and taxing districts would also have to provide bilingual language for their ballot issues.

Alberico said it’s still not clear if all voters must receive the ballot in both languages — making for a possibly cumbersome and confusing ballot and a costlier mailing — or if voters may choose the language.

The challenge, she said, will be finding bilingual election judges. “That means we’re going to be needing to reach out to different groups in the communities,” Alberico said.

Parties in competition

Parties are facing the same dilemma. Democrats see Latinos, who helped push President Obama to victory in 2008, as a pool of largely untapped voters in this region. Republicans see them as value-based voters they could lure.

Garfield County Democrats have formed a new outreach committee to try to recruit both younger voters and Latino voters.

“If Democrats, or people of good will anywhere, don’t embrace this it’s a terrific loss to our community,” said Jack Real, the chairman of the county party. He said he saw the potential in Latino voters two years ago while campaigning for Obama. He signed up some 11 Latino voters, some of them new citizens who spoke little English but wanted to vote for Obama, he said.

Garfield County Republicans Chairman Ron Roesener said his party has also tried to reach Latinos, but on an individual basis.

“It’s been one-on-one,” Roesener said. “I haven’t been able to get enough that spoke English and were legals together. I don’t mean that to sound politically incorrect or improper but that’s been my experience. I’ve stopped some at the grocery story here, the Clark’s Market (in Battlement Mesa). Almost everyone I stopped, the kids speak English, the parents don’t.”

Glenwood Springs City Councilman Steve Bershenyi, a Democrat, said his unsuccessful county commissioner campaign tried too late to reach Hispanic voters two years ago. Had he done it earlier, he said, he might have closed the 350-vote margin that put him behind Commissioner John Martin, a Republican.

He said his organization held meet-and-greets with Latinos to woo voters, but it should have done more, and sooner.

“One of the things we as a party have to do is to make sure we are absolutely certain that we have a policy in place, not only to reach out to the Hispanic community but to make sure they’re included in the process up to and including candidates,” Bershenyi said.

Both parties, overwhelmingly white, say they’ve seen growing numbers of Hispanics at their events, but it’s been slow. Democrats are eying Latino high school- and college-aged students, young people who often were born here, even if their parents weren’t. In El Jebel, Carbondale, Glenwood Springs and Parachute, white children under 18 are in the minority.

“On our Facebook page we’ve got 50 people on there and maybe four or five who I guess are Hispanic,” said Bryan Fleming, president of the new Young Republicans of Garfield County group.

Fleming said he had never considered targeting Hispanics as a specific group.

“Personally, in a generalization, I would like to have our Hispanic folks involved just in that I think they fall more in line with Republican values,” he said.

Hispanic Population Booms

Hispanic Population Booms

Govany Hernandez, of Carbondale, slices meat at Garcia's market in New Castle, serving to the tastes of a Hispanic population that boomed across the valley. In Carbondale, Hispanics make up nearly 40 percent of the population, according to the 2010 census. David Frey photo.


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When Samuel Garcia opened his grocery store in New Castle a decade ago, it was a sign of changing times. The town’s old general store became a grocery store serving the Latino population at the same time New Castle’s complexion was beginning to change.
By 2010, New Castle’s Hispanic population had grown five times its size in 2000, according to the latest census.
“I can notice the difference,” Garcia said.
New Castle saw the region’s biggest growth in Hispanics, but their numbers are growing throughout the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys, marking the biggest current demographic shift in the region. Their actual numbers may be higher than what the census reveals.
Demographers say the census count among Hispanics may be low due to language barriers and fears among illegal immigrants that filling out the form or talking to census workers could lead to deportation.The numbers may have been even higher before the 2010 census was taken. Like other workers, many Hispanics left the Roaring Fork Valley when the recession ground the construction industry and other sectors of the economy to a halt.“A lot of people went back to Mexico or different places in the U.S. because there was no work around,” Garcia said.

One third Hispanic

Garfield and Eagle counties are nearly one-third Hispanic. Pitkin County is now 9 percent Hispanic; its Hispanic population grew 60 percent over the decade.

In New Castle, the 15th fastest-growing town overall in the state, the Hispanic population grew from a mere 236 in 2000 to 1,282, a 443 percent change.

Hispanics tripled in Silt and Battlement Mesa and doubled in Snowmass Village, Basalt, Glenwood Springs, Rifle and Parachute.

Gains were more modest in El Jebel and Carbondale, which already had large Hispanic populations, but along with Parachute, those communities are now nearly 40 percent Hispanic.

“I think it’s just part of the way the West is growing these days,” said Steve Rippy, manager of Battlement Mesa Service Association, where growing numbers of blue-collar workers, including construction workers and roughnecks, transformed what had been a quiet retirement community.

