Aug. 30 -- Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper visited Fort Lyon of Bent County on Thursday to celebrate the facility's fifth anniversary as a rehabilitative residential community. The governor also spent the time to discuss the status of rural economies, unemployment and how programs such as Fort Lyon's can help to mend those issues.
Fort Lyon has a long and winding history. It was first known as Fort Wise and was situated in a slightly different location in southeast Colorado. After flooding in 1866, Fort Lyon was constructed near present-day Las Animas. It housed the U.S. Army until 1897. Around 1907, the fort was used as a medical facility by the U.S. Navy to treat the likes of tuberculosis in Colorado's dry climate. In the 30s, the fort operated as a veteran's hospital and in 2001 the facility was used as a minimum security prison. That lasted for a decade.
It was 2013 when Governor Hickenlooper announced the facility's reopening as a rehabilitation clinic for the homeless. The governor has wrangled with the issue of homelessness since his time as Mayor of Denver, and it was a large bucket on his campaign for the governor's office. Fort Lyon's new purpose was to provide a safe environment for substance abuse rehabilitation. Thursday marked the 5th year anniversary of the facility's operation. Today, the facility houses approximately 230 inhabitants with a maximum capacity of around 250. The governor said that the maximum capacity could be raised with some effort.
Governor Hickenlooper was keen to stress the financial viability of Fort Lyon. "When I’d been mayor of Denver, we worked really hard on the chronically homeless; people that had been homeless for a long time. And so often, people write those individuals off," Hickenlooper said. The chronically homeless are usually normal people who have suffered some sort of debilitating tragedy, according to the governor. Said tragedy could be the death of a family member, a debilitating illness, or an untimely divorce, to list a few examples. "But life dealt them a blow that they couldn’t emotionally handle," the governor said.
Fort Lyon is a place for those people. It is uniquely well suited for rehabilitation purposes of the chronically homeless because of its location. It provides an escape. "Getting them [the chronically homeless] out of their normal environment is very beneficial," said Hickenlooper. "You get away from all the temptation and the bad influences and stuff like that." The governor stated that graduates of the Fort Lyon program, who are often veterans, often decide to remain in or near Las Animas. In a way, the program affords an opportunity to get out of the city and experience a different kind of life; often times people don't want to leave that new way of life behind.
In 2012, the facility was the perfect candidate for a homeless rehabilitation program. Governor Hickenlooper, however, needed to prove that it was cost-effective. In Metro Denver, approximately $40,000 are spent per homeless person to keep them on the streets. "Just to promote lives of misery," as the governor put it. "Whereas here, we can have them come down here for $18,000 per person, per year. So way cheaper than our expenses over there, and here they’re cleaning up their lives," the governor said. According to the governor, it was difficult at the time to get Republicans to realize the compounding benefits of a facility such as Fort Lyon: that it decreased the strain homeless people cause on the budget, that it improved lives, and that it returned people to the workforce.
Governor Hickenlooper spoke more broadly about rural economies such as found in Las Animas, La Junta and Ordway. He understands the need to improve rural economies and believes programs such as Fort Lyon's and the Jumpstart Program lend themselves to that. "I tell people that they have not just a moral obligation, but a financial obligation – a financial self-interest – to put more resources into the rural part of the state," said Hickenlooper. Strong rural economies promote food security along the Front Range and make life more sustainable for all Coloradans. "Part of what makes Colorado, Colorado, is the fact we’ve been ranching and farming out here for 150 years."
Jumpstart is a program that allows startups to establish themselves in rural areas below the state average unemployment rate without having to pay state taxes. "They pay no property tax, they pay no sales tax, they pay no payroll tax, they pay no taxes to the state," said Hickenlooper. "At all. It’s nothing! Our general fund is $11 billion a year and we’re talking Jumpstart is, per year, I think less than a million bucks." The governor believes that people and startups just need to be motivated to invest in rural areas and that Fort Lyon is a great example of what can happen when they do.
His observations on motivation lent themselves to other areas of interest to the Arkansas Valley, too. On water rights, Hickenlooper said, "If a community is struggling or declining, as obviously for many years this part of the state was, then it’s hard to get legislators excited about funding major infrastructure." Without that vital infrastructure, such as with water, communities aren't equipped to rebuild themselves. That's why being open to new revenue streams is important. In southeast Colorado, Hickenlooper thinks wind farms could be that new source of revenue.
"Those wind farms, it’s like having a little factory that exports agricultural equipment. That money comes in and richochets around the community," said Hickenlooper.
Throughout its past, Fort Lyon served veterans and its local communities in many ways. It provided six to eight percent of local employment during its time as a minimum security prison. During its stints as a hospital it helped veterans heal their bodies. Today, it focuses on curing veterans' minds and supplying a fresh new workforce to the Arkansas Valley.