The West has long been a haven for the ultra-wealthy. Sometimes, they move into small towns with the aim of revitalizing them. But in Walden, Colorado, one wealthy businessman’s plans went awry, with dire consequences for the community.

 

 

[ ↓ Transcript ↓ ]

I was standing on Main Street in my hometown of Walden, Colorado in this little sunny park next door to the bank. Standing here flooded me with memories. Right across the street, I remember getting two cones at the ice cream parlor–one for me and one for my brother–and somehow getting on my bicycle and riding all the way home, no hands, carrying those cones. And over there, playing pool into the wee hours at the Elkhorn the night before I got married. So many memories. 

Standing next to me today was Helen Williams, and her memories of this Main Street go way deeper than mine. 

“Well, my family moved out here in 1947. So I’ve been here 70 some years.”

 

 

Over 70 years Helen’s been walking Main Street. And getting in lots of trouble here too, come to find out. She pointed down to the end of the block.

“The store that’s the Family Dollar now was a pool hall when I was a kid,” she told me. “And my friend Jesse and I went in there one night–must have been 13. And Fay Yuri said, ‘Young ladies do not come in a place like this.’” Helen imitated Yuri’s deep voice, which just cracked me up. “We said, Okay, and went away.”

The Elkhorn

Helen pointed across the street at the movie theater. Its exterior has been remodeled, but the theater hasn’t been open for business since I was a kid. I remember seeing Disney movies there.

“We saw all the Doris Day movies, you know, ‘Moonlight Bay’ and all that stuff. All the Westerns. Daddy took us every Saturday night to the movies. And popcorn was 10 cents. The movie cost 24 cents to get in for kids. I don’t know what the adults had to pay, 74 cents, I think.”

When she was a teenager, Helen looked forward to Saturday nights when all the ranch hands came into town to spend their paychecks. 

“Needless to say, quite a thrill for the young women in town. Oh boy! The ranch hands are back!” 

I laughed. “Including you, I’m guessing?”

“Including me, yes.”

And in those days, there were lots of places to spend those paychecks.

“Main Street was just a really lively place,” Helen told me. “There were 12 stores on that side, and now there are five. There weren’t any empty buildings on Main Street when I was a kid. There were two hangouts for kids. There were at least four restaurants, four bars. There was a pool hall. And at one time there was a jewelry store and a record store.”

But nowadays, about half of the businesses on Walden’s Main Street sit empty. The windows are dark. Old signs advertising long-ago businesses swing crooked. That breaks Helen’s heart. 

“I often have dreams at night that I’m walking down Main Street, just this block, and every store has a business in it and there are people all over. It’s just wishful thinking, you know?”

Yeah, Helen, I do know. And that’s why, when a wealthy businessman from Oklahoma named Jim Moore came to town in the late ’90s and started buying up some of these empty storefronts, people like Helen and me, we felt hopeful. Maybe someone had come to save our hometown before it disappeared altogether.

 

The Man From Tulsa

 

It wasn’t easy getting an interview with Jim Moore. He’s an extremely private guy, like many of the ultra-wealthy class, but I don’t give up easily. I texted with his manager off and on for weeks. At one point, he turned me down flat. But then, at the eleventh hour, when I’d totally given up, my phone rang. My husband looked at the screen. “Someone from Tulsa!” he said, and we both knew exactly who it was. 

I set up a meeting and finally, I sat down with Jim Moore in the lobby of his second-floor hotel, the Antlers Inn on Walden’s Main Street. A lovely space with lots of natural log and stone everywhere. Moore had a friendly smile but struck a large, rather imposing figure. He had pure white hair combed straight back and wore a button-down turquoise shirt. We sat in leather chairs facing each other.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” he said.

“I can’t believe you are either.” I laughed.

“You have gotten something that no one has been able to get. I mean, Discovery Channel couldn’t get it. No one else.” 

I can’t say why he agreed. Maybe because I’m a hometown girl and he owns a good chunk of that town. Anyway, I started by asking him about the first time he laid eyes on North Park. He said he remembers that day vividly. His wife’s family owns oil fields in the south, and she loves horses. So when she happened to see a ranch with an equestrian center for sale in a horse magazine, they made the trip out.

“We drove up the Poudre Canyon, it was absolutely gorgeous,” he recalled. “We came to the front of the ranch and had no idea what was beyond the gates. But the view was so incredible. The weather was incredible. Rawah [Mountains] in the background. If you ever watched the Chevy Chase movie ‘Vacation,’ as he toured us through the ranch, I would have swore someone was releasing elk and deer and moose and foxes to have us experience that wildlife journey as we went through the ranch. And we just came back and said, yeah, we’ll take it.”

