Cirque Meadows by Adam Johnson

Estes Valley Plan

Chapter 2 - Our Changing Society

A. Planning The Valley's Future


As a new century approaches, communities all over the nation have embarked upon efforts to reflect upon their accomplishments, their continuous challenges, and upon visions of things to come. This represents the effort both to restore historical links of vibrant community life and to guarantee community survival in the complex, turbulent years of a fast-changing environment.
Planning, revitalization schemes, renewal efforts, crisis response, alternative options, impact analyses and plans all represent new forms of mobilizing people and resources to create safe and vibrant communities.

Purposeful change in a community happens in several ways. There is strategic planning, which starts with a community's mission and develops a plan for objectives to be achieved within a period of time; and visioning, which looks at the past, present and future as a coherent study of change and as a mechanism for being inspired and thinking about today's realities. By combining data and judgment, and analyzing trends, preferable futures evolve through a systematic process of public involvement. Through this effort the Estes Valley developed the central mechanism for a community-based planning process.

There are two basic directions through which one can approach the study of Estes Park and at the same time forecast potential developments and their impacts:

  • Through an historical, econometric, "predictive" model, we can ask ourselves what trends, events, or forecasts can be made with regard to existing or emerging social, political, economic, and technological situations that may lead to probable future states. One moves from the present (with knowledge of the past) towards the future.
  • The second direction is a "normative" approach. It involves describing preferred futures and desired goals and objectives about the future. Normative forecasting compares an analysis of the present community with idealized or desired future states of the identifying the means to achieve desired futures.
These general principles and explanations are important if the proposed plan is to be understood as part of a larger context of transformation, and of rapidly changing socio-demographic and economic circumstances. There are really no "perfect" plans. Plans must be flexible, changeable, modular, and capable of adapting to changing times.


Three important premises will guide our effort to understand the trends and developments affecting the future of Estes Park.

  • Trend is not destiny, i.e., we can -- indeed we must -- interact with our destiny. While futures may not be predicted, futures can be created.
  • Projections often tend not to be borne out. We have very few surprise-free conditions. Therefore, communities must develop the capacity to work with contingency and flexibility.
  • We rarely have the information or the time and resources to be able to make exact predictions. Therefore, it is better to be approximately right than precisely wrong. We need to decide and operate within a framework of reasonable approximation, especially in fast-changing, multi-constituency environments.

Change permeates every aspect of our lives. Political and social institutions are in constant flux, social values are shifting radically and moral and ethical standards are coming under continuous attacks. In this context, there are five major transformations that characterize American society today:

  1. Increasing societal complexity and interdependence which, at the same time, may contribute to the vulnerability of the social system.
  2. Increasing magnitude of effects in terms of intensity, severity and duration which ultimately may test the tolerance or resiliency of the surrounding environment.
  3. The rapidity of change.
  4. The search for a more equitable system in determining who benefits and who pays.
  5. The demand to cope and the recognition that we can and must interact with our destiny. We need to solve our problems before they grow even bigger, or their effects become irreversible.

A number of specific global and national trends are listed in Chapter One. Recent reports (see in particular John L. Petersen's "The Road to 2015", 1994) suggest that there are additional trends that will affect the United States in the next two decades:

  1. Family settings in which children grow up will cause continuous problems for social legislation. An increasing number of children are being brought up in poverty and with diminished educational capabilities, raising questions as to the long-term competitiveness of the U.S. economy.
  2. By the turn of the century, a larger proportion of Americans will be members of discernible minority groups and, given current trends, most Hispanics and Asians will be geographically clustered in only a few states.
  3. Americans will live longer than ever before, and the elderly population will grow. Problems will increase related to health, limitations of routine activities, jobs, etc.
  4. The aging of the population will increasingly affect everyone. As support structures within families narrow, issues of both elder care and child care will evolve and intensify.
  5. At both local and regional levels, population will concentrate in fewer areas. Megapolitan concentrations will dominate large parts of the nation (e.g., Colorado's Front Range). In such growth areas, people will experience traffic congestion, the need to replace aging infrastructures, and demand for specialized workers.

