Here comes Hayden: One of Colorado’s last down-valley ski towns to pop is having its moment

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Town leaders are preparing for an influx of newcomers while working to maintain their ranching heritage and small-town vibe.

HAYDEN — Mathew Mendisco plucks his beer mug, No. 67 and flagged with a Sasquatch sticker, off its hook at the Yampa Valley Brewing Company and heads to the bar for a refill. 

Mendisco, Hayden’s town manager, chats with the bartender, then waves at the three other people sitting in the brewery after work on a Tuesday. He knows all of them. One of the guys at the table is married to Mendisco’s dentist, who is also the dentist for the rest of the town. 

This is why Mendisco lives here, in this tiny town of 2,100 people about 25 miles west of Steamboat Springs along the Yampa River. Having his own mug with a long-running tab is cool, but he’s here for the sense of community and small-town identity that he and other Hayden residents are working to build. 

Hayden is one of the last Colorado towns down valley from a ski resort that has yet to pop. But watch. It’s on the verge.

A new subdivision with 110 family homes is on the horizon, Hayden’s new school opened last year, and besides the brewery, there’s a coffee shop, a pizza joint, a couple of food trucks and an under-construction building that will have two long-term and two short-term condos. The town also bought the old high school for $100,000 and turned it into a recreation center and performing arts hall.

Families are moving to Hayden, not just to commute to jobs in Steamboat but to work there. A few years back, the Hayden Mercantile added an Ace Hardware so residents no longer had to drive east to Steamboat or west to Craig to buy a nail. 

Hayden is along the Yampa River between Steamboat Springs and Craig in Northwest Colorado. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

For tourists, it’s become more than a pit-stop on two-lane U.S. 40, sandwiched between the river and the railroad tracks. People out fishing or hiking can pull off for a shrimp po’boy at the bright red Cajun food truck along the highway, or for a latte and breakfast sandwich made with local eggs and spinach at Wild Goose Coffee, inside a 1917 granary.

“It’s a small-town vibe,” Mendisco said. “The people moving here, the people already here, they like going to Steamboat. They like skiing. They like a nice restaurant. But they don’t want to live there. They move to Hayden for the values and the people and the way of life.”

Just about every other town near a major Western Slope ski resort has boomed in the past decade: Basalt, Carbondale, Silverthorne, Edwards, Eagle, Fraser, Ophir, Ridgway, Montrose, Gunnison. Hayden, meanwhile, has remained a quiet ranching and coal town, without a hotel or even a guarantee that a restaurant is open for dinner. 

But here comes Hayden. 

The talk in town these days is whether Hayden is about to become to Steamboat what Carbondale is to Aspen, and what Eagle is to Vail. Mendisco and others have bigger ideas, though — a literal master plan to maintain their own identity, preserve Hayden’s long-time ranching and farming heritage, transition from coal jobs to new-energy jobs, and create a sense of place that is unique from the ski resort town down the road that is busting at the edges. 

Town leaders believe Hayden is about to have its moment, and they’re trying to harness it, and shape it how they want it.

“Not a SimCity game”

To make it work, Hayden is encouraging entrepreneurs to take a chance, in the form of grants and tax incentives. Restaurants won’t thrive until there is a hotel or more condos or homes on Vrbo or Airbnb. The town won’t look alive until a few blighted commercial spaces along its main corridor are open for business.

Jay Hirschfeld, who built a microgreens company and then an ice cream business and sits on the town’s recently revived economic development commission, eyes a red brick building on Walnut Street. The space along the highway was once a log furniture store, but has been vacant for a few years.

“Ice cream would slay it there,” said Hirschfeld, whose frozen concoctions are sold in a kiosk on Steamboat’s main drag, Lincoln Avenue. “If you were driving along and saw people eating outdoors, people would stop. As soon as that building turns over into something, it could totally rejuvenate the town. I think that’s the linchpin.” 

The Hayden Granary, pictured July 31, 2021, has served as an important community gathering place since it began operating in 1917. The owners of the property are building rental units, and Yampa Valley Brewing Company is next door. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Problem is, building up the town “is not a SimCity game,” he said. “If you could just press the fast-forward button … give it 10 years.” 

Hirschfeld is in the camp that doesn’t want Hayden to become like a resort-town suburb. He’s inspired by Salida, Buena Vista or Poncha Springs, towns with their own identity and charm, places that have earned recognition in their own right. A town that will attract more than just the overflow from Steamboat Springs. 

“If you are coming from San Francisco or New York or the Front Range, this is a tremendous opportunity,” he said. 

Tammie Delaney, who grew up in Steamboat as a ski racer, moved to Hayden in the 1990s, in part after realizing that while there was 4 feet of snow in Steamboat, the ground was mostly dry in Hayden. “I love skiing, but I love horses more,” she said. 

Delaney and her husband raised their two kids in Hayden on a small farm, with everything from yaks to hogs to lambs. Then they purchased the town’s feed and tack store, housed in the historic granary where farmers once rolled up in wagons to dump their harvest. The store didn’t make money — some days, there was more cash in the donation coffee jar than in the till.

“I should have taken it as a sign from God, but I wasn’t listening,” Delaney said. “When we told people we were closing the feed store, they were like, ‘You can’t close! It’s the only place we’ve met anyone in town!’ And we were like, ‘OK, over dog food? Once a month?’”

