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Boom and bust

Su Lum

Back around the turn of the 1980s an enormous oil boom was just about the corner. Exxon was coming to the Western Slope to extract oil from shale and from Rifle to Grand Junction real estate prices were expected to shoot up into the stratosphere and anyone who had any money was investing.Hell, if I had had any money I would have bought a plot down there.This was back in the days before Grand Valley changed its name to Parachute. Grand Valley was a whistle-stop whose existence was financed by speeding tickets, a sleepy little place where, with little or no warning, the speed limit suddenly dropped to about 25 mph (think Twin Lakes today) and you’d best not be caught going 30.Grand Valley (now Parachute) was positioned as the nerve center for the massive Exxon operation to come, and Battlement Mesa was born to house the anticipated community of executives, managers, white and blue collar workers needed to run the operation.Investment excitement was at fever pitch as we watched Exxon’s company town rising up in the hills across from Grand Valley, built from scratch like Vail and Snowmass Village were. The Western Slope was the happening place. Grand Junction expanded its airport and braced itself for the oil rush.And then, in 1982, Exxon decided it was not cost-effective to extract oil from shale and they pulled out. Bang, just like that, they were out of there. Period. Kaput. Gone. Hauled out all their trailers and equipment and everyone who had had the money to invest were left holding deeds and leases that were as worthless as Confederate money.It’s not as if we haven’t seen our share of booms and busts around here, what with the silver boom and, after a substantial bust hiatus, the skiing boom, which may or may not be in a decline now. What was unusual about the Exxon boom and bust is that it never did boom, it busted before it got off the ground.Battlement Mesa was the weirdest ghost town I’ve ever seen: brand-new and totally, eerily empty. Designed to hold roughly 2,000 people (think five Burlingames), its streets were paved, sidewalks and curbs were in place, street signs and street lights were up and the houses were built or in the final process of building, each in layers of social status, starting with the cheap units at the bottom, climbing the hill to the midprice range, with the best at the top.I drove through Battlement Mesa about a month after Exxon abruptly departed, and now I can’t remember if there was a school or a church or a grocery store, but there was a bank (first things first!). The feeling was that it was a model toy town, a rendering, maybe an abandoned movie set. It was creepy, driving around that place without a soul in sight.Over the next couple of decades Battlement Mesa has found a place for itself as a retirement haven and bedroom community for an area that is growing with or without oil, but for me it was yet another life lesson that things come and go, wax and wane, and sometimes implode or abort.Su Lum is a longtime local who misses the police car with the dummy state trooper at the wheel, warning motorists that Twin Lakes was serious about speed without trying to make a killing in tickets. This column appears every Wednesday in The Aspen Times.


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