Sentinel Highlights Mesa County’s Desperate Economy

Today's Sentinel talks about the desperate state of the local economy

Today’s Sentinel talks about the desperate state of the local economy

The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel printed an article about the desperate state of Mesa County’s economy on the front page of its Business section today, written by business writer Greg Ruland.

Titled “Living wage tough to come by,” it describes how financially strained Mesa County families are compared to other families across the state. A study that showed that in Mesa County a family of four would need an annual income of $53,000-$65,000 to fund only the most basic needs of housing, food, health care, transportation, child care, taxes and an emergency fund. Ruland writes that the average wage in Mesa County “falls as much as $20,000 short of what single parents with three children must earn to cover the cost of a family’s basic needs.”

The cost of basic needs in Mesa County has increased over the last decade, but during that time wages in our area have stagnated, leaving Mesa County citizens worse off than ever.

A record number of people in Mesa County now use food stamps, and the number has climbed each year for the last eight years. About 18,500 Mesa County residents now receive government food assistance every month — more than double the number who got food assistance in 2008.

Ruland reports that a single mother working two full-time minimum wage jobs in Mesa County to try and support her family would still have an income low enough to qualify for food stamps.

That’s pretty bad, but not bad enough for the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce to come anywhere close to supporting an increased minimum wage.

Grand Junction Area Chamber: Let Them Eat Cake

Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President Diane Schwenke, secure in her $134k/yr job

Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce President Diane Schwenke, secure in her $134k/yr job

You’d think the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce would be deeply concerned about this state of affairs, but even in the face of the desperate financial straits of thousands of families in Grand Junction, Diane Schwenke, President of the Grand Junction Chamber, scoffed at the notion that raising the minimum wage (currently $8.23/hour) would benefit local families. In the Sentinel article, she dismisses the notion as “contrary to capitalistic principles,” and suggests that instead government needs to find ways to further lower the cost of basic living necessities, like food and housing. Neither Ruland nor Schwenke mentioned that the federal government already subsidizes a long list of agricultural staples like wheat, corn, soybeans and cotton, and even has a dairy subsidy program that pays farmers whenever milk prices fall below a certain level. In addition to promoting further reliance on government for help, Schwenke, who as always sticks to the same failed ideas she’s backed for decades, added that the quickest way to raise low wages in our area would be to increase oil and gas extraction operations. She sticks to this message despite knowing that disastrous economic fluctuations occur constantly in the oil and gas industry, and that our area’s past of embracing extractive industries like uranium, oil shale, coal, fracking and hazardous waste disposal have wreaked economic, health and environmental havoc on our area’s residents for decades. So why does Ms. Schwenke rely on the same tired, old ideas that have long been proven a bane for our area’s desperate economy?

Weak, barely-legible and ineffective signage attempt to address homelessness and poverty in Grand Junction

Weak, barely-legible and ineffective signage attempt to address homelessness and poverty in Grand Junction

Perhaps it’s because Ms. Schwenke doesn’t need to be concerned with coming up with new ideas to boost Grand Junction’s failing economy. She’s been comfortably entrenched in her position at the Chamber since 1989, even though her activities have brought heavy criticism to the chamber’s untoward political dealings and lip-service programs over the course of her career. The Daily Sentinel reported Ms. Schwenke’s compensation package is $133,930 yearly — about 4.8 times the annual per capita income in Mesa County, and twice Mesa County’s average annual total household income. Ms. Schwenke is obviously free of any concerns about being fired. She doesn’t even seem to need to demonstrate the effectiveness or lack thereof of any economic-related programs at the chamber, either. She doesn’t have to worry about working two jobs or putting food on her own table, so she’s free to repeat tired platitudes about the oil and gas industry being the area’s salvation for as long as she likes. 

For its part, the Grand Junction Economic Partnership referred to this latest devastating report about Mesa County’s abysmal economic status as “a call to action” to recruit higher-paying industries to the area. It’s nice that they seem to care, but like the Chamber, GJEP hasn’t offered any few new ideas about how to do this, either.

Obvious Opportunities Completely Ignored

DenverEconomyIn the mean time, Mesa County families continue to scrape by using food stamps, homeless shelters, the Salvation Army, secondhand stores, food banks and charitable organizations that try to alleviate hunger, like KidsAid, while low-cost, practically-guaranteed effective, obvious new opportunities for economic expansion continue to be completely ignored.

