Special to The Colorado Sun
The Western Slope city is shedding its image as a Shangri-La for shuffling seniors. Could it be that Grand Junction is now cool?
GRAND JUNCTION — Andrew Duran has lived in Taos, New Mexico, and Boulder. This well-tattooed 35-year-old has pedaled his bike around the world, spending loads of time in exotic places. Now, he has landed in a spot that has long been high on his geographic bucket list: Grand Junction.
Yes, stodgy Grand Junction. Longtime nickname: Grand Junktown. That conservative, red-as-red-can-be, Western Slope city near the Utah border. That Shangri-La for shuffling seniors. The place younger generations have long bailed out of, rather than flocked to.
“You hear a lot of people talking like that about Grand Junction,” Duran said. “But once you bring them out here, they see why it’s so great. People who like to play a lot recognize that this is where it’s at. This is Boulder 30 years ago.”
Could it be that Grand Junction is now cool?
There are no census figures or demographic charts to quantify that change — yet. Population trends confirm that Colorado overall is a mecca for millennials, ranking third in the country for the most 25- to 34-year-olds moving in. The latest tallies from the Colorado State Demography Office show that demographic band has nearly caught up with the retirees who five years ago represented the fastest-growing population statewide.
More localized demographic counts that pinpoint growth by age groups for Denver and other major metropolitan areas skip the Western Slope’s largest city: It isn’t large enough. Scroll through a geographic-ranking website such as Niche and you’ll find no reflection of change in Grand Junction, which sleeps at No. 169 in the “Best Places for Millennials” category — right behind the Eastern Plains agricultural bastion of Fort Morgan and trailing smaller rural communities such as Gunnison, Carbondale, Leadville and Yuma.
But anecdotal evidence is piling up, and there are telling shifts in Grand Junction.
For the first time, more than half the 11,000 students at Colorado Mesa University — the fastest-growing university in the state — are coming from outside Mesa County. And millennials and Generation Xers are stepping up into civic- and business-leadership positions.
Here are a few: Angela Padalecki, 33, left her post as director of airline affairs at Denver International Airport to become director of the Grand Junction Regional Airport; Sarah and Thaddeus Shrader, the Gen X owners of Bonsai Design, an outdoor-adventure business, have sparked a riverfront renaissance that is expected to transform Grand Junction’s downtown scene; Brandon Stam, 30, is the new executive director at the Downtown Grand Junction Partnership; and Mara Hardy, a young University of Colorado graduate who recently relocated from Denver, has been hired as a business-development manager at the overloaded Grand Junction Economic Partnership.
Robin Brown, the executive director of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, said she constantly runs into changing attitudes toward the city.
“We hear all the time from people who have known Grand Junction for its reputation as being Podunk and slow. Now, we hear that it is cool,” she said. “We are feeling it. We may not have the numbers, but I talk to enough people. I hear it.”
At a Western Colorado Economic Summit held in Grand Junction in June, that shift in thinking came through loud and clear as city officials and boosters touted Grand Junction’s increasing recreation potential.
Brown, 42, who had taken over at the partnership late last year, noted there was a potential marketing gold mine in Mesa County, where 75 percent of the lands are public and 245 days of the year are sunny.
Outdoor recreation had already become a draw for newcomers. But its importance was going to be stressed more in economic-development efforts.
Brian Watson, 29, and Josh Hudnall, 36, had already fueled some of that change by creating Factory, a coworking space that has attracted young entrepreneurs. On any given day, graphic designers, marketers and videographers are tapping away on Macs in a previously drab phone-company building that now shouts cool, with railings made of bicycle parts and a foosball table in the lobby.
Factory’s clientele showed its emerging muscle last year when Grand Junction voters finally passed a school-improvement bond issue after 13 years of failed measures.
The younger population campaigned for it, and the election victory party was held in Factory’s building, which houses companies including Growl Agency, 32 Waves Internet, 14K Media and Hoptocopter Films — all tech-based businesses owned by the millennial or Gen X crowd.
Two blocks from Factory, in the downtown core, more youth-trending change is evident.
Grand Junction’s downtown was recently named a Colorado Creative District for its longtime art-on-the-corner project, its spruced-up historic Avalon Theater and its many art-related events. To those features, you can now add in youthful gamer activity at Board Fox Games; duck posole and pork-belly tacos at acclaimed Grand Junction chef Josh Niernberg’s hip Taco Party; and craft pour-overs at the trendy Kiln Coffee Bar.