They had already visited mountain towns like  Aspen and Vail and weren’t inspired by what they found there.

“We went to all these places that were very vibrant,” Jim said. “And I would say we didn’t have good feelings about the attitude of the people. The people of Walden are real. If you broke down, they would stop and help you. Anyone would help you do anything. My wife came from a small town of probably 600. And I grew up in a blue-collar family working seven days a week to put my way through school. So we identified more with the people in this community than we did with people with their nose up in the air.”

Soon after that, he started building his house on the land. He had big dreams for the place.

“I’m kind of an amateur architect. So I drew the facility, picked out the logs.” 

“And so you kind of designed it?” I asked.

“I designed it from the bottom up.”

And the log home he ended up designing is going to be 150,000 square feet. To put that in perspective, the footprint is as large as three football fields.

“There’s two bowling lanes. There’s two theaters. Ballroom, billiards room. And then my favorite room, which is the scotch and cigar room.”

At the center of the house is a massive varnished tree holding up the ridge beam in the library. He said he trampled around the forest on Vancouver Island in search of it. His first choice was too big. But even his second choice was so big they had to have pace cars in front and back of the semi to get the tree here. It took five days.

“I remember seeing it come through town,” I told Jim.

“Did you?”

“Yes, I think everybody just stopped and watched it.”

Jim laughed. “It’s a pretty magnificent tree.”

 

The Largest Log Home In North America

 

It’s hands down the largest log home in North America, maybe the world. 

I actually witnessed these early days of construction on the building. There might not be sawmills or coal mining jobs here anymore, but there’s plenty of work building giant log homes for the wealthy. My husband Ken got a job on Jim’s construction crew, and I visited him out there. It felt like a commercial complex going up in the forest. For a few weeks, Ken worked building Jim Moore’s foundation. It took a year to pour and they poured more concrete than the entire county combined. Ken worked for a guy named Bruce Pearman. Bruce remembers Jim Moore fondly. I talked to Bruce on his deck under a big cottonwood.

 

Moore log mansion architecture drawing.

 

“He was very hands-on, actually,” Bruce said. “A story about him is, if you didn’t know who he was, you’d be thinking, who is this guy who was not on the crew, but you’re sitting there and you’re digging a ditch and he picked up a shovel and started digging the ditch with you. Moore would do that. He would jump right in, hands-on, and help. He was great.” 

But Bruce did start to notice some problems getting the house completed. Like the roof. 

“Originally, it was going to be copper. And Jim, the story goes, searched the country, probably the world, for a copper sheeting that he could put on his roof, and found a company in Arizona who could do it. And the gentleman told him, ‘Yeah, we can do it and no problem. We’ll put you on the list and you’re a year and a half, two years out.’ So Jim bought the company so that he was number one on the list,” Bruce said. “And then months, if not a few years later, he changed his mind and wanted to switch to this tile roof that he had found back on the East Coast. So he scrapped the copper idea and went with the tile. But the house wasn’t engineered for that extra weight. So I remember being out there one time, and they had their welder guy going back in and re-supporting structural logs and adding these bases and rods to it so that the structural logs could handle that additional roof load. Just because he changed his mind about the roof.”

“Wow,” I said.

“That was a crazy decision. Maybe not crazy, but an expensive decision. There was a lot of that,” Bruce said.

Jim admitted, these kinds of decisions slow things down. But he said it’s all part of his creative process. 

 

A Stranger Comes To Town

 

Meanwhile, someone in Walden approached him about buying one of the restaurants on Main Street. But soon after he bought it, it burnt down.

“At that point, I had to decide whether to rebuild it,” Jim says. “So we rebuilt it into what’s called the River Rock today and expanded it twice the size, and then built a hotel called the Antlers Inn. And we built everything to make it look like it had been here for a long time. And I think we were successful in that, and it’s been a very popular restaurant and hotel.” 

Jim remodeled the cafe with logs leftover from his log home project, which he was still working on simultaneously. It really perked up Main Street. My mom and dad had rescued a building from demolition a block and a half away and opened an Orvis fly fishing store. Bruce’s girlfriend fixed up an old house as a yoga and massage studio. It felt like maybe something grassroots was starting to happen in Walden, that this town might be able to rise from the dead. Then the old movie theater went up for sale. Bruce decided he wanted to get in on the action, even though it was in bad shape.

“It was like someone turned the light off in the ’80s and shut the door and never went back. So the old projectors were still up there, reels laying around the old chairs were there, just ragged. The walls were kind of shabby,” said Bruce. 

But it was still a beautiful old theater and he had a vision for what it could be.