Since recreational marijuana was legalized in Colorado in 2012, the new marijuana economy has generated tens of thousands of new high-paying jobs around the state, mostly in mountain towns and on the front range. But not here, because local leaders have banned marijuana-related activity in our area. New marijuana businesses employ tens of thousands of Coloradans as growers, security system installers, lab techs, scientists, agricultural and nursery experts, trimmers and tenders, compliance and quality inspectors, hydroponic equipment sales and experts, agricultural-related sales, accountants, lawyers, blown glass artists, industrial and retail construction companies to build greenhouses and retail stores and specialized distribution systems. While western slope warehouses sit empty, there isn’t enough commercial warehouse space to handle all the new business from the new marijuana economy on the front range. Denver property values are soaring, new houses, condos and shopping malls are being built, while property values in Mesa County are flat or diminishing. The front range’s growth from the new marijuana economy has been so spectacular, television networks are making TV documentaries out of it, drawing more people and investment into the state

But not in Mesa County.

Opportunities to Put Grand Junction on More Maps Passed up

Western slope elected officials also flushed a wonderful opportunity to add Grand Junction to national park maps several years ago after they ditched a massive effort that gained tremendous public, private and business consensus to change the Colorado National Monument into a national park. Keeping the park listed as a national monument keeps tourists driving around Grand Junction looking for a statue or plaque instead of the stunning 28,000 acre area of canyons and stone monoliths that the Monument really is. How many tourists simply stay on I-70 because they think the “monument” is just another statue somewhere? As a national park, the Colorado National Monument could be a much bigger natural tourist attraction. A change of name would be all it would take to give tourists a better idea of what the Colorado National Monument really is. Similarly, tourists don’t know what a “Mcinnis Canyon” is, or why it might be something special to see, because they don’t know what a “McInnis” is. But they would certainly get a much clearer idea of the spectacular scenery they’d encounter if they saw “Colorado Canyons National Conservation Area” on the map instead of “McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area.” If only the more descriptive name referring to the area’s natural features could be restored to western slope maps as well, it could increase the number of people coming to Grand Junction to enjoy more of our outdoor amenities. Changing the names of these areas would only cost a few bucks, and could bring more notoriety and tourist dollars to the area. A cheap and easy fix if there ever was one.

Add a World Class Outdoor Recreational Amenity in Almost Nothing Flat

The maintenance road banks of the Grand Valley Canal System could be a world-class outdoor recreational amenity if a few gates were opened, a few gravel trailheads installed and a few signs put up

The maintenance road banks of the Grand Valley Canal System could be a world-class outdoor recreational amenity if a few gates were opened, a few gravel trailheads installed and a few signs put up

Opening up the Grand Valley’s stunning irrigation canal maintenance banks to non-motorized public recreation would create some of the most fantastically beautiful and accessible strolling, walking, running and mountain biking paths in the U.S. The irrigation canal system and its banks were built by the U.S. government Bureau of Reclamation in the early 1900s as a massive project to help bring settlers to the area by irrigating what would otherwise be arid desert land in the Grand Valley. The canal system criss-crosses the valley from north to south and east to west, and its maintenance banks are a ready-made system of dirt and gravel roadways paralleling some of the most scenic waterways in the western U.S. They run all the way from the spectacular fruit and wine byways in Palisade and East Orchard Mesa, to the beautiful paved riverfront path along the Colorado, from Palisade to the Loma boat put-in. Open a few gates, put in a few gravel parking areas and signage and bingo! The Grand Valley would have a star attraction that would get bicycles off the streets, provide motorless ways to criss-cross the valley, contribute to outdoor recreation and public health and boost tourism. It would also draw outdoor recreationalists who would come and stay in area hotels, dine at area restaurants and shop at local stores. There are already state laws in place protecting private landowners along the banks from liability. More of an effort needs to be made to create this fantastic amenity that lies literally at our feet.

There is SO much waiting to happen in Mesa County, and it has all been nixed for so long. It’s getting painful to see so many obvious ideas for turning Grand Junction into a destination city shunned, dismissed and ignored as impossible by our same old last-century “leaders.”