“The number of Hispanics in the construction industry really boomed in the last decade,” he said.

Changes among children

Hispanic gains are even greater among children. Anglo children are now in the minority in El Jebel, Glenwood and Parachute. They make up less than 60 percent of young people in New Castle, Silt and Rifle.

The local growth in Hispanics was mirrored statewide. Hispanics weren’t the fastest-growing group in the state; Asians outpaced them. But Hispanic numbers are much higher.

“We are more diverse, and we have been becoming more diverse over the past several decades,” said state demographer Elizabeth Warner.

The biggest growth has been among the under-18 age group, Warner said. The last census showed immigrants moving in. This one shows them settling down. “They have kids, form families,” she said. “That’s where a lot of our growth has been taking place.”

‘The ambassador’

Garcia had plans to open a Mexican restaurant serving cuisine from southern Mexico, where his wife Leticia is from — foods that aren’t on the menu in most Mexican restaurants.

“I tried to open that restaurant last year, but the economy went down, down, and I said, ‘Wait a little bit.’”

He sells basic food, like tacos and burritos, at his lunch counter in the back of the grocery. A few years ago, when the construction industry was booming, the lunch counter was, too.

“Now it’s completely dead,” he said.

Mayor Frank Breslin calls Garcia “the ambassador” of the Latino community.

“If people in general or myself in particular have a question about something or want to get a word in Spanish, we ask Sam,” he said.

Those kind of connections are becoming increasingly important. Breslin said he was surprised to see the census showed the Hispanic population to be so high, but it was no secret that it was growing. He said the town government is seeking a translator to publish its Town Council agendas in Spanish “to invite participation and show that we respect that population.”

After Recession, a Boom in Empty Homes

After Recession, a Boom in Empty Homes


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Vacancy rates rose up and down the valley, due in part to a flurry of new construction followed by a disappearance of jobs. In Battlement Mesa, where vacancy rates tripled, apartments offer move-in specials. David Frey photo.

When the recession ended the boom times of the first decade of the 21st Century, it left the lights out in thousands of unoccupied homes across the Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys.

Results of the 2010 U.S. Census show vacancy rates climbed from Aspen to Parachute, largely as a result of new construction outpacing demand after the housing bubble burst.

Vacancy rates rose sharpest in western Garfield County, where residents fled due to the recession and vanishing jobs in the gas patch. The situation was worst in Parachute and Battlement Mesa, where nearly one in three homes were left empty.

“Definitely in the state we’ve had overbuilding,” said Elizabeth Garner, state demographer with the Department of Local Affairs. “I think everyone is well aware of that now.“There’s a ton of different issues. There are a lot of people that got into second homes that shouldn’t have been in them. There are a lot of people that got into first homes that shouldn’t have been in them,” she said.

Between 2000 and 2010, vacancy rates tripled in Rifle, Parachute and Battlement Mesa. They doubled in towns from Carbondale to Silt, and in Garfield County as a whole. The county had 2,950 vacant units in 2010, up from 1,107 in 2000. Its vacancy rate soared to 12.7 percent.

Full house or empty hand?

Imagine a population boom and you might picture a lot of full houses. Imagine a growing vacancy rate and you might picture a lot of empty houses. The Roaring Fork and Colorado River valleys got both.

The picture is sharpest in Battlement Mesa, which saw a severe boom-and-bust cycle dictated by an explosion of oil and gas jobs when fuel prices rose, and an implosion when they fell.

“Battlement Mesa, like all the Western Slope and most of the country, was seeing a lot of demand for new housing units,” said Steve Rippy, who, as manager for the Battlement Mesa Service Association, acts as the equivalent of town manager for the unincorporated community.

Over the decade, some 720 new housing units were built in Battlement Mesa to keep up with the demand, from single-family homes to apartments, and townhouses to trailers.

Gray hair, blue collar

Subdivisions that had remained empty for decades were built up in a hurry, Rippy said. Empty mobile home lots were rented out. By 2009, Battlement Mesa hit nearly 100 percent occupancy, buoyed mostly by gas workers, he said.

“It was pretty frequent to see a van hauling a U-Haul and these types of things for a while,” Rippy said.

Originally built by Exxon in the 1980s to house oil shale workers, Battlement Mesa found new life as a retirement community after Exxon shuttered its oil shale operations in 1982 — a day remembered as Black Sunday — and left 2,000 workers out of work. It attracted retirees with a golf course, a recreation center and warm, dry weather.

After the natural gas boom, it began attracting energy workers again. Added to that mix were upvalley residents seeking lower home prices. Many of the new residents were Hispanics, whose numbers doubled in Battlement Mesa over the past 10 years, according to census figures.

