Telluride: The word got out a long time ago … Remote town in southwestern Colorado now an exclusive enclave
Editor’s note: This is the final installment in a three-part series about mountain ski towns in the west, focusing on the issues they face regarding culture, affordable housing and schools. Reporter Jeremy Evans traveled to these towns in February to study how they deal with these issues, and compare their experiences to the South Shore.
TELLURIDE, Colo. – Anybody who has visited Telluride usually remembers how they felt the first time they saw it.
From a state highway, a spur road heads east toward a cathedral of cliffs carved into a box canyon. As the road aims deeper into the canyon, a suspended 13,000-foot mountain range in the shape of a horseshoe envelopes conifer in a grassy meadow.
Three miles from the highway the pavement ends at the town beneath the cliffs. Seven hours from Denver and eight hours from Phoenix, Telluride was the town America forgot about.
That’s why when Jack Carey first saw Telluride in 1972, it prompted a swift, decisive reaction.
“When I came to this valley, I was on summer break from teaching,” recalled Carey, who lived in the Northeast at the time. “I saw this valley and said ‘I’m done.’ I sent in my teaching resignation right then. I haven’t looked back since.”
Telluride may have started out as the town America forgot but over time it’s become the town America can’t get enough of. While walking or riding a bike remain preferred modes of travel, instances of an exclusive enclave are everywhere.
The streets are lined with $2 million Victorian homes. Condominium complexes dot the periphery. Celebrities such as Tom Cruise have purchased homes in the rugged San Juan Mountains.
Escapist locale becomes big business
Since Carey moved there in the 1970s, Telluride has built an airport and a $12 million library. It has also become a venue for world-class music and art festivals.
The mountains and box canyon and waterfalls remain unchanged. But before Carey dropped out of society, before gold was discovered in Colorado in 1858, there was just an open canvas, ready to be painted by whatever artists came along.
How has Telluride handled its growth?
“If there was an off-button, I’d press it,” Carey said.
It may not seem like it now, but Telluride’s maturation from mining town to ghost town to ski town has been fueled by slow growth. Although the ski resort was built in the early 1970s, it would take more than a ski lift to reverse five decades of misfortune.
Before the 1970s, Telluride hadn’t had a growing economy since its mining boom ended in 1917. When a railroad reached town in 1890, Telluride had a population of 5,000. It had saloons, gambling halls and red-light districts.
Coupled with silver prices crashing in 1893 and gold prices being fixed during World War I, residents began to flee. By 1960, Telluride had roughly 600 residents and was effectively a ghost town at the end of a dead-end road.
New wheels start spinning
The wheels of its economy began turning once the small ski area was built, then Telluride became a fixture in the ski industry by the end of the decade. In 1978, the original resort owners sold to a corporation headed by Ron Allred, a Grand Junction dentist who owned a key piece of land near Avon, Colo.
The corporation leveraged that land, which eventually became Beaver Creek Ski Resort, to acquire the Telluride resort. Allred and his corporation had big plans for Telluride. They wanted a year-round destination resort highlighted by a mountain village and a world-class ski area.
Despite having a resort taken over by big dreamers, Telluride remained affordable to locals. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, vacant lots in town could still be purchased for $10,000 and homes were available for $30,000. Real estate, though, would become a major player 10 years later.
In 1984, an airport was built just outside of town. This allowed wealthy developers to fly their private jets into town several times a week to oversee major construction projects. The airport also allowed tourists from around the country to visit the remote valley with relative ease.
However, the biggest shift in the story of Telluride came in 1987, when a scenic plot of land at 9,500 feet was annexed for development. Perched on a shoulder of the ski resort, this land became the town of Mountain Village, which was incorporated in 1995.
Seemingly overnight, huge mansions were built, creating a second-home obsession that continues today.
Still a let-live community
With Mountain Village as a symbol of major change, real estate has replaced silver and gold as the region’s economic engine.
“We, the locals, are friends with the second-home owners and second-home owners are friends with the locals,” said Rosie Cusack, a real estate agent who moved to Telluride in 1992. “That’s something you don’t find in a whole lot of other ski communities. This is a live and let-live community. It’s why people are buying here.
“You also can’t hide the view. Driving into town from the west, with the canyon striking you in the windshield, it’s pretty impactful.”
Now considered the quintessential ski town, with a main street lined with boutique shops, Telluride is much different than when Carey arrived. In the 1970s, it was a haven for ski bums and hippies, free-spirit subcultures that clashed with conservative miners. Everybody agrees change is inevitable, but Telluride’s growing pains are still felt by longtime locals.
“We don’t need anymore shops,” said Carey, who is known around town as “Captain Jack” and for his two-foot long beard. “Tourists don’t come here and complain they can’t buy something. Let’s stop building. We got everything here.
“I remember when you could hear things. To be in this beautiful valley and be out hiking with your girlfriend in the hills and just hear a hammer … it was magic. Now you can’t hear anything. All you hear is the constant hum of traffic, of building, of all this stuff.”
Town: Telluride, Colorado
Population: Telluride (2,200)/Mountain Village (1,100)
Median income: $51,938
Median home price: Telluride $1.4 million/Mountain Village $2.475 million
Median age: 31.2
Ski resorts nearby: Telluride Ski Resort
Did you know? Butch Cassidy and his “Wild Bunch” gang robbed the San Miguel Valley Bank on June 24, 1889. It was the first major crime in the town’s history.
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