Until we overhaul and re-stock the Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, Grand Junction Economic Partnership, G.J. City Council and Mesa County Commission and other powerful boards and commissions with an entirely new slate of fresh,open-minded, creative and forward-looking thinkers who really have residents best interests at heart, our area will stay in the same economic death spiral we’ve been in for decades. But keep the same old people in the same positions of power with their same comfortable salaries and solid job security, and we won’t see any new ideas around here in our lifetimes. We’ll keep relying on things like uranium, oil and gas, fracking, creation of more hazardous waste dumps, coal mining and other doomed, last-century industries until Mesa County residents finally decide it’s time for that nonsense to end.

Nevertheless, we owe thanks to Greg Ruland for an excellent article about the continuing problem of Mesa County’s stagnant economy, if not for exploring more ideas about how to improve it.


  17 comments for “Sentinel Highlights Mesa County’s Desperate Economy

  1. I recently moved back home to Grand Junction after a two year sabbatical to Texas. In Houston, one of the big differences I saw between there and here, was how valuable job assets such as computer programming, coding, clerical management, data entry and health care was being offered and taught to some degree at a middle/high school level. Culturally, in comparison, GJ natives are dismissive and patronizing of the idea of anything beyond energy industry. It permeates a nihilistic attitude among many potential workers, and the cycle keeps on keeping on. I strongly feel creating substantial local infrastructure that doesn’t rely on boom-or-bust energy jobs needs to be the forefront of our interest locally over the next 15 years, scale back on the main street gentrification, make North Avenue a competent business front again, and most importantly, vote out all local incumbents lacking the fiscally conservative know-how, and who clamor to outdated inclusive social ideals, and run them out of town on a rail.

  2. The Old guard doesn’t have a next of kin, thus, the valley is changing and will continue too. These of us driving the economy will continue too until the rhetoric found in the comments of this editorial becomes a distant memory.

    Of course many have tried and failed, many will continue and likely fail. But it will be tourism and hospitality that grows the most over the next ten years, and the tourism and hospitality will make this valley lucrative for the manufacturing to move here for exactly that reason. Its a shame that all of the decision makers in town can’t see their tax revenue funded positions are paid by the tourism and hospitality dollars spent.

    Of Course the hospital and college have a lot to do with this. But, as far as I’m concerned, the completion of the university conversion and the hospital expansion was day one of the new guard. Those jobs are filled by people who need more recreation and restaurants, they have higher than average expendable incomes. Those students fill the hospitality positions, and spend their dollars on expendables. That revenue is keeping us afloat today. We will grow the hospitality and tourism industries while the “decision makers” are burning dollars pursuing washed up avenues to lure non sustainable industries into a town with not much here for them rather than all of us, as a group, spending that money improving our community to make it a nice place that people will want to live. That is the only problem I can see….

    I think a shorter way to say it would be something like Grand Junction is putting the cart in front of the horse while the rest of the state is charging their smart cars.

  3. Great article. I agree 99%. GJEP/Chamber/City Council’s are pretty much worthless for attracting new businesses. And you can add CMU and the Business Incubator to the list. But I don’t think it’s their fault. They are set up for failure. They have ZERO expertise in manufacturing and engineering, the engines of wealth and innovation. Instead they are populated with bankers, lawyers, real estate agents, academia, and healthcare. They are service providers, not businessmen. (Services are not even part of the GDP calculation in some countries.) These people have made a living as PARASITES to real businesses. As such, these poor people have no clue how a real business works, and therefore have no idea what a real businessman wants to hear. These poor people are set up for failure due to naivete.

  4. Marijuana, Gambling, Real Industries. …what’s the harm if done in a Responsible manner. However let’s not forget to help those loosing jobs in the oil, gas & coal areas to assimilate into other careers if we as a Country choose to crush those industries instead of regulating their ability to extract & use them responsibly. We do have alot of empty buildings and crushed careers in the Grand Valley, let’s utilize our resources and be creative thinkers to bring vitality back to our economy & damn the oppressive and unhealthy persons squashing our ability to uplift our towns.

  5. I have lived in Grand Junction since 1969 and have seen how the oil/gas/coal industries have served Grand Junction residents over the years. Boom-Bust. Build and leave it here to rot (32 road area cardboard houses). And don’t even mention something like LEGAL marijuana adding to the coffers. That “illicit” devils plant isn’t going to be a revenue source in OUR town. Sad to say, but GJ will never change, like so many other small towns in america, because the city cronies bury their heads in the sand after cashing their large paychecks and leave the locals asking them if they want to biggie size their lunch!

