Reopening of Climax mine welcome but not heralded
LEADVILLE – Boom and bust is no longer on the agenda of this scrappy mountain town – no matter what happens up the hill at the Climax mine.Along historic Harrison Avenue, merchants and community leaders express collective nonchalance about the prospects of the huge molybdenum mine reopening as soon as next year.Sure, it’ll be nice to have 400 jobs at Climax. Yes, it will help shore up some of the weak underpinnings of Leadville’s fragile economy.But in no way is the molybdenum mine expected to become the super-dominant force that it was decades ago.”If people get it in their minds that here comes Climax on its white horse to save the day, well, that’s not going to happen,” said Keith Moffett, community bank president of Peoples National Bank in Leadville.Moffett and other city leaders envision a more sustainable economy based on tourism, recreation and an expected influx of students and faculty from Colorado Mountain College’s recent addition of bachelor’s degree programs.Until those industries grow, townspeople are resisting the urge to declare a pending boom in mining, even as motels and restaurants fill with hundreds of construction workers hired to get the mine ready.Climax’s owner, Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, is spending $700 million to re-equip the mine, which first opened in 1918, and get it prepared to resume production after being largely mothballed since the 1980s.In the years prior to closing, Climax was a behemoth – employing 3,200 workers and almost single-handedly keeping the Lake County economy afloat through property taxes and high wages paid to miners.The mine’s closure in 1987 threw the region into a depression that still lingers in the form of high unemployment, sluggish real estate sales and empty storefronts that pockmark the Victorian-era buildings along the eight-block commercial stretch of Harrison Avenue.Lake County’s unemployment rate of 11.2 percent in April was the third-highest in Colorado.Freeport-McMoRan boosted hopes in 2007 when it announced that Climax would reopen.
Leadville held a ceremony replete with music from the high school band as a 30-foot-diameter ore-crushing ball was trucked through town on its way to the mine atop Fremont Pass.But those high hopes were dashed just a month later when molybdenum prices crashed and the mine plan was suspended.Freeport-McMoRan now says that construction will be complete by early next year. The actual opening will be dependent on unspecified “market conditions,” according to Freeport-McMoRan.Molybdenum, which is commonly called moly, is used as a hardening agent in steel and other industrial applications.Moly prices currently hover around $17 a pound. Freeport-McMoRan’s estimated cost of production from Climax is about $5.50 a pound.When the mine reopens, it is expected to employ 400 permanent workers. Climax’s open-pit operations will have the capacity to produce 30 million pounds of molybdenum a year, making it smaller than Freeport-McMoRan’s 40-million-pound Henderson mine in Empire, but still one of the largest moly mines in the world.
Yet its economic impact is expected to be smaller than it was during the mine’s heyday because the new operation will have just a fraction of the former employment. Newer equipment and above-ground pit mining – the mine is not currently planning labor-intensive underground operations – require fewer workers.In addition, wages paid to the nonunion workforce are expected to be lower, adjusted for inflation, than the pay earned by Climax’s former unionized staff.Freeport-McMoRan won’t disclose wage scales, but townspeople have been told that entry-level jobs will pay about $15 an hour.Reopening is a welcome scenario to Leadville citizens, despite their aversion to embarking on another boom-and-bust journey.”It’s going to help, no doubt about it,” said Roy Seme from behind the vintage-1879 bar at his Pastime Bar & Cafe in Leadville.Like many residents, Seme once worked at Climax, then capitalized on the mine’s economic generation by attracting hordes of workers to the bar in the 1970s.”Those were the glory years. I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said. “We’ll get some more business (from Climax’s reopening), but it will never be like it was.”A real-estate boom is unlikely because the mine’s workforce is expected to come primarily from existing residents of Lake and adjacent Chaffee counties, said Heather Lindh, owner of Re/Max Aspen Leaf Realty in Leadville.Bob Hartzell, another former Climax worker, now is the president and executive director of the Leadville-based National Mining Hall of Fame and Museum.He said economic diversification efforts are welcome, yet they won’t change Leadville’s heritage.”Mining has been the lifeblood of this place,” Hartzell said. “It was born a mining town, and it’ll probably die a mining town.”
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