In the book, Choices for Colorado's Future, six changing values and emerging beliefs are described as likely to affect potential futures in the state. This study suggests that in the coming decade, citizens will make different choices for themselves, their lifestyles, the economy and politics than they did in the last decade. Emerging values and beliefs include principles of sustainability, ecology, knowledge as more valuable than material goods, consumerism, questions of human development and equity, and yearning for a common vision of a just, equitable and ethical society.
Demographic projections made in 1994 indicate that by 2020 Colorado's population will grow to 4,871,000 people, and will be ranked as the 24th most populous state in the nation. The proportion of population under age 20 is expected to drop in all states. In Colorado that drop will be from 28.8% to 25.3%.

Front Range
Larimer County

Colorado's demographic composition is expected to change considerably, with a marked increase in senior population. The graying of America will continue well into the next century, particularly with the aging of the baby boom. Projected growth in the older population is expected to raise the median age to 36 by the year 2000, and to 42 by the year 2030 (compared to 30 in 1950). This is particularly important to Northern Colorado. Larimer County is getting older -- compared to the state, the county's population aged 45-64 jumped by 28% between 1990 and 1994.

B. Forces of Transformation in the Estes Valley


While growth in the area during the 1970s was quite rapid, it slowed in the 1980s (this was true for the entire state). It started increasing again by the 1990 Census, showing an annual growth rate of 3.1% for the Town of Estes Park. Between 1960-1990 the population of the Estes Valley grew faster than the state.

The population profile in Larimer County from 1980 to 2010 shows that the surrounding territory will provide steady growth, which will also affect the Estes Valley. Projections point to the heavy dominance, particularly in Census Track 28 (Estes Valley area), of white elderly persons, closely divided between males and females (2963 males vs. 3052 females, for a total of 6015).

By 1990 the average age in Estes Park was 42.6 years old, more than 10 years older than the average Coloradan. This is consistent with the overall profile of the community as having a high number of retirees, and is expected to continue given the national trends of retirees preferring to reside in what has broadly been called the Fort Collins-Loveland area. The Town of Estes Park has a high number of retirees and, therefore, people not looking for work. Outside the Town in the Estes Valley, a large portion are working or looking for work. This socio-economic profile is skewed compared to the larger area of Larimer County, which is characterized by a high-paying manufacturing sector and significant segments of the population in services and information.
The older population exhibits different spending patterns from younger consumers. Older populations typically devote a high proportion of their expenditures to health (including insurance premiums), food and home furnishings.


Estes Valley and Rocky Mountain National Park coexist in a duality of serving visitors with what the community has to offer and with what a visit to Rocky Mountain National Park has to offer. By 1996 the number of Park visitors reached the impressive total of approximately 3.2 million people. That number is expected to continue to increase.

The challenge is in the overall capacity of RMNP to accommodate this number of annual visitors. Two contradictory forces affect the region. On one hand, continuously increasing numbers of people are attracted to the Park. On the other hand, wildlife conservationists continuously argue for restrictions, as the very character of the Park can be distorted by unwieldy numbers of visitors.
The tourist profile involves three major groups of individuals:

  • Tourists who come from other parts of the nation.
  • Tourists from the immediate vicinity, say Colorado, Wyoming and Nebraska.
  • "Day-trippers" who use Estes Park from easily-accessible surrounding counties.
This last group must especially be understood, because it represents a large number of people who may impact the community in terms of one-day services (especially services and casual shopping). They are also the urban residents of the Front Range who explore the immediate mountain facilities and, therefore, demand opportunities typically associated with elderly citizens, but also the entertainment of younger families.

A specialized study was conducted by Colorado State University entitled "Recreational and Forest Management Preferences of Northern Colorado Front Range Residents" (August 1993). When asked, a large number of those questioned pointed out that they do participate in outdoor recreation (88%), with summer being the most popular season. About 1/3 indicated that they recreate during fall or winter. About 25% of the sample recreates during every season of the year. This study also points out that these people use part of their time in Estes Park.


