Western Communities Try to Chart New Economic Paths as Coal Declines

In this Sept. 4, 2011, file photo, smoke rises from the stacks of the main plant facility at the Navajo Generating Station, as seen from Lake Powell in Page, Ariz.

In this Sept. 4, 2011, file photo, smoke rises from the stacks of the main plant facility at the Navajo Generating Station, as seen from Lake Powell in Page, Ariz. AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File

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“We decided that a win is growing basically one job at a time,” says one economic development official.

When Lena Fowler, a supervisor in Coconino County, Arizona, took office about a decade ago, she recalls discussions about how the Navajo Generating Station, a local coal-fired power plant, would likely shutdown in the mid-2040s, and what this would mean for the region.

The power plant is located on the northern fringe of the county, near Page, Arizona, not far from the Utah border. The facility, along with a nearby mine that supplies it with coal, together employ about 1,000 people, according to Fowler. Many of the workers are local Navajos.

Over the years, the generating station provided not only jobs but also an important stream of payments to local taxing districts that helped pay for schools, firefighting and hospitals.

But in 2017, the utility owners of the plant decided they would stop operating it—not decades from now—but in December 2019.

“We were planning for 2044 and saying, ‘okay, this is just around the corner, let's figure out what we're going to do and let's get ready for it,’” Fowler said. “Well that 2044 turned into two years.”

Coconino County is just one example of a community in the American west that is coping with what can be a harsh economic transition as coal mines and coal-fired power plants shut down.

About 270 coal-fired power plants have been closed or proposed for retirement since 2010, according to the Sierra Club.

Abundant, cheap natural gas, rising concerns about climate change, and renewable energy gains continue to pressure the industry. And coal power plants are aging—the “capacity-weighted” average age of the facilities was 39 years in 2017, federal figures show.

Leaders from places in western states affected by declines in the coal sector met in Denver this week for a workshop organized by the National Association of Counties and National Association of Development Organizations, and funded by the U.S. Economic Development Administration.

It’s the latest in a series of events these organizations have put on since 2017 aimed at helping communities that have depended on coal for jobs and government revenues chart a new path.

Eleven county and regional teams with participants from Arizona, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming were slated to take part in this week’s event.

Jack Morgan, a community and economic development program manager with NACo who is working on the program, says it’s geared toward “economic resilience, how you can adapt and react and ultimately mitigate economic challenges, economic stress.”

But this is not easy. Coal jobs tend to pay well and economies can’t be reinvented overnight. And a place like northern Coconino County, Fowler explains, has added challenges in that it’s remote, and lacks rail lines, nearby interstates and widespread, high-speed internet.

Morgan says one theme that has emerged with the work NACo is helping to lead is that small victories are important as places transition away from coal. “We encourage these communities to not necessarily want to hit for home runs immediately,” he said. “To hit for singles.”

‘One Job at a Time’

Elyse Ackerman-Casselberry, community and economic development director in Delta County, Colorado echoes Morgan’s views about small wins.

Located in western Colorado, Delta County is coping with two coal mine closures, and layoffs at a third, that resulted in about 1,000 local job losses over a roughly 18 month timespan that began around 2014. The county’s total population is about 30,900 people.

“If we expect that we're going to go out there and magically recruit some company that's going to bring 100 jobs to Delta County and that's the only way we can define a win, we're going to always be losing,” Ackerman-Casselberry said.

“We decided that a win is growing basically one job at a time,” she added.

Ackerman-Casselberry says the economic development work in the county is designed to capitalize on existing strengths, like agriculture and energy sectors other than coal.

"We decided at the front end that we didn't want to try to become something we are not already, that we wanted to get better at what we already do,” she said.

Outdoor recreation is another area getting attention, including opportunities for manufacturing. "We want our piece of that pie,” Ackerman-Casselberry says.

There’s also a regional project underway to build out a high-speed broadband network.

On the agriculture front, one emphasis is on how to develop businesses that can add value to farm products produced locally. Ackerman-Casselberry notes that the county has the highest concentration of organic farms in Colorado, along with ranching operations.

Apart from coal, she says, the local energy sector has hydropower, natural gas and oil resources, as well as a local electrical cooperative. Solar Energy International, a nonprofit that trains solar industry workers, is also located there.

To support entrepreneurial ventures related to agriculture and energy, Delta County and a number of other partner organizations about 18 months ago began an initiative dubbed Engage. Right now it’s funded with a three-year Economic Development Administration grant.

Ackerman-Casselberry highlights agreements Engage has helped establish with commercial kitchens, along with related programming to assist food businesses. In one town, Paonia, she says this has helped about half-dozen food truck businesses get started.

All told, she says Engage has worked with about 30 different businesses, providing assistance like answering basic questions and helping out with business models.

At an Engage event coming up next week local entrepreneurs will pitch business plans to a panel of judges for cash awards.

While it’s unrelated to Engage, Ackerman-Casselberry says some of the mine workers who lost their jobs were able to get hired on with a contractor completing the broadband project.

She acknowledges the steep challenge the county faces trying to make up for the lost jobs.

“A person that's making $80,000, and that economic return that they bring to a community,” Ackerman-Casselberry said, “you can't replace that with an agricultural job. You can't replace that with most of the kinds of jobs we have available.”

She sees hope though with the emerging entrepreneurial activity. “We're trying to just diversify,” she said, “so that the next boom or bust or the next thing doesn't hit us nearly as hard.”

‘No One's Going to Come and Save You’

In Coconino County, the operators of the Navajo Generating Station gave employees there options to transfer to other jobs.

But Fowler says that’s not the case with the workers at the mine and notes that the closure of the facilities will also ripple across other local businesses and is expected to deliver a financial blow to The Navajo and Hopi tribes, the city of Page, as well as the county.

"We're transitioning into a place where the economy is going to be uncertain,” she said.

One of Coconino County’s strengths, according to Fowler, is tourism. Much of the Grand Canyon National Park is located in the northern reaches of the county. “Tourism is booming in our region,” Fowler said, adding: “We're very rich in the beauty of our land, our culture.”

But she noted that areas around the power plant are ones where people tend to stay for a night or a few hours—not for long visits.

Fowler has managed to help get a partnership going between Dine College, Northern Arizona University, Navajo Technical University, and Coconino Community College. It's a work in progress, but one goal, she says, is for people to be able to take classes across the four schools.

“Once it's fully running we believe that we'll be able to offer a full scale of higher education, be able to bring students home, because right now students leave,” Fowler said.

She sees partnerships, involving the county, other local governments, and the Navajo Nation as the key to the region’s future. “When you have no one to depend on, no one's going to come and save you,” she said, “you've got to figure out how you're going to move forward.”

Bill Lucia is a reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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