    • Thanks for your comment, John. There’s a lot of truth to what you say. But Grand Junction CAN change, and it already has to some extent. I’m optimistic more change is on the way. Look at our fantastic Riverside Trail system that arose from the junkyards and uranium dumps along the river. Look at the Riverside Parkway that allows people get around the valley so much more quickly and easily. The east valley has become the vineyard-and-winery center of the state. The Winefest and Peach Fest are drawing so many crowds now, it’s amazing. And look at the influx of diversity to our area: we now have some really decent Thai, Vietnamese, French, Nepalese and creative cuisine restaurants instead of the previous boring burger-fries and steak fare that used to be the area’s mainstay. We have a local food movement and roundabouts where a lot of pain-in-the-butt 4-way stops used to be. We have a gay pride celebration every spring and a secular advocacy group that watchdogs separation of church and state issues locally and lets people know you are still a fine person if you don’t believe in God. We have housing being built for the homeless. CMU is graduating people with doctorate degrees. We have espresso and bagels! To me, that’s all big progress.

      Stay positive! More good change is coming, I’m sure of it.

  6. I agree with all points except turning irrigation maintenance rights-of-way into “trails.” First of all, although local landowners are protected from liability, the irrigation companies, which are privately owned, is not. The cost of trying to make these “trails” “safe” would strain an already stressed irrigation system. Secondly, the irrigation rights-of-way are NOT public property. They belong to the individual irrigation companies, which are owned by the water shareholders. Thirdly, they are maintenance roads. They exist for the maintenance of the irrigation canals. Opening it up for trails will open up all sorts of problems with people being upset that an irrigation truck or equipment is “interfering” with their “trail.” Also, there is a flat out safety issue. Not only would we have to worry about people’s off-leash dogs going for a swim and causing all sorts of hazards, people (and particularly tourists who just don’t know better) might see the canal as a great place to float. Every time someone falls into a canal, the entire system has to be shut down, costing farmers and ranchers water which is critical to their crops and livestock, as well as a tremendous cost to the city/county for rescue efforts. Lastly, the trash, oh my goodness, the trash that would be generated. You would be amazed at the amount of trash that gets thrown into the canal systems NOW. We are talking tires, swing sets, sofas, in addition to household trash. Now imagine how much that would increase with increased access to the canal rights-of-way.

    There is a reason that there is an entire court system dedicated to water issues in the West. It is an extremely complicated subject. There are many more reasons that turning rights-of-way into trails would be a very bad idea, but that gets even deeper into the nuances of water law.

    • Hi Natalie,
      I understand your concerns, and they are certainly legitimate. I’ve seen the trash and other problems you mention regarding our local canals. But despite the list of very real potential problems you discuss, opening up man-made water containment structures like flood channel banks, river levees and irrigation canals to non-motorized, public trail use has been done successfully many times in many locations across the country. In all these areas, they have faced and addressed all the problems you list. They are not unique to only our area. The issues you raise have proven to be manageable and relatively easily overcome. A few examples of such successful canal bank conversions to recreational amenities include a 110- mile long trail atop the Herbert Hoover Dike around Lake Okeechobee in Florida, the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Trail that follows an old canal bank path along the Potomac River for 184 miles, the Arroyo de los Chamisos Trail in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which runs along a cement-lined wash and provides a direct pedestrian and bicycle connection from densely populated residential districts into commercial areas and to schools, the Santa Fe Trail, the Rio Hondo bike path in eastern Los Angeles County (talk about an urbanized area!), the Arizona Canal Trails ( and Salt River Project canal bank trails through Phoenix, AZ…the list is very large. There simply is no reason that, with some effort put into addressing the problems you list, we cannot open up the canal banks here, to the benefit of the community as a whole, and even to state tourism. And what a wonderful benefit it would be! We just need to think positively about doing it as a project, learn from what others have done before us in other locations and make a conscious decision to make it happen in the most well-thought-out way possible. An excellent guide about how to make such projects happen can be seen here:

    • Very well put. My thoughts are the same as I read this article or ever hear people talk about how east it would be to make tracks not realizing how quickly they could ruin what has be worked so hard by many years of people to be able to just water crops and livestock.
      Yes some ideas are needed for change but there not all as easy as mentioned in this article.