The retirement community was transforming into a blue-collar neighborhood.

Condominiums such as Shibui West in New Castle provided housing for a growing workforce during boom times, but have emptied during the recession. David Frey photo.

Houses built, jobs vanished

“Over the last 15 years, the reality is, there were probably more people moving here who were not retired,” Rippy said.

When fuel prices fell, many gas jobs disappeared. The recession robbed others of their construction and service. Homes emptied. Construction has ground to a halt.

Now, Battlement Mesa Corp., which owns the development, is offering deals for prospective buyers to move in to apartments. Signs advertise $99 move-in specials.

“You drive through the mobile home park and you’d be shocked at how many of them are empty,” said Battlement Mesa resident Ron Roesener, who counted 11 empty homes in his own neighborhood, many of which were in foreclosure.

Upside-down Parachute

Across the Colorado River, Parachute experienced a similar phenomenon, only more extreme. The town saw 124 new housing units built to handle the expected growth — a big change for a town of about 1,000 people.

By the end of the decade, though, Parachute wouldn’t need any of those homes. In 2010, it had 10 fewer occupied units than it started the decade with, and 134 more vacant homes, according to the census.

The town grew by just 79 people, a 7.9 percent growth rate that was even slower than Aspen’s.

Farther up the valley, the situation only slightly improved.

Rifle went from a 3.6 percent vacancy rate to 11.2 percent.

Silt went from 3 percent to 8.4 percent.

New Castle went from 3.6 percent to 8.6 percent.

Glenwood Springs went from 4.1 percent to 8.1 percent.

Carbondale went from 4.2 percent to 8.8 percent.

The upper valley, which has a historically high vacancy rate due to a large number of second-home owners, was less affected.

Aspen’s vacancy rate grew from 33.3 percent to 40.7 percent. Basalt’s rose modestly from 13.6 percent to 16.3 percent.

Snowmass Village saw its vacancy rate decline, from 50.2 percent to 43.7 percent.

For Western Colorado County, a Decade of Boom and Bust

For Western Colorado County, a Decade of Boom and Bust

A golfer putts at a hole in Lakota Canyon Ranch, a golf course development that helped redefine New Castle and made it a magnet for people who work upvalley and downvalley. David Frey photo.


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In the first decade of the 21st Century, a wave of newcomers filled manufactured houses and million-dollar golf course mansions to make New Castle the fastest-growing town on the Western Slope and put it in the ranks of Colorado’s biggest boomtowns.Garfield County became the state’s fourth fastest-growing county, trailing only the metro suburbs. Neighboring Mesa and Eagle counties followed, ranking fifth and sixth.
But the 2010 census captures a snapshot of a region in transition. After two booming decades, the area from Aspen to Battlement Mesa was staggering under a recession that dealt a blow to the housing industry and drove down fuel prices, cooling the energy industry. Residents moved out. Businesses shuttered. Homes emptied. The numbers tell a story of both growth and flight.Despite the recession, though, forecasters expect the area’s population to climb again.

“We know Garfield County, like several other counties in the state of Colorado, are highly desirable places to live,” said Tamra Allen, long-range planner for Garfield County. “As people continue to age, continue to retire, they’ll move into new homes. I think growth is definitely likely to occur here.”

Retirees and roughnecks

The region’s growth from 2000 to 2010 was driven largely by retirees seeking mountain homes, demographers say. In Garfield County, population increases also came from energy workers toiling in western Colorado’s gas patch.

Garfield County grew 28.8 percent between 2000 and 2010, according to census figures, growing to 56,389 residents from 43,791.

That put Garfield behind only Douglas, Broomfield and Weld counties, all on the Front Range, for its rate of growth, and made it the Western Slope’s fastest-growing county.

Mesa County grew 26.2 percent.

Eagle County grew 25.3 percent, from 41,659 people in 2000 to 52,197 in 2010.

Even slow-growth Pitkin County ranked in the top third of growing counties across the state. Pitkin ranked 21st, with a 15.3 percent growth rate, rising from 14,872 people in 2000 to 17,148 people in 2010.

Almost every town in the Roaring Fork Valley saw at least double-digit growth in the first decade of the century.

“Folks just want to be in a beautiful area,” said Elizabeth Garner, state demographer with the Colorado Department of Local Affairs.

Is census already a relic?

Already the census figures look like something of a relic, as the recession forced out valley residents who fled in search of jobs elsewhere.

“Those numbers are all BS now,” said Battlement Mesa resident Ron Roesener, who watched the population of his community collapse since the census.

