Ouray Silver Mine Ramps Up Production, but Workers Can't Find a Place to Live

Jun 9, 2021

With the mine set to start next month, employees are relying on luck and connections around Ouray and Ridgway to find places for employees to live.

The job at Ouray Silver Mines seemed like a perfect fit for Brenda LeBrun: a chance to experience a new, beautiful place and to learn new skills working for the mine.

She arrived in Ouray in early May to work as a warehouse tech, at the mine site high on Camp Bird Road and in town on Highway 550. She’d worked as an underground operator at a mine in Montana, and working “on the surface” here offered a nice change.

LeBrun, 38, had visited Ridgway twice before, and both times, she could see herself living here. “Aside from not necessarily having a home, I do feel at home, as weird as that sounds,” LeBrun said.She’s quickly finding that rentals are nearly impossible to find, and some landlords aren’t keen on renting to mine employees. She’s been living at the Ouray Chalet Inn since she started working a month ago, and hasn’t had much luck in finding a permanent home.

As the mine continues to ramp up hiring, they’ve been housing the new employees in hotels for their first month on the job, hoping they’ll be able to find a more permanent solution in that time. In some cases, the stays have dragged on for longer as people search unsuccessfully, for rentals or properties for sale.Others have lucked out – finding housing that weren’t officially on the market through connections with others.

Matt Juth, the mine’s general manager, spent 1 ½ months living in a hotel, searching for a place to live in Ouray. He saw a house for sale that was under contract, and called the Realtor, asking to put in a back-up offer in case the deal fell through. It didn’t, but the connection with the Realtor paid off: he knew a home-owner in Ridgway who had tried to sell a year earlier and ultimately took the house off the market. He reached out to see if they’d sell it to Juth, and the owners agreed.

“I was really lucky,” he said, to land in a house “that would have never been on the market.”

Todd Jesse, the mine’s environmental specialist, came to Ouray “fully prepared to live in my Jeep up on Red Mountain,” knowing how tight the housing market would be.

Instead, a co-worker at the mine was just finishing up adding a mother-in-law unit to his home, which Jesse was able to move into just as his first month at the hotel was ending. “But if he wasn’t my co-worker, it wouldn’t have happened,” he said.

With the mine set to start production in July, they’re still relying on luck and connections in the community to find places for employees to live.

There are currently about 130 employees, up from about 70 last fall. Silver Mines CEO Brian Briggs said he expects to reach 170 employees by July, when production is set to start, and will continue hiring once that begins.

“We could easily be looking at 100 more people,” he said. Some are already locals, or live in the surrounding area, but others, like DeBrun, have been brought in from around the country.

Not all want to live here permanently: some employees, especially miners, have permanent homes elsewhere, and are used to staying in temporary living situations closer to the mine site, commuting home to other counties or states. That includes some former coal miners from the North Fork Valley, who have transitioned to silver mining, but who don’t want to uproot their families from homes and their kids from schools to move, Briggs said.

But many of the new employees are hoping to find long-term rentals or to buy property in the county and are coming up short.

Short and long term options

Heather Simoens, the company’s vice president for human resources, is tasked with helping employees find housing, or find places to stay in the short-term.

Hotels have been the starting point, Simoens said. Some short-term rental owners in the area have also reached out to the company, offering to rent to mine employees for longer instead of quick-turn Airbnb or VRBO guests, which has helped new hires find their footing.

When someone in a short-term rental finds a longer solution, the next person moves in right behind them, Simoens said, to keep up with the flow of people who are searching.

“I’m online everyday, looking for places to rent,” LeBrun said. She’s reached out to about half a dozen places so far, she said. “Either people don’t message you back, or the rent is outrageous,” she said, or they’re no longer available by the time she inquires. She applied for one apartment, only to be told that the owner wasn’t interested in renting to mine employees.

“If you get told no so many times, it gets really really discouraging,” LeBrun said. She praised the company for helping house her for now, taking away some of the stress while she’s searching for a place to live.

While affordability is a challenge, it’s also an issue of inventory: even mine employees earning six-figure salaries are locked out of the market because there are so few options, Briggs said.

One person hired to work at the mill made offers on four houses, but hadn’t been successful yet, Simoens said. “He’s bringing his whole family,” she said, and was hoping to find an alternative to a hotel when they arrived.

The mine is also providing daily van transportation from Montrose, before making stops in Colona, Ridgway and Ouray before heading up County Road 361 to the mine. That’s helped some of the employees living north of the county, but the housing market is tight there, as well.