  7. Congratulation Anne, you have discovered the happy valley fiefdom. A monotonous languor. No doubt at this point, your thoughts run to what could be. Where you’re making your mistake is in not understanding what has been.

    Sun Tzu (Art of War) councils to know your enemy and to know yourself if you want to avoid peril. And you have demonstrated a complete understanding of yourself.

    Travel back in time with me. There is no North Ave, no shopping malls, and the worst thing that can happen to the fiefdom subject is to be caught unemployed in the winter. There’s really only one place in town hiring regularly because of a turnover expedited by hard work, low pay and long hours. That was the ice house.

    Ice cut from the mountain lakes was transported by rail to GJ in four hundred pound blocks and stored in the ice house. The subjects soon learned that the more people that moved in through the summer, the more competition for what few ice house jobs were available. It’s necessary that you know that, in order to understand that was the temperament that was pervasive throughout the food chain. The boss hogs did not want competition any more than the serfs did.

    And it was that way all through the formative years in the valley. You knew just about everyone in the valley and they knew you. There were a lot of corners cut and things that we just didn’t talk about, but together and sometimes in spite of each other, we survived. And the bosses thrived. And there were the shot callers. And that became a way of life, a niche in an environment that served as an incubator.

    When you got old enough you left the valley to seek sustenance. Some left with the vow to someday return and make things “right”. That’s what I’m doing here. What is your purpose? Did you just come to see the elephant? And do you think you know now what it looks like? Can you identify what that red stuff is between the elephants toes?

    Well here’s a clue; it’s what remains of slow natives, who have seen a thousand activists of all descriptions come and go. And they leave nothing but elephant footprints. Do you see the elephant now? And do you recognize that it was designed by a committee that was the product of inbreeding in that they were all God’s children?

    And as a native, me thinks you picked a tough nut to crack. But I’ll check back in with you in twenty years or so. And I hope you’re not planning to go anywhere in the foreseeable future. Why, you’ve hardly made a track, but at least you’ve gained situational awareness. And in the happy valley fiefdom, that can make all the difference.

    • Huh? What are you saying here? That we shouldn’t talk about it because that’s indicative of maintaining the status quo and won’t contribute to making real change? That we should simply leave it be and turn our backs and try to do the best with “what is” and not “what could be?” That the meat of our existence is solely based on what has been and not on what we could become? I’m not getting this at all. It sounds like you have a good understanding of where Grand Junction comes from. Basically, it’s where all places have come from. You describe the human condition of all places at some points in their pasts. But things change, of course. Look around the country and you will see the many towns and cities with the same sorts of history that have opened themselves to news ways of taking care of business and are thriving as a result. Those changes didn’t come like a thief in the night, but with talk and acknowledgment about the problem; with growing pains and hard work; and with the off-the-cliff decisions that eventually result in better lives. So, yeah, I’m not getting what you are saying. We NEED to talk about this. We need to make young people feel hopeful that things can change and they can make a home here with sufficient income to raise their families. People like Diane Schwenke obviously feel great pride in this community, but they are the ones who only understand themselves. Their pride is misplaced and dangerous to Grand Junction. I totally agree with your statement about knowing your enemy, BTW.

      • I agree, you obviously didn’t understand what I wrote. But you seem to be having no problem putting your slant on it, which probably means you’ve never really met the elephant yet.

        And how dare you attack Diane. Not too long ago, she was my escort all the way from the meeting in the basement of the Chamber of Commerce building to the parking lot. But I’ve seen the elephant and I’ve been escorted out of much finer establishments than that, right here in the valley. And it’s equally important to know your friends.

        They’re really not that hard to recognize. They are the ones that are not holding onto the knife you find in your back.

        But thanks for all the friendly advice.

      • “What a long perspective”! Seems long when you live it.

        “Iceman”. Getting pretty cold, are you there, lady? Springs a long time in coming when you’re this high up. And it starts with the fall.

  8. It is so sad that our kids plan to move from the Grand Valley once they finish college. My son and his wife plan to move to Oregon. She will be a psychotherapist and he will be a mechanical engineer. I hope that we might be able to afford to visit them now and then, but saving much is so difficult. My husband is 64, has worked for the same company for over 20 years and earns less than 30,000, he puts $100 a month into retirement. Pretty sad. Wake up Grand Junction!

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