Backstory: Rocky mountain sigh as slow-lane life speeds up

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

By 7:45 a.m. in the Mocha Moose Coffee House, Lake City is already oozing its small-town coziness. Owner Chris Gentry is serving a pecan-crusted waffle and hot chocolate. Mayor Joe Marshall is chatting with a patron. A high school English class - of three - is studying Steinbeck. Outside, a gauze of snow softens the streets.

Yet the scene here in the summer is much different. Swarms of SUVs hunt for parking spots. Just getting a table at the Mocha Moose can be difficult. Delivery trucks rumble through town as construction crews build aspen-wood homes for retiring baby boomers and young professionals in the surrounding foothills.

The twin views highlight a conflict facing many idyllic mountain communities across the American West - few more than Lake City.

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As more outsiders discover this haven, ringed by mountain peaks that would intimidate a Sherpa, the town's population is growing rapidly. While new growth is welcome, particularly in the winter when Lake City seems enclosed in a snow globe, the influx is raising fresh concern that the community could lose its charm.

For Lake City and many other high-altitude hideaways, the question is one of balance: how to bring in enough growth to prosper year round - without becoming part of boutique America.

"We have no plans to become an Aspen," says Linda Matthews, a county commissioner who runs the Back Country Navigator store.

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Just getting to a town this isolated can take fortitude. Out of Denver, ride the asphalt roller coaster over the Front Range. Drive southwest past South Park's tundra. Follow the icy Arkansas River to Poncha Springs, climb the Monarch Pass, and coast into Gunnison. Then trek south into the San Juan Mountains for an hour, arriving finally in Lake City - with worn brake pads.

The town is quaint but not tiny: three gas stations and enough snowmobiles, jeeps, and cabins to handle the tourists. Its main street is quintessentially Western. All that's missing is a saloon and a tumbleweed.

In one sense, Lake City is fortunate to even have to worry about growth. Hinsdale County, which envelopes Lake City, is one of 812 "frontier" counties in the nation. Many are losing population.

But Lake City's allure lies in its Alpine vistas. Between 1990 and 2000, the county grew from 467 to 790 full-time residents - a 69 percent jump - and much of that growth is centered in Lake City. One of the only checks on growth remains the punishing winter. "You've got to love winters to move here," says Jeff Worthen, who owns Hall Realty.

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A recent town council meeting shows how the demands of the outside world play out in the pragmatism of local politics. The crowded forum feels like a Western version of the Vermont town meeting. Jeans and flannel? Check. Liberal sentiments? Nope. This is conservative country, where flinty libertarianism trumps environmentalism for a roughly 8 to 1 Republican registration advantage.

Inside, the issue is simple: Can Lake City afford to make its teen center comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act? Adults trade philosophical arguments and nuts-and-bolts concerns, but a few teenagers make the most impassioned pleas.

"The teen center is a negative youth behavior prevention center," says Kyle, drawing laughter for his oblique reference to sex and drugs. Equally dire, he notes, would be the loss of tourist dollars if the center were closed to improve accessibility. "This would shorten our economy and screw things up," agrees Sara.

The economy is a gnawing concern. Some stores along main street close for the winter. In a shuttered downtown, the effect is an economy like a Willy Wonka factory - nothing goes in, nothing goes out. So how do residents make money? Not easily. "A lot of people don't work all year," says the mayor. "So what they make in the summer, they lose in the winter."

But the quietness that can bring financial anxiety also brings serenity to Jack Flannery's Aspen deck, where the view is blissful: cabins huddled along a pristine river, the saw-toothed Rockies rising in the background. Mr. Flannery and his wife, Mary, are affluent early retirees. Upscale homes like theirs don't engender resentment from locals as much as gratitude. That's because retirees and owners of second homes represent crucial income to Lake City, and many of the newcomers bring a civic spirit and expertise.

"These new arrivals are very much needed," says Grant Houston, editor of the Lake City Silver World, a weekly newspaper.

Mr. Flannery, for instance, chairs the county planning commission. He developed a zoning plan that would control growth by setting minimum lot sizes. "Everybody wants to see the area prosper, but not at the cost of losing what we have here environmentally," he says.

Still, the plan could make it harder for others to move in. "Very few young families can afford homes here," says Mr. Worthen, the realtor.

For now, the Lake City Community School is growing by about 10 percent a year. On a tour, the campus buzzes with activity, partly because classes are held just four days a week to give families a weekday for errands in Gunnison, the nearest shopping area, an hour away.

Being small, though, does have its benefits. The teacher-to-student ratio would rival many home schools. In 2005, the school placed third in Colorado's student assessment test. And teachers aren't faced with the behavior problems that beset many larger districts.

"Because we are so small, we don't have kids falling through the cracks," says Dr. Karen Thormalen, the superintendent. "It's great. The flip side of that is we feel obligated to get our kids out in the real world."

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One way for Lake City to boost its economy is through "heritage tourism" - by trumpeting its past. The chief devotee of that is Mr. Houston. "We've had so much growth that we tend to lose sight of our historical heritage," says the editor. Houston, who grew up in Lake City, has a paradoxical prescription for its future. "Lack of development is what we're going to sell," he says. "That's how we're going to build."

Others pin their hopes on the Internet. Like many isolated towns, Lake City wants to attract telecommuters. Yet, even as locals seek new development, they don't want too much. Warns resident Mary Nettleton: "Don't make us look too good."

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