Step into The Raw Canvas and any whiff of Grand Junction’s lingering dullness is dispelled by the bright, urban vibe of this edgy, upscale tattoo, apparel and art emporium. Owner Justin Nordine, 40, had toiled in a small, nondescript Main Street space for a decade before he took over two storefronts this year and gave them a makeover. The younger set regularly gathers at The Raw Canvas for art and music events.
Clients from around the globe fly in for work-of-art tattoos by Nordine, his five regular artists and his two rotating visiting artists. Nordine said it is not uncommon to hear clients say they expected to land in a dive sort of town because they had read the online reviews that diss Grand Junction as “complete bubba town” and “20 years behind.”
“When they get here,” Nordine said, “they are surprised by the positive energy.”
Joquin Rodriguez, a 21-year-old CMU business major who works part-time at The Raw Canvas and plays in a metal band called Fatal Laceration, also feels that energy.
“A lot of people used to be close-minded here,” said Rodriguez, who was born and raised in Grand Junction. “But I see that starting to change.”
Identical twins John and David Foster, 29, mostly recently from Davis, California, have been part of the transformation. Their Kiln coffee shop has become a place for exchanges of young ideas.
When David Foster first drove through Grand Junction two years ago, he remembers thinking it looked like a desert — in more ways than one.
“Now, I see a lot of younger people coming here, and I get super excited about that,” Foster said as young Realtors and lawyers in trendy pompadours and skinny jeans, yoga tights and statement glasses wander in and out of Kiln.
Foster and other young business owners and entrepreneurs have formed a network — a sort of ad hoc Chamber of Commerce — that envisions more tap rooms, trendy restaurants, up-to-date shops and attractive outdoor spaces stretching from Main Street to the new Riverfront at Las Colonias development along the Colorado River.
That planned mix of outdoor recreation-oriented businesses and commercial spaces in a parklike setting is often referred to as Grand Junction’s answer to Denver’s LoDo and RiNo districts.
City of Grand Junction Manager Greg Caton pitches Riverfront at Las Colonias as a Google-style campus. Businesses will be mingled with a climbing wall, a zipline across the river, a whitewater park, artwork, interactive features for youngsters, and, generally, just an inviting space for people to hang out.
That development is already taking shape under the dipping buckets of cranes and the scraping blades of earthmovers at what used to be — no exaggeration — a junk heap. A city-built amphitheater already juts into the skyline near a paved, riverfront trail. Town homes are ready for move-in, next door to Edgewater Brewery, riverfront pioneer businessman Jim Jeffryes’ expansion of Kannah Creek Brewing Company.
Caton sees Las Colonias as proof that Grand Junction is throwing off some of its humdrum reputation. He said it is a sign, along with a nearly 9 percent jump in this year’s sales-tax collections, that the city is moving beyond being a place that relies on boom-and-bust oil-and-gas production to being a municipality that stresses “resources above ground” — the new black gold of outdoor recreation.
Bobby Noyes, who owns RockyMounts, a bike racks and locks business in Boulder, has bought into that vision. He sees huge potential for outdoor recreationists in Grand Junction. He sees the population trending younger. So, Noyes is moving his business from Boulder to the Las Colonias park and plans to be a force in the metamorphosis.
“I see a whole lot of young energy here,” said Noyes, who is 51 but very much in tune with younger generations through his business and his outdoor pursuits. Noyes is well-known in Boulder’s outdoor-oriented community. He was behind a 15-year push to build the 45-acre Valmont Park, the first civic bike park in the country when it opened in 2011.
His move to Grand Junction is seen by many civic boosters as validation that Grand Junction is undergoing a significant personality switch.
Noyes said he wants to bring a bit of Boulder with him — in openness to bike-friendly amenities, more restaurants, and an even larger focus on the outdoors. But he wants to import only a bit of Boulder, hoping Grand Junction doesn’t get so expensive that his employees can’t afford to live where they work.
Noyes’ reasons for coming to Grand Junction echo those of many newcomers, from physicians at St. Mary’s Medical Center to skateboarding college students.
They are opting for relatively few traffic headaches, for affordability and for not having to travel far to be able to recreate in the Colorado National Monument, on the Grand Mesa, at the Lunch Loop trails or on the other popular mountain-biking and hiking-trail systems, such as the 155-mile, Grand Junction-to-Moab, pavement-and-gravel route that is part of the San Juan Hut System.