They couldn’t stand the thought of the granary getting razed for an oil and gas pipeline staging area, which seemed a likely possibility at the time. So in 2013, the Delaneys converted the feed store to a coffee shop, Wild Goose Coffee at the Granary, and townspeople pitched in by buying “coffee shares” — some prepaying for $1,000 worth of coffee, which they haven’t managed to drink. 

Patrick and Tammie Delaney, owners of Wild Goose Coffee in Hayden, pictured July 31, 2021, opened the business in 2013. The coffee shop is in the town’s historic granary, and it is the mission of the Delaneys to preserve the community gathering place in Northwest Colorado. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The coffee shop, which converts at night to Embers Wood Fired Pizza, still isn’t making much money. 

“It’s kind of breaking even, kind of,” Delaney said over a coffee mug while sitting under the old dump run, where buckets of grain used to travel up a conveyor belt. “But it depends on how you define success. Our profit is really in the community. It’s connecting neighbors, connecting people. We were introducing people who had lived on the same block for years and had never met. This was built in 1917, so everybody has a story about the granary.”

Delaney can feel the town shifting. It used to be that her husband was the one guy who rode his bike around town, that everyone knew the four people who went running in the morning. Not anymore. 

The growth is exciting, but there are concerns, too. There are almost no homes on the market under $500,000. New homes are sold as soon as they’re built. Like most everywhere, there’s a shortage of workers in the service industry. 

One Saturday night in late July, not one restaurant was open for dinner, which Delaney called a food “crisis.” The owner of the pizza restaurant was out of town, the food truck at the brewery was closed for mechanical issues, the Cajun food truck is only open some evenings, and Sunnyside Bar & Grill had temporarily stopped serving dinner. 

A thriving town has to have someplace to eat on a Saturday night, not just for tourists but locals, too, she said. “This is hay season. There are a lot of people out working until dark, and you get done and you would really like something to eat,” Delaney said. “To not get food is hard.” 

A farmers market sprouted through word of mouth on Thursday nights, but that, too, is inconsistent. Some weeks it has several stands full of fresh greens and vegetables. Other weeks, only a couple of local growers show up. 

To Delaney, the dinner shortage and spotty farmers market are part of Hayden’s growing pains. She can feel what’s coming.

“I think we’ve already started popping,” she said. 

Transitioning from a coal economy

At the same time Hayden is benefiting from a housing market squeezing resort towns, and remote workers looking to move to the country, it’s facing a daunting transition away from its coal economy.

Two of northwest Colorado’s largest employers, Tri State Generation and Transmission, and Xcel Energy, are closing their coal-fired power plants and mines. The closures, most happening by the end of 2028, in Hayden and nearby Craig represent the loss of about 800 jobs, though some of those could transition to clean-energy jobs, according to a tally by the Craig Chamber of Commerce. 

The Hayden Valley Schools building on July 31, 2021, in Hayden. The new school opened in fall 2020 and was built using $38.9 million in state grant funding along with a voter-approved $22.3 million bond. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Already, the Hayden coal plant is down to 66 employees, according to Xcel Energy, a fraction of what it had a few years ago.

The plant is the area’s biggest taxpayer, contributing more than half of the Hayden school district’s tax base. That’s especially concerning since Hayden School District passed a $22.3 million bond (by two votes) in 2017 to partially fund its new $61 million school. The rest of the money came from a state BEST — Building Excellent Schools Today — grant. 

“Hayden is the epicenter of this coal-fired power generation shift,” said John Bristol, economic development director for the Steamboat Springs Chamber, which includes Routt County and Hayden. “That really influences a lot of the conversation.

“We have to be focused on business development — supporting the development of new businesses and new jobs that diversify the local tax base. A job or two here. A business there. But, over time, it starts to snowball.”

Hayden’s population has been growing by about 10% per year for the past four years, but town leaders are bracing for 20% or 30% growth, based on new construction plans. A key goal is keeping people around even if their coal jobs are not. Xcel has announced plans to keep its remaining workers as it transitions the Hayden station into clean energy.

“We are obviously concerned, pretty worried, from a property tax standpoint,” said Mendisco, the town manager. “From a people standpoint, … (the coal industry) is a part of them and a culture that they embraced and that they felt good about. So there’s some identity crisis going on as well.” 

Mendisco’s message: “Don’t be attached to your job. Be attached to your community. Be attached to Hayden.” 

Hayden has all the major components for a boom: room for housing, a good school system, a nearby airport and broadband, said the chamber’s Bristol, who four years ago brought a handful of Hayden leaders to a Denver conference focused on helping coal economies transition. The downtown amenities will follow  — good coffee, breweries, restaurants. 

“This isn’t a new recipe,” he said. “It’s a recipe that’s been emulated in communities across the country and state.”

Hayden Town Manager Mathew Mendisco, pictured July 31, 2021 at the Hayden Center, is spearheading efforts to remodel the town’s old high school into a functional community gathering space complete with child care, an auditorium, gymnasium, exercises facilities and locker rooms. Hayden voters in November 2020 approved a 1 cent sales tax to help fund the building improvements. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Hayden’s leaders have the benefit of watching what happened in down-valley ski towns across Colorado, picking what they like and trying to avoid what they don’t. Their work helping Hayden bloom has been “done with intentionality,” Bristol said. 

“They’re being thoughtful about how they brand themselves and how they market themselves in the valley,” he said. “The community recognizes its distinction. It’s unique and they have specific traits. Accentuate them. Be Hayden. It’s charting your own course and saying, ‘This is who we are.’ But that only exists if your community leaders see that. How can we do it our own way?”