Another mine employee lost his rental when the owner decided to sell, Simoens said. “So now he’s living in his camp trailer at the campground, which is fine because it’s not winter anymore,” she said. “But he literally can’t find anything, even in Montrose.”

Briggs estimated about one in five employees who’ve moved are successfully landing in Ouray. “Right now, I would say people are getting shoved toward Montrose, and that’s where a lot of them are ending up,” he said. “That doesn’t help with getting a portion of the severance tax, but it is what it is for now,” Briggs said.

Once it begins production, the mine will pay a 2.25 percent tax on the mine’s gross income, after the first $19 million of income, which is exempt. The severance taxes, separate from taxes paid directly to the county, are then split between the Department of Natural Resources, the Colorado Water Conservation Board and the Department of Local Affairs. DOLA disburses some of its portion of the money to local governments in communities where mine employees live.

Briggs estimated the mine will pay between $3 and $6 million per year in severance taxes, but how much of that ultimately comes back to the county will depend on how many employees they can house within Ouray County.

Solutions

While luck and connections have helped some employees so far, the only long-term solution is building housing, Briggs said, “but nothing happens overnight.”

The mine is working directly with the Telluride Foundation on a potential housing project, Briggs said, but called it too early to discuss details.

Another approach could come from developers Mark Iuppenlatz and Craig Hinkson, who have proposed building 30 condo units on three acres in Ouray off Oak Street, on Hinkson Terrace.

They said previously they’d lease the building to the Ouray Silver Mines, which would guarantee occupancy for at least six years; Briggs said last week, though, that the mine’s involvement is still tentative.

“We’re full steam ahead on it,” Iuppenlatz said, with or without the company’s involvement. “If the mine, in the next little while, comes around and says ‘we’re in,’ we’ll gladly work with them. If they say ‘we can’t make a commitment,’ then we’ve got other options,” he said.

The Ouray City Council approved a minor subdivision allowing the project to go forward in March, over the Planning Commission’s recommendation that it be denied. More than a dozen people urged the council to reject it, including neighbors who oppose the high-density project in the area, which is across the river from the Silver Mines warehouse.

Hinkson said they’re moving ahead with the plans for development, with hopes of breaking ground late next month on excavation and a rockfall mitigation berm. They’re looking at using prefabricated units, which won’t be available until about February, he said; if those are on-site on schedule, the three buildings could be finished and ready by spring.

They’ll be split between one- and two-bedroom units, and each unit will have two off-street parking spots, one in an enclosed garage and one in a covered carport, he said. While some neighbors raised concerns about density, “I built the whole subdivision and higher density was envisioned there the whole time,” Hinkson said. “They knew it was a possibility, all along.”
“People are always afraid of change, they like things the way they are,” Iuppenlatz said. “The fact of the matter, and it’s a hard fact, is they moved into a neighborhood that was zoned for high-density residential.”The developers, operating as Ouray Housing Group LLC, envision the project as workforce housing, whether that’s for the mine’s employees or other businesses in the city.

Iuppenlatz said they’ve heard from several local business owners who would like to participate, either by buying or leasing units to rent to their employees.

“Employers, I think, are starting to step up and see that they need to solve their own problem on employee housing,” he said, instead of waiting for the city or county to take action. “We’ve been approached by a number of restaurant owners and business owners in town about participating in this, if the mine doesn’t take the whole thing.”

Units could also be sold to teachers, law enforcement or others working locally who have been priced out of the market, he said.

“Everything’s on the table and everything’s negotiable until they’d all be rented, one way or another,” Hinkson said.

Briggs said the mine will make a decision about its involvement once they start production this summer.For now, Simoens and the newest hires, including LeBrun, are continuing to search for options in and around the county.

This week, LeBrun will pack up her hotel room and move to a cabin at an RV park north of Colona, where she’ll stay while she continues her hunt for housing. She’s not looking for anything fancy, she said: just a place to sleep and eat a meal after a 12-hour shift. Despite the challenges of finding a place, she hasn’t regretted the move.

“I took a leap of faith coming here and starting this job,” she said. “So I’m trying to stay optimistic that if it’s meant to be, and there is some place I should be living, it’ll happen.”

Liz Teitz is a journalist with Report for America, a nonprofit program focused on supporting journalism in underserved areas.

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Mark Duggan provided online production of this story for KSUT.

This story was written in partnership with the Ouray Plaindealer, through a collaboration powered by COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative — a nonprofit formed to strengthen local public-service journalism in Colorado. KSUT joined this historic collaboration with more than 40 news organizations to share in-depth local reporting to better serve Coloradans.