With luxury cabins and an emphasis on art, Naturita looks to the past and seeks to rebuild its economy around tourism and outdoor recreation.
NATURITA — The flashing lights bounce off the rusting water tank as the DJ’s thunderous bass resonates across the desert. A couple dozen well-spaced revelers, young and old in wigs and glitter and outrageous costumes, frolic beneath the glowing Milky Way.
A friend leans over to Natalie Binder as they absorb the scene from the back of a pickup truck and asks if she ever expected all these colorful characters would be dancing on a remote desert bluff that 60 years ago was home to one of the largest mining camps in Colorado.
“Absolutely,” says Binder, who with her architect partners, is developing 120 acres above the San Miguel River into a boutique retreat they hope will spark a long overdue renaissance in the struggling West End of Montrose County.
Since buying the property in 2018, Binder, a longtime Telluride local, has spent many weeks in the West End, where the Vanadium Corp. built a company town called Vancorum. Her grandmother was secretary to the company president. Her dad grew up in one of the cabins she is remodeling. Her mom and dad met on the property.
“I’ve spent a lot of time here alone in the last two years, and I always kept thinking about how much I want to share this place,” she says the morning after the dance party near the hulking tank that once provided water to mine workers. “I know this will become a very special space for a lot of different people. That’s what I thought last night. This is happening because this is what we manifested.”
Binder’s Camp V, with campsites on the river, luxury cabins on the hill and an eclectic emphasis on art, history, architecture and outdoor recreation, is a big deal for Naturita and its sister community Nucla. The project — one of Colorado’s first recipients of an Opportunity Zone investment — marks a definitive turn toward tourism and outdoor recreation in an area that has spent decades hoping for a revival of uranium and vanadium mining.
Camp V is the latest example of economic sparks promising to revitalize Montrose County’s West End, which joins a growing list of Colorado’s overlooked rural enclaves embracing innovative entrepreneurs who are tapping the surging outdoor recreation and tourism industries as economic drivers.
And the sparks couldn’t come at a better time. Hope for a new uranium mill in the nearby Paradox Valley has died. The promise of a resurgence from the exploding hemp industry has not materialized. The local Tri-State power plant and coal mine closed two years earlier than planned. As hopeful winds from new residents, investors and projects again fill the West End’s sails, locals are hoping this is Nucla and Naturita’s long-overdue moment to shine.
Here come the coffee shops, organic grocers and B&Bs
“Her enthusiasm is spreading,” Deana Sheriff, the director of the West End Economic Development Corp., says of Binder. “Absolutely I think this could finally be our moment.”
New businesses are cropping up in Binder’s wake. New owners have renovated Naturita’s Rimrock Hotel. Additional campgrounds have popped up in the region, as well as new bed & breakfasts. There’s a new coffee shop and organic grocery in Nucla, where miles of new mountain bike trails lace the desert above town.
Sheriff says Camp V has been a catalyst, bringing in new tourists.
The spring and summer have been exceptionally busy in Nucla, Naturita and the surrounding public lands, as visitors seek out-of-the-way escapes during the pandemic.
“When COVID hit, the West End was everybody’s secret space where they could bug out. And it really wasn’t that secret. We were inundated with visitors,” says Sheriff, describing how the local grocery, restaurants and liquor store saw tremendous traffic this summer. “The community really stepped up and responded well.”
Sheriff calls the pandemic traffic “trial by fire,” proving the community is ready to accommodate a surge of tourism.
There’s also been a boom in real estate sales in recent months as more urbanites flee density for wide-open country.
“If it’s in livable condition, it’s on the market a maximum of 10 days,” says Sheriff, describing a wave of young professionals moving to the West End and Paradox Valley and working remotely through the 1-gig internet provided by family-owned Nucla Naturita Telephone Co.
Sheriff sees Camp V drawing a more international audience than the rafters and Moab-lured folks who typically pass through Naturita and Nucla. Binder is setting up an artist-in-residence program with the New York Academy of Art and Telluride Arts. She also has collected some of the materials from the shuttered Tri-State plant, including giant cooling turbines that an artist planted into the campground for shade, like a thick-limbed tree.
“It’s been great who she has opened us to,” Sheriff says.
Shawn Bertini, a principal at Steamboat Springs’ Four Points Funding, invested in the Camp V project as part of his fund’s effort to direct Opportunity Zone investors into rural communities in Colorado. (Those investors can erase capital gains tax liability if they park cash in economically depressed communities identified in the 2018 federal tax overhaul.)
The Four Points Opportunity Zone funds are not only about supporting single projects. The hope is that seeding one project in an Opportunity Zone could lure more entrepreneurs to try their plan in neglected areas. Four Points is transforming an old building in Craig into a coffee shop, co-working space, events center and food hall where restaurateurs can test concepts. It invested in a long-dormant camping park in Meeker to create a hotel with tiny homes and an RV park. And now it’s investing in Binder’s art-focused retreat in a former mining community in Montrose County’s West End.
While the fund finds it easy to lure investors to its big multi-family projects in Grand Junction and Glenwood Springs, the equally impactful community-focused projects in Craig, Meeker and Naturita take a bit more convincing, even though they can generate strong returns, Bertini said.
“Our investors are happy and they get to see almost immediate impacts on local communities,” says Bertini, who calls the Camp V project in Naturita “a literal and figurative nexus of so many things.”