Soul searching in Redstone
June 16, 2011
REDSTONE – Redstone, the tiny hamlet on the bank of the Crystal River, south of Carbondale, is seemingly at a crossroads.The once-vibrant tourist town has struggled of late to draw the summer crowds that once packed its sole paved street and perused its shops, leaving some to wonder if their sleepy town will slide into a bedroom community of quaint, historic residences where there once were businesses.But there is reason for optimism, too, fueled in part by Redstone’s position at the epicenter of some of Pitkin County’s most unusual open space properties, and the hoped-for re-emergence of a stately local landmark.How the community might best guide itself toward a renaissance as a tourism destination is unclear, but Redstone merchants are certain about one thing: Times are tough.”Redstone is struggling – very much so,” said Jennifer Stanaszek, who has owned the Crystal Valley Manor, a motel, for the past six years. She first began coming to Redstone as a youngster, escaping the heat of Oklahoma with her family.”This place, 20 years ago, when you left, you made your reservations for the next summer or you wouldn’t get a room,” Stanaszek said.Things will pick up on Fourth of July weekend, locals say, but in early June, Redstone Boulevard was generally pretty quiet. That wouldn’t have been the case when Wayne and Gayle Ritari began operating Wild Horse Enterprises 19 years ago.”Literally, sometimes I had a hard time getting out from behind the counter, there were so many people in the store,” Gayle recalled.”When we first came here, you couldn’t walk down the street,” said Pat Stifter, owner of Tiffany of Redstone with her husband, Bob. Their shop, crammed with an eclectic assortment of antiques and collectibles that spills out onto the front porch and into the back yard, no doubt drew its share of the shoppers ambling up and down the street.”When we first came here, you could make money 11 months out of the year,” Wayne Ritari added. “I had grandiose dreams of making a six-figure income from this place.”They came close at first, he said, but things have been on the decline for a decade.Some of the town’s retail base has disappeared, as shop owners retired or sold to buyers who wanted the quaint homes solely for residential use – an option that’s far less expensive than paying commercial property taxes, merchants are quick to point out.Winter has always been the town’s slow time, but now, it’s even more so.”You really only have four months to make enough to keep going,” said Beverly Goss, a sculptor who, nearly 15 years ago, bought the Redstone Art Center and a studio space for her own artistic pursuits.Like many local merchants, Goss resides in the same building that houses her business, helping to hold down costs. Still, she admits, the gallery isn’t making money.Like a number of her fellow townsfolk, though, Goss sees the potential for positive change in Redstone, starting with this year’s restoration work on the former coal mining town’s historic coke ovens, taking place across Highway 133 from Redstone’s main entrance.The Pitkin County Public Works project, funded by a variety of grants, is generating a buzz and slowing motorists who might otherwise speed past Redstone without a second glance.”Just since they started working on the coke ovens, people have stopped to find out more about it,” Goss said.
The brick ovens – their purpose a mystery to plenty of passersby – is but one piece of a town steeped in history. Redstone Boulevard is an historic district, dominated on one end by the Redstone Inn, the former boarding house-style quarters for miners who labored in nearby Coal Basin. Victorian cottages and homes, some boasting shops, date back more than a century, to when Redstone first rose to prominence as a coke producer for coal and steel magnate John Cleveland Osgood’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Co. Coal from the nearby mines was heated in the ovens, yielding coke that was used to produce pig iron and, ultimately, steel. Later, Mid-Continent Resources would mine the high-grade coal through the 1980s.Osgood’s opulent Cleveholm Manor, now better known as Redstone Castle, commands a hillside just south of town. If Redstone’s fortunes are tied to the castle, then recent history has been a challenge. The castle has been the subject of an IRS sale, two auctions and three foreclosures in the past decade, by Susan McEvoy’s count. She’s tour coordinator at the castle.But, this summer, the castle is open for tours seven days a week.”It’s been decades since we’ve done that,” said McEvoy, who hopes the beefed-up schedule will help the business community.And, after a two-year state review, the castle is moving forward with the necessary permitting for a domestic wastewater treatment plant that would allow it to once again operate as a bed-and-breakfast, host weddings and, possibly, open a restaurant. Approvals from Pitkin County are the next step, she said.The Tudor-style castle hasn’t had overnight guests since 2002, though the Redstone Inn bustles with summertime guests and weddings.