The Garfield County Republican Party chairman, Roesener said he worries about congressional redistricting being done on figures that don’t accurately depict the county.

“There are always business cycles,” Warner said, “but then you need to question, has there been a permanent shift or will it get back on trend?”

The state demographer’s office expects the region’s growth to continue.

“I think we’re going to continue to see the impact of retirees and we’re going to continue to see the impact of oil and gas, and it’s probably always going to be as it’s been, and that is extremely volatile,” Warner said. “You will have your booms and busts. I don’t know any place that deals with oil and gas where that’s not the case.”

State projections showed Garfield County doubling in size from 2010 to 2030 to 120,000 people.

Meanwhile, a 2010 socioeconomic study performed for Garfield County by Denver’s BBC Research and Consulting, which takes the recession into account, estimated a more modest but steady growth to 100,000 people.

New Castle Mayor Frank Breslin sits in his historic Main Street home. New Castle's population doubled according to the 2010 census, making it one of the fastest-growing towns in Colorado. David Frey photo.

‘Scrambling to keep up’

The biggest change was in New Castle, which grew 127 percent. Its proximity to upvalley jobs and downvalley gas fields made it a destination for both gas workers and Roaring Fork Valley professionals.

The BBC Research and Consulting study found New Castle had the highest average increase in the county since at least 2000.

New Castle had just 1,984 people in 2000. By 2010, it grew to 4,518, becoming the 15th biggest boomtown in the state.

“During most of that 10-year period, all of our departments were just scrambling to keep up,” said Mayor Frank Breslin.

New Castle was outpaced almost exclusively by Front Range towns that were being swallowed by a booming urban corridor stretching from Fort Collins to Colorado Springs.

Towns up and down the valley also boomed, according to census figures:

Aspen: 13 percent

Snowmass Village: 56 percent

Basalt: 44 percent

Carbondale: 24 percent

Glenwood Springs: 24 percent

Silt: 68 percent

Rifle: 35 percent

A quiet town grows, falters, and begins a recovery

When Breslin first came here from Chicago 35 years ago, New Castle was a town of just 580 people, many of them widows of miners killed in explosions.

Children were so few that grades from kindergarten to 12 went to the same school on Main Street. Students walked past his house every day to have lunch at the community center.

“You think it’s quiet now. It was pretty quiet back then,” he said.

Today, New Castle has more students in its middle school than the entire town population back then. The town is large enough for two elementary schools, a middle school and a shared high school with Silt, plus a brand-new McDonald’s at the entrance to town.

“The growth in construction was mostly driven by speculation in the real estate market that was driven by the oil and gas industry and a confidence in the economy here,” said Breslin, a cabinetmaker serving his second stint as town mayor.

From condos to fancy houses on the Lakota Canyon golf course, homes in New Castle were available and more affordable than elsewhere in the area. In some of the new homes where Breslin installed cabinets, buyers told him they had financed 100 percent of the purchase price.

After the recession, New Castle homes emptied.

In 2009, the Town Council asked police to keep an eye on the growing list of foreclosed homes to try to keep them from falling into disrepair and bringing down the appearance of the neighborhoods.

Many homes throughout town still sit empty or for sale, but Breslin said the worst seems to have passed. Judging by his cabinetry business, at least, he said, remodels are starting to make up for the lack of construction.

“People are starting to show a little more confidence that the economy will recover,” he said.

Boom & Bust Decade: A Census Analysis

Boom & Bust Decade: A Census Analysis

In Western Colorado, a Decade of Boom and Bust

In the first decade of the 21st Century, newcomers filled manufactured houses and million-dollar golf course mansions to make New Castle one of Colorado’s biggest boomtowns and Garfield County the state’s fastest-growing county outside the metro suburbs. But after two booming decades, the region staggered under the recession.

After Recession, a Boom in Empty Homes

When the recession ended the boom times of the first decade of the 21st Century, it left the lights out in thousands of unoccupied homes across the region. In western Garfield County, where residents fled due to the recession and vanishing jobs in the gas patch, nearly one in three homes were left empty.

Hispanic Population Booms

The biggest demographic shift in the region is the boom of the Hispanic population. It’s seen most sharply in New Castle, where the Hispanic population grew five times larger over the course of a decade. Two counties are a third Hispanic, and in some towns, Hispanic children outnumber Anglo children.

Hispanics Flex Political Muscle

The region’s growing Hispanic population likely will force county clerks in Pitkin, Eagle and Garfield counties to publish bilingual ballots. As Hispanics make up a larger population of potential voters, Democrats see Latinos, who helped push President Obama to victory in 2008, as a pool of largely untapped voters in this region. Republicans see them as value-based voters they could lure.