“[I wanted to] remodel the interior to have more of a cabaret seating that would facilitate things like dinner theater plays, have more table seating, have a better kitchen that could actually put some food out. You wouldn’t be relying on a neighboring kitchen. Upgrade the projectors so that you could show modern-day films on it. A new screen stage for live music, things like that.” 

So Bruce put together a community survey to see what people wanted to do with the theater and got lots of positive feedback. He even got a green light on funding the project.

“I brought in a business partner, a buddy of mine who I’d known for a long time, who owned a brokerage company up in Cheyenne,” says Bruce. “And he signed right on so, you know, my little bit of money and his whole bunch of money, and we could have got the doors open anyway. The question would have been, you know, could we keep them open?”

“So you had this idea,” I said. “You had a partner, you had the money kind of lined up. You had the buy-in from the community. And then what happened?”

“It sold to Jim Moore.”

That’s right, Jim Moore bought it before Bruce could, even after he’d done all that very public legwork. 

Then soon after that, the same thing happened when Bruce went to buy the laundromat down the street.

“That was going to be one that I was going to do by myself and offered a price that [the owner], that’s what he wanted,” Bruce said. “And a day or so later, he called me back and said that he had another offer, a cash offer. But since I had made the first offer, that if I could come up with cash and make it a cash deal, then I could have it, but I couldn’t do that. So that one sold to the mystery buyer–who he later told me was Jim Moore.”

But Bruce, being the laid back guy he is, took this all in stride. 

 

Main Street Plat

 

“Well, at that time, people were still very excited to have Jim in town because he was buying properties. And the hope was he was going to do something with them, and that he could do things with them that weren’t, you know, priority one was not a profit. It was just revitalizing the town. We thought that’s where his passion was. So when he would get a property and I wouldn’t, I thought, well, that’s great. At least somebody who can get it up and running faster, better probably, than I could, is gonna shepherd that project and see it to completion,” Bruce said. 

But that’s not exactly what happened. Yes, Moore was still buying storefronts. When it went into foreclosure, he bought the iconic Elkhorn Cafe and Bar, the one that was still hosting live music on Saturday nights and where all the old-timers met for coffee every morning. He started working on the movie theater, remodeling its exterior. The Village Inn hotel, the Fina gas station, the electric company building–all told, Jim owns 14 businesses on Main Street, about a third of the total storefronts on the main drag. 

“I’m totally invested in Walden, in Jackson County,” Jim assured me. “And I’m sure a lot of people wonder why I’m doing what I’m doing.” 

Yeah, that is my question,” I admitted with a laugh.

“It’s certainly not to make money because it’s very difficult to make any money in any business in a small town. But it’s really that I like to build and I like to create, and I want to create whatever contribution I can make to Walden to make it a better experience for everybody that lives here.”

 

The King Of Walden

 

Some of these stores were still open for business when he bought them, like the Elkhorn. But even after he closed it down, people gave Jim the benefit of the doubt. Why? I really can’t say. Maybe because we all needed to believe in a town savior. A friend told me, when she saw Jim Moore walking down the street, he struck her as regal, like the king of Walden. Talking to townspeople, I heard echoes of that.

“For your listeners, this man is a legend,” the town mayor, Jim Dustin, told me.

“He’s a great guy, one of the kindest guys I’ve ever met,” said Jim Moore’s old construction crew manager, Todd Larsen.

Even Helen said, “I would think [Jim] did it out of the kindness of his heart.”

But out of nowhere, progress on remodeling Jim’s properties on Main Street came to a halt.

Years went by. Then a decade passed. Then a decade and a half. 

If Bruce had bought the movie theater, he couldn’t have afforded to let it sit this long. He would have been forced to realize his vision to pay his bills. But because Jim Moore didn’t have that financial pressure, it sat there, half remodeled, storage for his restaurant. And his log house too, work on it stopped as well. It sat in the woods, abandoned and unfinished. 

Everyone had a theory about why Moore had disappeared, even Helen Williams.

“His son had some sort of an illness that needed medical attention that he couldn’t get up here,” Helen speculated. “So he moved back to Tulsa. But I also heard that he ran out of money.”

Mayor Dustin also had a theory. “He gave up on the town because he got in an argument with the previous mayor about a tax situation.”

And, yeah, I started to wonder if there was some tax benefit to sitting on a lot of defunct businesses in the middle of nowhere. Maybe this was all part of some nefarious plan, a loophole so the wealthy can get out of paying taxes or something. I got a hold of a corporate attorney, George Mocsary, and laid out for him everything I’d learned in my research.  

“Unless there’s some kind of money laundering or fraud or something like that going on, there wouldn’t really be a reason for Mr. Moore to spend one dollar on these businesses to get a 20, 30, 35 percent tax write off. So it wouldn’t make sense for him to do that.” 

George said the reason is probably much more simple.