There are six related issues which may act as critical forces in understanding the larger context of transformation in the Estes Valley:

  1. The extent to which the Valley can be a self-sustained community versus part of a larger context, i.e., dependent for many of its services on other cities such as Fort Collins and Loveland. It is probable that the Town of Estes Park will be part of a larger complex or "urban territory."
  2. Future population growth, especially given the boom and bust history of Colorado, is central to all planning efforts. Projections point to healthy rates of growth, and a significantly increasing older population.
  3. The visitor profile (tourists and day-trippers) must be continuously monitored as subtle changes seem to be under way. Visitors (especially day-trippers) may be of higher income with demands for better and more varied services.
  4. Mobility and accessibility will affect everything from the visitor experience to the residents' perception of quality of life.
  5. The vision of the Estes community (both Town and Valley) faces the perennial dilemmas between "old timers" and "newcomers," growth and stability, access and remoteness -- newly tempered with the emerging trends of seeking equity, ecosystem balances and development of consensus as to what can be done by people who believe they can interact with their destiny.
  6. The mechanisms of implementing change and promoting action through specific strategies and action are the forces that will determine the plan's ultimate success. Building partnerships and alliances, balancing rights and responsibilities, and emphasizing functional boundaries and linkages in Northern Colorado are a strong foundation for that long-term success.
Much of the next two decades' most rapid growth will be in second-tier cities that are creating jobs rapidly and also becoming havens for "urban refugees," especially from the vast bi-coastal megalopolitan concentrations. Technological breakthroughs, especially in telecommuting, will provide further freedom from the tyranny of time and space, thus making location less critical. Finally, both in terms of institutional shifts and value transformations, Estes Park -- as part of national far-reaching changes -- will experience dramatic alterations in social structure, as the community will become more complex, technical, and interdependent.


At the center of any future planning effort is the articulation of a community "image" or idealized perception which, in the Estes Valley, has been changing recently to incorporate three major characteristics:

  • Estes Park as an alpine gateway and service community;
  • Rocky Mountain National Park visitation and recreation; and
  • Wildlife (accessible to view) and communion with nature.
In what has become a major urban region and an emerging megalopolis along Colorado's Front Range (where 80% of the state's population is found), tourism poses a special challenge for all citizens and certainly for Estes Park. All studies have pointed out that tourism and destination resort communities promote economic activity and visibility, but they also create a set of difficult social, administrative and environmental problems.

Mountain and resort communities throughout Colorado are grappling with these challenges. Those who are moving successfully towards developing a sustainable community while maintaining local identity tend to be working through regional collaboration and local action.

All over the world, communities, nations and regions are trying to do something about the forces of change and transformation and in many cases respond to the challenges of rapid growth. In the end, the task of doing something rests with the local community and with the mobilization of citizens to meet their common problems.

This has also been the thrust of the special edition of High Country News, entitled "Grappling with Growth," showing how communities throughout the West have been trying to limit, redistribute or channelize population growth. Such techniques include traditional zoning, density bonus for housing clusters, allowing development only on the basis of performance standards, extraction fees, set-asides, and real estate transfer taxes. Any planning effort must be based on the fact that the strategies of growth are not simply temporary measures to stem what looks like overwhelming transformation. Instead, communities must develop the institutional patience that allows them to see growth as a long-range and sustained commitment toward meaningful community engagement and coping with change and transformation.


Whatever specific tactics and strategies are articulated, the question of growth and community development raises much larger issues. Any coherent strategy will address the following elements:

  1. Articulating a strategic vision of the future.
  2. Building quality into a community's programs and services, particularly if it plans to attract certain types of populations.
  3. Building mechanisms for environmental scanning and for monitoring change in terms of present and emerging trends and developments.
  4. Continuous participation of all stakeholders in the community and empowerment of many groups so that they can participate in discussions and support decision making. Developing organization and procedures to maintain momentum and means for monitoring and calibrating performance.
  5. Developing the capacity to assume risks in terms of commitment and courage to undertake innovative actions.
  6. Encouraging flexibility and the capacity to respond to both surprises and new emergent trends and developments. Diversifying the economic base to permit adaptation to change and to altered circumstances in the perennial problem of boom and bust cycles.
  7. Combining structural and non-structural solutions, especially in terms of both physical infrastructure changes and also institutional and behavioral adaptations. Establishing long-range budgeting, public and private sector interaction, and interdependence with the larger region.

