New Colorado town tries to avoid traditional 'company town' image

''I owe my soul to the company store.''

That's a line from the Tennessee Ernie Ford song ''Sixteen Tons.''

It characterizes the bad reputation company towns have had down through American history.

Old-time coal and railroad towns typically were owned by the companies. The employees rented small, often dilapidated houses. They bought all their food and supplies through the company. These often-isolated communities were inhabited only by the company's workers and their families.

Today, however, the time of these old-fashioned company towns appears to have passed.

One proof is the town of Battlement Mesa. It is being built by Exxon Corporation and Tosco Corporation to provide housing for the workers at Colony, an operation that will mine oil shale on a commercial scale here.

It is perhaps one of the largest and most innovative attempts by corporate America to address the social side-effects which accompany major energy development in remote areas.

Northwest Colorado is rural, rugged, and sparsely settled. About 35,000 people are scattered over hundreds of square miles, clustered in small towns like Parachute, Rifle, and Meeker.

Battlement Mesa is across the Colorado River from the town of Parachute, some 60 miles east of Grand Junction along Interstate 70. It lies in a broad valley surrounded by sheer cliffs and majestic peaks. In the snow and scrub just outside the development, deer driven down from the high country by the winter snow blend into the background.

In the visitor center, Barbara Shutte, a transplanted Floridian, stands before a series of blueprints and extols the virtues of what ultimately will be a community of 25,000.

''This is an open community. It's first come, first serve,'' she explains. ''The waiting list is six months long, and the RV (recreation vehicle) park was full from day one.''

Back in Grand Junction Charles Pence, the red-faced and affable Texan who heads Battlement Mesa Inc., a corporation set up by the oil companies, explains the philosophy behind this development: ''Battlement Mesa is designed to have 8, 000 living units while the permanent Colony work force will be only 2,000.

''These are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis. This was done deliberately. There are some real disadvantages to an all-company town. There is an isolation-booth effect like some enclaves around D.C., and sterility sets in.''

Another difference between this community and the traditional company town is the fact that Exxon and Tosco have no desire to be involved in the community any longer than necessary.

''We have no desire for a long-term involvement in decisions on the future of the community. I think a number of the people would resent such an involvement, '' Mr. Pence says.

''Others would see us as the guy with deep pockets and complain why don't we do this or do that. We're not interested in being in the real-estate business,'' Mr. Pence continues. He hopes the companies can wind up their involvement by 1990.

Battlement Mesa Inc. is playing the typical role of a land developer. It is putting in roads and utilities. Private contractors are building the apartments, condominiums, and houses -- and selling them to buyers.

Independent retailers are buying up lots in the ''business district.'' According to Colony's permit from the county, they are obligated to provide accommodations for 80 percent of the people brought into the area by the project (about 1,100 thus far). However, the two companies have gone much further.

The community is planned with six elementary schools, two junior highs, and one senior high school. One elementary school is under construction. There are 10 church sites. A $5.5 million recreation center with tennis and racketball courts, Olympic swimming pool, a nursery, and other facilities is due to be completed by next December.

There will be a golf course, and 37 percent of the area will be greenbelt interlaced with jogging and bicycle paths. A turn-of-the-century country school is being renovated. Thus far the companies have lavished $60 million on the community.

For temporary construction workers there are separate RV and mobile home parks. The 900-square-foot trailers rent fully furnished for $600 a month including utilities. The mobile homes are placed on full-sized, sodded lots so they can be replaced by houses later.

The prices for the first 30 homes being built range from $55,900 to $90,000. Future houses will range up to $150,000. Eight 16-unit condominiums are also under construction.

Exxon and Colony are going to this extra effort for two reasons, says Mr. Pence: ''Companies have realized: (1)We were not invited to come; (2)Unless there are adequate housing conditions we have a heck of a problem keeping our employees happy and this leads to high turn-over and low productivity. Professional people, in particular, have other options.''

Of course, the companies have another reason for entering into ''socioeconomic impact mitigation,'' as they call it, with such flair. In Colorado the local communities have considerable power over development; and in several cases county officials have delayed issuance of permits to shale developers when it appeared they were not cooperating with the community in coping with the effects of their operations.

Will Battlement Mesa have the positive effects which Exxon and Tosco hope? ''The jury's out yet on how good a job we have done,'' Mr. Pence admits candidly.

''I'm confident we have done things pretty well, but it will be a number of years until we know for sure,'' he says.

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