Others in the community have also stepped to the plate to boost the town’s allure in both summer and winter.The Redstone Company Store has organized a small Friday farmer’s market featuring produce from the Western Slope, paired with Friday wine tastings. The second annual Redstone Rally, a motorcycle event, is expected to fill the town on the last weekend of June, and outdoor concerts on select Saturdays draw locals and the guests staying in town to Redstone Park.Winter is tougher, though, said Lisa Wagner, current president of the Redstone Community Association.”We’re still trying to figure that piece out,” she said.”The winters kill us,” agrees Cary Hightower, owner of Hightower Trading Post and Hightower Cafe. He closes his establishments for the winter, as do some other business owners.Nearby Redstone Stables offers sleigh and carriage rides down Redstone Boulevard, depending on the season, and provides groomed cross-country ski trails, but the annual sled-dog races, a mainstay of the winter season, ended a couple of years ago when the community association lost access to some of the private property that accommodated the race track.It was a blow that left the association without one of its major fundraisers (Fourth of July pie sales being the other), and Wagner appeared before the Pitkin County Open Space and Trails board recently to ask that it take over the $4,000 annual cost of maintaining the public restrooms at Redstone Park, a property owned by the open space program.”Those bathrooms, that was a big thing,” Wagner said. “It was hard to ask, but we just couldn’t afford it.”The county agreed to take on the expense for the next three years.
The Open Space and Trails program has been active in Redstone lately, working with the community on plans to redevelop little-used Elk Park, located alongside Highway 133, which merchants hope will lure people into town. A left-turn lane into Redstone, if funding can be secured, would be enormously helpful, Wagner added. An open-air visitor center at the park is envisioned in the plan, along with parking improvements.The county has also secured access to the Drool, a popular ice climb, and Redstone Boulders, another climbing spot. Its purchase of land and easements on Sawmill Hill preserved a stand of monster Ponderosa pines and an ice climb known as the Pillar. Last July, Filoha Meadows, one of the county’s most unique open space parcels, opened to the public for the first time. Closed for most of the year, and limited to daytime access on a former railroad grade when it is open, Filoha boasts wetlands warmed by the area’s geothermal activity, rare plant species and even fireflies. Access to the meadows is north of Redstone, as are Penny Hot Springs on the Crystal River, another open space attraction.”I think, certainly, Redstone is going to benefit tremendously from all of this – much more so than if the properties had seen development,” said Gary Tennenbaum, Open Space and Trails land steward.When Filoha’s opening made news last summer, visitors showed up in the Redstone General Store, swinging through town as part of a trip to see the open space, confirmed Lisa Schlueter, who bought the store with her husband, Michael, four years ago. The store is both a gathering spot and a supply depot for anyone from locals to drive-through visitors and campers at the nearby Redstone Campground. Ice cream cones are a hot commodity during the summer, but the store struggles, like every other business in town, Lisa said.”We bought it when everything was great. I hope it gets better,” she said. “It needs to.”The Schlueters say the recreational opportunities preserved through open space acquisitions can only help Redstone. Others aren’t so sure those who come to climb huge boulders will purchase art, home furnishings or antiques in the town’s collection of shops.”A lot of climbers come in, they climb, they leave,” said motel operator Stanaszek.Only those in the know could even find Redstone Boulders or the Drool, Hightower noted.”They don’t put a sign out so you can find the Boulders,” he said, exasperated.But Redstone resident Duane Raleigh, publisher of two Carbondale-based magazines, Rock & Ice and Trail Runner, believes protecting climbing venues from potential development will benefit the community in the long run.The Drool is but one of a number of ice-climbing spots around Redstone, and ice could put the town on the map as a winter destination.”Redstone is one of the best ice-climbing places in Colorado,” said Raleigh, who had a hand in the start of the Ouray Ice Festival.Maybe 40 people showed up for the first event, he recalled.”Now, the Ouray festival brings in 3,000 people,” Raleigh said.Ouray, in southwest Colorado, has a huge, man-made ice park, while Redstone offers scattered, natural features that have been showcased at Redstone Winterfest, held for the past two years in place of the dog-sled races.The town will never match the scale of Ouray, but both its ice and rock climbing can prove a draw, Raleigh contends.Motel operator Stanaszek appreciates the notion that climbing could prove a boon to Redstone, but at the same time, she doesn’t want “over-commercialization” to erode Redstone’s charm. She doesn’t want the town to be the next Ouray, in other words.
The open space project that could have the biggest impact on Redstone, most agree, is the eagerly anticipated extension of the Crystal Trail, a paved bike path heading south out of Carbondale. The first leg of the trail, roughly five miles, opened last year. There are access hurdles to overcome, however, in completing the entire 17 or so miles between Carbondale and Redstone.The ride on Highway 133 to Redstone and beyond has long been a road bike favorite, and plenty of bicyclists cruise into town in the summer months, but the highway lacks a shoulder, and speeding traffic can make the ride intimidating. A paved path through the scenic valley would open the route to a broader spectrum of riders.In the meantime, Redstone brainstorms on how to draw visitors from as close as the Roaring Fork Valley, and dispel the notion that the town is a world away, Wagner said.Merchants express uncertainty about Redstone’s future, at least from a business perspective, but as a small community of residents, it is thriving. Where youngsters were a rarity 15 or 20 years ago, there are now young families with children. Whether Redstone can prosper as both a town and a tourist destination remains to be seen.”I think this summer will tell us how things are going to be,” Wagner firstname.lastname@example.org