Perhaps more important than anything else is the fundamental interdependence of the Estes Valley, Larimer County, and Northern Colorado. This complex interdependence requires an understanding of the forms and forces of cooperation, regionalism, and interdependence. This becomes particularly important with the new mix of permanent residents (retirees as well as younger population) and the shifting profile of the tourist (more affluent and environmentally sensitive).


A continuous process of planning becomes what one may call a "rolling plan." Such a plan, together with consistent monitoring could guarantee the incorporation of shifting strategies responsive to changes in both the community and the surrounding environment.
Estes Park's probable future is based on the strengths of its physical environment with a combination of tourism and retirees, and high community spirit. At the same time Estes Park has the weaknesses of the lack of affordable housing, competing and conflicting demands by shifting stakeholders in the community (such as younger vs. older populations) and the perennial conflict between creating new economic opportunities vs. preserving environmental amenities.
The issues are but part of the challenges that all settlements face in the harsh competitive and turbulent environment of this and coming decades. They point to the central importance of a "civic infrastructure" that becomes the key ingredient for a community's survival and future growth. As expressed in the National Civic Index, there are 10 critical components that cities must possess (all or most of them) in order to have a fighting chance for remaining healthy communities:

  1. A high level of citizen participation, often culminating in broad consensus;
  2. Community leadership that is representative and inclusive of diverse interests;
  3. Efficient and effective delivery of public services;
  4. Focused and effective voluntarism and philanthropy;
  5. Approaches to inter-group relations that capitalize on cultural diversity;
  6. Civic education taught and nurtured in the classrooms and neighborhoods alike;
  7. Trusted forms for community information sharing;
  8. Capacity for cooperation and consensus building, such as neighborhood associations, city-county government, or public-private partnerships;
  9. Strategic, long-term planning and management; and
  10. Regional or inter-community cooperation in tackling shared problems.
Estes Park has to face the challenges of the future through systematic environmental scanning, challenging of assumptions, contingency planning, and above all through community mobilization in preparation for more turbulent times. They are a necessary means for articulating a purposeful community image of the future.

The crisis of our time is not so much the lack of will or mistrust toward our institutions. It is more the absence of a shared vision that can capture the imagination of people and of an enthusiastic commitment to work for the common good. Without a positive image of the future, nations and communities perish. Without enthusiasm and sharing of meaning, passage to the future becomes less interesting and much more difficult and unpredictable.

C. The Valley's "Preferred" Direction

The "preferred" direction set forth below describes the desires, hopes, and visions of the community as expressed during several public workshops. While it is difficult to capture or to summarize the "sense of community" and the common aspirations of the citizens of the Valley, one can discern certain dominant themes and broad directions.

Following the public workshops and the series of citizens' reactions, there emerged three overarching directions that the residents have for the future of Estes Valley:

  • The relationship of people to nature and surrounding hinterland (NATURE)
  • The guarantee of survival of the community (COMMUNITY)
  • The Enhancement of the "good life" or fulfillment (QOL)
In a schematic fashion these three overlapping directions in their core express the desire for balanced growth, sustainable development, harmonious co-existence, and social-well being.

The numbers inside the circles represent the following broad goals as expressed in the public workshop:

  1. Protecting and maintaining its natural beauty, scenic vistas, river systems, wetlands, and wildlife habitat.
  2. Promoting man-made development that is in harmony with its environmental setting.
  3. Encouraging a range of housing opportunities.
  4. Welcoming and accommodating visitors.
  5. Leading in the stewardship of the Valley's natural resources.
  6. Fostering development of the cultural arts.
  7. Offering unique outdoor recreation opportunities
  8. Becoming a model National Park gateway community.
  9. Maintaining a balance between the needs of local residents and tourism.
  10. Recognizing the synergy between tourism and the retirement community.
Obviously such "preferred directions" contain underlying dilemmas encountered in any community wishing to improve its overall quality of life, sense of community and stewardship of it natural resources.

Next chapter - Chapter 3 - Economic Overview

Background Image: Cirque Meadows by Adam Johnson. All rights reserved.