Plan to keep graduates in Trinidad emerges from wake of low-opportunity exodus
By Benjamin Mandile - Reporter - Courtesy of The Chronicle-News

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Trinidad educators have seen student after student leave the town after graduation with a feeling that Trinidad no longer offers them a life filled with opportunities. Now, a group of locals is seeking to change the trend, and keep more of those graduates where they grew up.

Trinidad State College and Trinidad School District No. 1 are hoping to create an eco-system of high-demand jobs on its campuses that can keep Trinidad graduates within the city, following in the footsteps of a Fremont County initiative called Emergent Campus.

“The long and short of it is, this is about our kids,” TSC President Dr. Rhonda Epper said. “This is about building a Trinidad where our kids have opportunities to thrive, to be educated and to have pathways into career fields that lead to a sustainable living wage. We want our kids to stay in Trinidad. We want them to be able to be educated in a field in which they don’t have to leave town in order to pursue viable career opportunities, or go to the big city to find work.”

Part of the exodus of graduates stems from a lack of opportunity in Trinidad, and low wages from the opportunities that are here, compared to markets such as Denver, Colorado Springs and Albuquerque, which all boast higher per capita incomes.

“I will tell you that since I’ve been president of Trinidad State College, I’ve had so many discouraging conversations with young people who really don’t see much of an economic future for themselves,” Dr. Epper said. 2020 U.S. Census data shows Trinidad has a median household income of $40,700, while larger communities such as Denver, Colorado Springs and Albuquerque sit at $78,100, $71,900 and $56,300, respectively.

Emergent Campus (EC) would attempt to stop the exodus, and provide increased economic opportunity — helping not only students, but also bringing in new blood to the city, continuing the revitalization efforts undertaken by Trinidad City Council and private developers.

The idea for EC — which originated in Fremont County, where beyond employment for the Colorado Department of Corrections job opportunities lacked — has been touted as a possibility for Trinidad, which has similarities to Fremont County.

For one, demographics are similar. The program could also work well here, according to the proponents, due to the already established “successful” blueprint, business partnerships and its location along the Interstate 25 corridor.

How successful is the program within Fremont County? Since launching, the campus in the former Florence Jr./Sr. High School it has helped launch 18 businesses within the community with approximately 70 employees. There are also over 100 location-neutral workers in the area, supported by larger tech companies who moved in during the EC-revitalization.

“We have a successful blueprint we use in Fremont,” said Brad Rowland, CEO of EC. “We have businesses that want to extend out into other communities.”

The project will most likely need community buy-in to be successful. While the Fremont County community supported the idea, it didn’t believe Rowland could bring it to fruition. TSC and TSD1 have started to garner community buy-in, with multiple presentations to the TSD1 Board of Education, and a community launch for invitees last week. The community launch included representatives of developers, business owners, government officials, educators and localists.

At the state level, decision makers see potential for the project. The partnership attempted to secure $7 million through the Colorado Opportunity Now Grant, falling in the top 20 projects. (All three projects selected in the final round were chosen for Denver).

Dr. Epper said despite the shortfall in initial funding, the project will move forward, arguing that if the group had been allowed to present in person she believes it would have received the funding. Other aspects are already being put in place.

TSD1 has agreed to set up the Trinidad EC within its historic Park Street building, which is currently vacant. TSC, currently undergoing major campus renovations, plans to create a Makerspace, EC classrooms and work space.

“It’s a really powerful concept, and we’re excited about the opportunity,” Dr. Epper said.

Trinidad Mayor Phil Rico, who during his final years as mayor has attempted to turn Trinidad self-sufficient in terms of employment opportunities, supports the idea.

“It goes to show you what a small community can do if there’s initiative and just a willingness to do something,” Mayor Rico said. “…I look at this as opportunity, and that’s what we need to really be doing here in Trinidad. We need to really look at what opportunities there are for our community and for our area.”

He asked why not Trinidad, noting that Trinidad is similar to Fremont County on a smaller scale. Both are rural, and near population centers. Both relied on industry that eventually saw a downturn. Both have vacant space to bring new life to their respective communities.

“Several years ago Trinidad became an economic downturn with the closing of our coal mines,” Mayor Rico said. “After that we received some reprieve (when) the natural gas industry, the cannabis industries began operation. These industries have since taken a downturn. The New Elk Mine has recently closed and has left a big hole in the employment opportunities that we had. Since, council has realized that we need a more sustainable economy.”

He pointed to the efforts through the creative industry and recreation industry growth seen within Trinidad — with the launch of Space to Create and the opening of Fishers Peak State Park.

“The opportunity is there,” Mayor Rico said of the emerging tourism and creative industries. “However, these industries are also seasonal, so some months may not provide a consistent economic impact that we need. We need to bring in staple stores, other types of businesses and small to medium industries to have a more consistent economy.

He said the current industries in the city, such as energy production, education, local government, automotive and agriculture are not able to produce high paying jobs.

“And that’s what’s interesting, because that’s what Brad was showing what the opportunity is here to bring in additional high paying opportunities,” Mayor Rico said of the proposal.

He said the city needs to find a way to keep youth and families from leaving Trinidad, which could be curbed through the EC.

“Trinidad is in the middle of revitalization,” Mayor Rico said. “And we cannot, we cannot lose this momentum.”