Go anywhere in Rifle within a three-mile radius of downtown and you’ll find a construction project in progress. Because of the oil and gas boom, this town is expected to double in size, from 9,000 residents today to over 20,000 in about 10 years. It could possibly double again by 2035, so there is no time to waste.It’s not that Rifle hasn’t seen boom times before. Oil shale came on strong in the late 1970s but plummeted abruptly about five years later, leaving the town of 4,000 reeling from a recession. Rifle actually lost population in the 1980s. But since then, new technology has allowed the oil and gas industry to extract natural gas from the tight sand formations in areas around Rifle, so thousands of workers have moved in with the drilling rigs. Since 1990, Rifle has almost doubled in size to over 9,000 residents and is now the largest city in Garfield County, surpassing Glenwood Springs.
“We have about 3,000 homes in over 20 developments in various stages of planning,” noted Nancy Sanchez, the building permit technician for the city of Rifle. Hundreds of rolled-up plans envelop the building department. “Most of the housing plotted is for multi-family dwellings, although we do have some subdivisions that will feature homes in the $400,000 range.”
“We’re under an avalanche of new housing projects,” said Nathan Lindquist, one of the city’s planners. He noted the Rifle City Council was sensitive to providing housing for working-class people. “We have a lot of affordable housing projects on the books, and the city itself is working with the hospital, school district and others to build employee housing, too.”
Besides the many housing subdivisions in the works, the city is involved its own construction projects: a round-about at the Interstate-70 interchange; a new wastewater treatment plant; a new judicial center, a combined project with the county; and new stop lights. A new water plant is in the planning stages, too. In the next few weeks, the planning department will unveil a new urban plan for downtown Rifle.
“We’re planning for a city of 30,000 people, so we want to keep downtown vital with an entertainment district, rec center, and perhaps high rises of four stories or more to attract a younger set,” Lindquist explained. Right now, downtown Rifle encompasses about six blocks with businesses starting to take over traditional residential homes.
Commercial projects include new warehouses for oil- and gas-related businesses and six more motels of nearly 100 rooms apiece, again in response to the thousands of oil and gas workers coming in. Chain stores and restaurants are not far behind.
“Even though most of the staff had not experienced the oil shale bust, it’s fresh in the minds of some of the council people, so we are planning for when oil and gas goes away. We want to be a self-sufficient city,” Lindquist noted. The city is considering developing an alternate-energy industrial park to attract non-fossil fuel companies. “We keep in mind that this oil and gas boom won’t last forever,” he added.
Rifle’s boom times were recently highlighted by the sale of a 547-acre parcel of land adjacent to Rifle for $35 million, the county’s third-highest-priced property transaction ever.
Shari Neuroth of Metro Brokers, who grew up in Rifle, said at one point last year, home sale prices were going up $10,000 a month. “Unlike the rest of the nation, Rifle’s real estate market has seen no downward trends – we’re still selling property that’s appreciating.” Neuroth said the only thing slowing Rifle’s housing market was the mortgage crisis.
“I appreciate that Rifle is working on master plans, projecting where growth should go,” she said. “This careful forethought should help alleviate some of our growing pains.” Neuroth doubted that Rifle’s accelerated growth would force the old-timers out. “We all want to stick around and see what happens.”
Sally Brands, owner of Savage Land Company, saw the boom and bust of the 1980s. “Booms are much easier to plan for than busts,” she said. “Growth is a good thing for Rifle … It’s sure better than dying.”
Top photo: Construction signs dot the Rifle landscape. Second photo: The Rifle building department has hundreds of plans under review. Third photo: Sewer pipe is stacked under the shadows of a drill rig. Fourth photo: Row of new condos are ready for occupancy. Fifth photo: On top of all the residential and commercial building going on in Rifle, oil rigs are also being constructed at the edge of town.
Photos by Leslie Robinson