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Uncovering Colorado: Water, growth, housing issues shape daily lives of Buena Vista residents

Uncovering Colorado: Buena Vista
Uncovering Colorado: Buena Vista 22:37

Along the Arkansas River, Buena Vista is a home for the 3,000 or so people who live there and the kind of Colorado place those who visit think, "I'd like to make my home there." 

In recent years, the population has surged, the downtown has filled in what used to be empty storefronts and expanded. Housing prices have risen along with demand and there are unsettled questions about water use.

That has brought a lot of thinking about what the town wants to be. Is tourism a good thing? 

"I ask myself that question all the time, it's something I struggle with because there is such a thing as over-tourism and loving something to death," said Mike Kissack, president of the Arkansas River Outfitters Association and owner of a rafting company. 

"And I think it can always be a good thing if done responsibly," he added.

Small town meets prospects of growth

"People don't move to a place like BV if they don't want to live in a small town," said Hannah Harn, editor of the Chaffee County Times.

The paper keeps track of important issues like housing and water use and education. 

There are significant questions about all of it. But people she's found have a level of personal investment in the community. There's pride and a couple of laughs about the phrase applied to Buena Vista's climate being in a "Banana Belt" of relatively warm weather for the mountains, even at 7,900 feet. 

"It's really appropriate until, like, Oct. 3," joked Harn.


The town is a mecca of water sports in the summer, with a whitewater park just off downtown created when brother and sister pro kayakers saw potential and helped the town develop the area while creating a development called South Main nearby.

"It really started moving when South Main came in and we got a lot of young people. You need young people. But, we see change," said Suzy Kelly who helps at the Buena Vista Heritage Museum.

Kelly and her family own a big ranch on the outskirts of town that was first homesteaded in the 1800s.

"I'm actually eighth-generation Colorado. Our kids are sixth-generation Chaffee County," said Ashleigh Cogan, who works on the ranch. She and her husband are raising children and working outdoors.  CBS

They still raise cattle and depend on old water rights that help to bring water onto their land as it runs down off 14,000-foot Mount Princeton. 

"I'm actually eighth-generation Colorado. Our kids are sixth-generation Chaffee County," said Ashleigh Cogan, who works on the ranch.

She and her husband are raising children and working outdoors. 

"That's worth everything. I guarantee we make a small portion of what all our friends make. But we get to do life together as a family and invite our friends in for that," she said. 

A unique approach to building workforce housing

Inside a busy factory in Buena Vista, workers are hammering, spackling and piecing together an answer. At least part of one.

Housing is undergoing an evolution. So-called stick-built homes have risen in price due to a long list of reasons. Into that vacuum walked real estate developer Fading West. The leaders of the company had hoped to help build workforce housing in Buena Vista but found that plan was harder than they thought.

"We had 22 acres that are just south of the high school here in Buena Vista," said Eric Schaefer, chief business development officer for Fading West. "And really, the goal was, the teachers who worked in the schools here, there was no place for them to live. Fire and police, social workers, nurses. So our goal, initially, was just to provide workforce housing for this little town."

Eric Schaefer   CBS

Soon they figured out they could create a factory to build homes that would get their final assembly on-site.

"Build these houses quickly. And get them into communities, especially mountain towns that have a really hard time finding a whole bunch of subs and workers to get these things built," explained Schaefer. "They're the same codes as the houses going to Breckenridge, are climate zone seven, snow loads, wind loads, these are not double wide houses or manufactured homes."

Fading West has become a much-desired manufacturer.

"We've become the most popular people in the state all of sudden," Schaefer said. "We believe you could have 10 of these factories scattered in the Front Range and other mountain towns and they would be full all year long making homes."

Some of the current homes are being shipped to places like Eagle County where they will become housing for teachers.

On-site at the development created by Fading West called "The Farm," the boxes are placed one on top of the other on foundations. Roofs and porches are added on site. There is a sameness to them to keep costs down.

"Our sweet spot is really kind of a two-bedroom, two-bath, 900-square-foot house, up to maybe a three-bedroom, two, two-and-a-half bath, maybe 1,800-square-foot house," said Schaefer. Inside there are limitations on variations and countertops.


But they have been able to cut construction costs by about 20%. Fading West believes the housing it's creating is affordable to those making 80% of the median income and more. That's not as affordable as they had hoped, but they believe the prices are the lowest for newly built homes in the Rockies.

The homes start in the mid-$300,000s and go up from there.

"This is not just us solving this," said Schaefer.

Communities and nonprofits are participating in acquiring land, but with cooperation, it's a piece of an answer to the vexing problem of housing.

Despite the issues facing Buena Vista and differing views of how to solve them or best move forward, Harn, the newspaper editor, said the community remains united in wanting to make it a better place.

Uncovering Colorado is a new series by CBS News Colorado where we help paint a picture of Colorado's cities and towns; their history, their future, the issues most important to their residents and possible solutions. 

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