Static Over Rock-Star Takeover

As musician buys up Colorado town, locals debate the costs of growth

Chances are, you'll never end up in Crawford, Colo., serendipitously. But for those armed with determination and a good map, the rewards of finding this historic town are immediately apparent.

Nestled in an alpine valley with Ansel Adams views of the West Elk Mountains, Crawford offers a rare glimpse of the Old West. Here, cattle drives still head down Main Street every spring and fall. The locals - barely 300 of them - are easy to spot in their Stetsons, cowboy boots, and spurs. And while most of them drive pickup trucks nowadays, it wasn't long ago that they were tying horses to hitching posts downtown.

But like an increasing number of small towns in the West, Crawford is faced with the troubling dilemma of how to balance the benefits and drawbacks of development. Here, the potential developers come in the form of rock legend Joe Cocker and his wife, Pam. Ever since they purchased a row of historic buildings in the heart of town - and transformed one into an upscale oak-and-cowhide-decor eatery serving cappuccino, organic beef, and quiche - locals have become increasingly anxious about what lies ahead.

Some worry that as "outsiders" continue to wield influence on this cowboy town, change may be swift and irreversible. It is a battle between Old West traditions and New West dreams. And not surprisingly, locals have split views about what's best for their town's future.

Joe and Pam made their first impression on Crawford in 1991, when they bought a 250-acre ranch outside town, then later built a 20,000-square-foot Tudor-style mansion on the property. Residents here, who abide by a live-and-let-live creed, paid little mind to their high-profile neighbors for years. After all, few locals had even heard of the British-born singer with a voice like a wood rasp, much less listened to his music.

But lately that's all changed.

A town divided

Those wary of growth point to towns like Jackson, Wyo., and Telluride, Colo. - which once defined the Wild West but now are more emblematic of the wild success of tourism. They note that in such communities, skyrocketing real-estate prices forced out many who for generations made their living from the land.

"I hate what I see coming to this valley. It's going to be something we don't even want to live in five years down the road," says one longtime resident who declined to give her name.

Others, however, believe change is inevitable and essential. Development creates jobs for locals and economic benefits for the community, they say. "Times are changing, and our little town is going to change," says Laurie Sauerbrei, a clerk at Country Market, one of just a handful of businesses now in Crawford. "I know people are complaining about the Cockers, but they have done a lot for Crawford."

The Cockers, for example, regularly hold fund-raisers for local schools and the Crawford Community Church. They give honor-roll students certificates for free banana splits at the cafe. At Christmas, they hosted a party at their ranch for area children, with gifts for all.

So while old Cocker tunes like "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "You are So Beautiful to Me" don't get much play on the local country music stations, talk over the backyard fence these days tends to focus on Joe and Pam Cocker - mostly about the couple's impact on small-town life here.

The Cockers' recently opened eatery, the Mad Dog Ranch Fountain Caf, is the centerpiece of town. And with a staff of 30, the combination restaurant, ice-cream fountain, bakery, and banquet hall set behind a sprawling faade on Main Street is also Crawford's largest employer.

What the future holds

Yet as many as half of Crawford's residents have never stepped foot inside the cafe and vow they never will. And now, the town is roused up about Pam's alleged plans for two historic buildings that sit next to the cafe. Locals say she plans to raze the long-vacant structures to make way for a parking lot, or possibly new buildings. They also report that she wants to bring legalized gambling to Crawford, and has talked about developing a ski area here.

Lately, locals have started calling the town "Cockerville."

"I'm not against all development," says Pasquinel Kunde, whose family has been ranching on nearby land for five generations. "But I find it a little bit dangerous when one person is able to buy up the entire business district of a town."

The Cockers, who have been on tour in Australia promoting Joe's latest album, were not available for comment. Their public-relations assistant, Laurie Priddy, declined to answer questions about the Cockers or their Crawford enterprises.

But Pam responded to local criticism recently in a letter to the local newspaper, the Delta County Independent. "Objects, such as buildings, are not the soul of this town, the people are. Without change, the young will go away, and the spirit will die," she wrote. "If change is inevitable, then my goal is to welcome it as a form of rebirth for Crawford."

Mr. Kunde, however, says he and others here do not want to see Crawford "reborn," and he objects to Pam imposing that choice on the community. "She says that without jobs and opportunities, a town will die. But what she doesn't understand is that people who stay in a small town want it to remain small, and people who want something bigger, with more opportunities, will move away."

Crawford is the kind of place where folks leave the key in the ignition of their auto from the day they buy it. It is a lifestyle that most residents here treasure, says Kunde, whose great-great grandfather founded the neighboring town of Hotchkiss. "It's getting hard to find a small town like this where you know all your neighbors. I want my kids to be able to grow up in a place like this."

But others in the community say that growth - and the Cockers - can bring new life to this agricultural town. "You can't keep a town alive by not changing," says Crawford real-estate broker Dick Steckel, a former rancher. "You've seen ghost towns - that's what becomes of towns that don't change."

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