The planned Palisade Plunge, a 32-mile, alpine-to-desert trail linking the top of the Grand Mesa to the town of Palisade, is spoken of reverently as an amenity that will crown the Grand Valley’s outdoor cachet. Some outdoor enthusiasts say that trail is expected to eclipse, or at least complement, Moab’s Whole Enchilada as a must-do for two-wheeling thrill-seekers.
That trail also will create a new link between Powderhorn Mountain Resort and the valley communities.
Powderhorn general manager Andy Daly is a big name in the ski industry who has held executive positions at numerous Colorado ski areas, including Vail, Copper Mountain, Beaver Creek and, in the 1980s, Eldora Mountain Resort, perched in the hills above Boulder.
Daly, who now serves on the board of the Grand Junction Economic Partnership, said he has seen the shifting of the Grand Valley’s population and personality for some time, even as the town was marketed as an ideal, banana-belt location for retirees.
Daly has seen some validation of this perception in ski-pass sales. They have doubled over the past year. Nearly 60 percent of pass purchasers are new to Powderhorn.
“A lot of things are going right in this area now. I am seeing more young people coming to the valley,” Daly said. “I think the Grand Junction area will exceed Boulder. Boulder is missing a few things that Grand Junction has.”
Boulder’s missing amenities include a major river in the middle of town and a minutes-from-downtown, expert, mountain bike-trail system. Also, there’s a lack of affordable homes.
In Grand Junction, homes are listed at a median price of $259,250, up about 8.5 percent over the past 12 months, compared with $824,500 in Boulder, up about 5.3 percent, according to Zillow. Rents are about half as costly in Grand Junction, at a median of $1,225, compared with $2,400 in Boulder.
With home prices chugging up in metro Denver (median home price is $465,000) and in already-hip mountain towns — such as Glenwood Springs (median price $565,000), Buena Vista (median price $460,000) and Salida (median price $469,900) — Grand Junction is a last frontier of affordability in Colorado.
But Grand Junction is, in a business sense, exhibiting similarities to Boulder. Software companies are moving to town. Two were lured this month, in part by Colorado Rural Jump Start tax breaks: Visual Globe from Denver and Dude Solutions from Cary, North Carolina.
Brown, from the economic partnership, said having visitors who come to Grand Junction to play in the outdoors and who then decide they want to live here, has made her job much easier.
CMU has also been a potent draw.
The university, formerly Mesa State College, is responding to business needs and helping to feed qualified employees into local businesses. Its growing engineering program and its business department have been particularly active in linking students to jobs, thus giving the younger generation more opportunities to stick around rather than having to leave for jobs elsewhere.
Libby and Greg Olson moved their marketing firm, Growl Agency, to Grand Junction from Denver last year and have hired designers and interns from CMU.
Libby Olson, 40, said when they made the move, incredulous Front Range friends asked, “What are you going to do in Grand Junction? You are going to be so bored.”
“We are busy every minute,” she says now. “There is some event every weekend. There is so much to do.”
Of course, the key factor in Grand Junction’s emerging cool has its downsides.
The geography that is a plus for recreation keeps some businesses away. Brown said Lockheed Martin Corp. officials recently paid the city a visit and expressed admiration for the area, but they said they can’t locate facilities so far from Denver.
Kiln’s David Foster said there are a few things missing for him. Diversity is a big one. He wishes there were more people of color and other nationalities.
Hudnall, the founder of the coworking space, is bothered by a lingering resistance to change. He could only shake his head over last year’s giant brouhaha over a proposal to change the name of North Avenue to University Boulevard. The very vocal change-resisters won. When the city wanted to expand and improve its Two Rivers events center, voters didn’t see the need for the change.
“I would like to see more culture and more art here and a slightly greater focus on services like schools,” Hudnall said.
Nordine, the tattoo artist, noted that Grand Junction, like any tiger trying to change its stripes, has some identity problems.
“It doesn’t quite know what it really is at this point,” he said.
Duran said he can see minor drawbacks in his chosen new home. But he is willing to be in the vanguard — or the “new guard,” as some of the Grand Junction transplants call themselves.
He will work at RockyMounts and be in the thick of Noyes’ vision for a changed Grand Junction. He will ice climb, paraglide, mountain bike, raft and mountaineer to his heart’s content. He won’t sit in traffic to do any of those things.
“For me,” Duran said, “I look at Grand Junction as the last stand — the place to be.”