Since November I’ve been exposed to some interesting perceptions that exist about and between our communities.

McClave is considered the “East End” of the county — full of people that don’t want anything to do with “outsiders;" Las Animas is the only viable community here — but even Las Animas is dying, and residents are too lazy to help themselves; Fort Lyon is full of people that’ve been shipped here because no one else wants their problems; and Hasty… where’s Hasty?… Bent County is a lost cause … or is it?

Only people that are uninformed, misinformed, or too close-minded to even want to hear the truth can possibly make blanket statements like that about any community. There is always more going on under the surface than what meets the eye; and those mentalities only lead to the spread of rumors and lies. Those mentalities also solve absolutely zero percent of the issues that really do exist.

No one can deny that Bent County has had it rough over the past number of years. Locals remember the “good ol’ days” of the VA hospital when there was a fully functioning swimming pool, bowling alley, and baseball field. There were good paying jobs, and residents enjoyed the benefits of living in thriving communities. The VA closing (and later the DOC) caused a snowball effect of lost jobs, mass migration out of the county, loss of tax revenue and workforce and the shutting down of numerous small businesses throughout the area —  which only perpetuated the cycle even further.

What’s it going to take to interrupt this cycle?

Fort Lyon has been, and still is, a center of economic activity here. Most recently the Department of Local Affairs, the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless and Bent County have partnered to utilized the facility for the Fort Lyon Supportive Residential Community. Don’t roll your eyes and flip to the next page … I know that there is stigma, rumor, and yes — even truth about this current program that people disagree with; however, without this program, the facility would currently be sitting vacant- costing nearly $900,000 annually just to maintain.

There are currently eight buildings that have been cleaned (of hazardous waste) and renovated ONLY because of the program’s utilization of the facility. There has been $456,400 in federal funding for these projects, and Bent County is continuing to work with the EPA to gain additional funding to rehab the rest of the campus. Once the remaining structures are cleaned and rehabbed, there will be countless opportunities for new businesses and programs to move in that would benefit surrounding communities.

There are major efforts going on right now to revamp and further develop the campus. A new friend of mine likes to use the phrase, “If you had a magic wand…” she’s been spearheading these efforts, and helped organize and host the Revitalizing the Lower Ark Valley event on Saturday, April 6. This was a brainstorming session that took place at the John Rawlings Heritage Museum. There were about forty people in attendance including County Commissioners, economic developers, business owners, non-profit organization directors, and residents from different communities throughout the county that came together to think outside the box, and to try to solve some of the problems that we are currently plagued by.

We were all asked to wave our magic wands and to come up with some potential ideas for the expansion and redevelopment of the Fort Lyon campus. There were ideas such as solar energy fields, greenhouses, a temporary employment agency (which is actually in the planning process), an industrial park, revitalized ball field/swimming pool, an entertainment center, a hemp processing facility, and more.

This event was an opportunity for people to come together and express their opinions, perspectives, ideas, and concerns. We had the chance to meet others that we probably wouldn’t have normally taken the time to get to know. It’s uncomfortable to talk about, but we all have pre-conceived notions of what and who we don’t understand. One Fort Lyon representative spoke about how he and others feel that they are isolated- even when they come into Las Animas for work or to go to the grocery store. There was a general consensus that more inclusivity in surrounding communities, as well as on the Fort Lyon campus would be a benefit for everyone.

How will we accomplish that? Well … first of all, we start working together on projects that benefit ALL of our communities; we collaborate on identifying issues; and we make the conscious effort to compromise on solutions that don’t focus on isolating groups from one another, but rather- bring us together as harmonious communities that support and complement one another. Next time there’s a community meeting- you attend and contribute to discussion in a positive and constructive way. I’ve always liked the saying “show up or shut up”, or if that’s too blunt for you- maybe you’ll like this one better … “Stop complaining. Do something.” We’re all entitled to individual opinions, but if you’re not willing to participate in finding solutions, then you really don’t have the right to complain about the outcomes.

There will be more discussions about the future of Fort Lyon- one of which will be in July (stay tuned for more event information). I encourage you to come and lend your perspective, and to help those in power make more informed and sustainable decisions. The goal of expanding the Fort Lyon campus is to benefit EVERYONE. We have a diamond in the rough sitting in our back yard- and we must take advantage of the opportunity to shape and polish it so it shines, so that Bent County can once again become a beacon in Southeast Colorado. That’s what we all want right?

Let’s get to work!