“He’s perfectly within his rights to buy these properties, to buy these businesses. And presumably, he’s thinking that he wants to do something with them, but he’s just, you know, negligent– negligent might not be exactly the right word– but he just lacks somehow in doing them,” said George. 

Actually, I think the word negligent is an interesting word. There’s nothing illegal about letting Main Street fall into disrepair and damaging the town’s economy. It’s just neglectful. Maybe Jim bit off more than he could chew, like he did with his house. 

 

Distortion Of A Rich Guy

 

But all this was speculative. No one knew what had become of him. All the town knew was that that grassroots energy on Main Street had died away. My dad Jay says there’s a reason for that.

“At that time, you could buy something on Main Street because you didn’t have the distortion of a rich guy that’s bought everything up,” my dad says. “You know, the price was right for a guy like me, a roughneck, to take an old building like that and do a lot of work and put a lot of money in. I borrowed money from the city. And we tried to deal with Moore on some other things, but he wasn’t interested.”

What my dad is referencing there is how, after it was clear Jim wasn’t coming back anytime soon, my mom Carol tried to buy some of Jim’s businesses. I talked to her about her plans one day as we drove up and down Main Street. We were counting the number of empty storefronts. Out of 34 businesses, Jim owns 14. Sure, his restaurant and hotel are still open for business. But half of the 14 are either boarded up or not currently open for commercial business.  

My mom said she reached out to Jim’s manager and offered to buy the Elkhorn.

“She thought that he would be willing to sell it for what he bought it for,” my mom said. “And then she had trouble getting hold of him. When she finally got a hold of him, he said, I don’t want to sell any of my mountain properties.” 

My mom also tried to buy the old Fina gas station. It’s on a prominent corner and she wanted to landscape it to improve the town’s vibe. This wasn’t a pipe dream. She’d already remodeled two historic buildings in the county. She wanted to put in a pottery store to sell her artwork. But instead, the Fina gas station still sits empty today. 

It’s true that Moore’s empty businesses didn’t cause the town’s slide into decline, but it sure didn’t help. After he disappeared, the two grocery stores in town closed down. For a couple years, people were forced to drive 60 miles over a mountain pass to get basic food and supplies. The school lost so many kids they closed down the elementary school and put them all in the high school. Police saw an uptick in drug and alcohol cases. And the median household income sank well below the rest of the state’s. 

 

The Night Tour

 

Bruce with his Yaks

Bruce with his yaks.

 

A few years back, my husband and I went cross country skiing and saw Jim’s log house, unfinished, plastic billowing over the windows, a winter snowstorm blasting in. Bruce visited the house too. He was having dinner with a friend who was caretaking the place.

“He said, ‘Hey, you want to go see the house?’ So we snowmachined out there and took the tour of the house, basically in the dead of winter, to see what had become of it,” said Bruce. “And there were no doors, no windows, no roof covering. Looked like animals were in there. We didn’t see any animals. But it was dark and cavernous and at any moment you were expecting some bear to be disturbed.”

It wasn’t long after that night tour that Bruce moved away from Walden, taking his entrepreneurial spirit with him. Now he lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, a hundred miles away.  His compulsion to create new things is still very much intact. He raises yaks to sell their wool and meat. 

“What do you do with yaks?” I asked him as he petted one through the fence.

“Well, you love ’em and you pet ’em and you fix fences when they go through it.” I laughed as he introduced me to each one by name.

Bruce wasn’t the only young innovator that bailed on Walden around that time. Lots of us did, including me and Ken. 

 

The Limited Powers Of A Small Town

 

My mom told the story of running into a woman in neighboring Steamboat Springs who asked her about Walden.

Melodie’s Mom

“And she said, ‘Oh, I hear that there’s some rich guy buying up all the buildings in Walden and is really fixing it up so that it’s going to be really, really a nice town.’ I said, ‘No, he bought up all those buildings on Main Street and boarded them up and he’s killing the town.’ I honestly believe that. I think he has killed Walden.”

In fact, my mom got so frustrated watching those buildings sit year after year that one time, she approached the town’s mayor Jim Dustin at a community meeting.

“Over the years, we’ve gotten grants to be able to figure out how to help the economy here, and what we need is to do, and nothing ever happens. I mean, we get grants and we pay these people to come and tell us what to do, and then nothing happens,” my mom says. “But we were at a meeting, it was just locals there. And so, I asked [the mayor Jim Dustin], because they had condemned people’s houses that were sitting empty and were slowly getting run-down, and they condemned those houses and made the people tear them down or do something with them. So I asked Jim, why couldn’t we condemn the stores on Main Street that were just sitting empty and slowly getting run-down? And he said, ‘I’m kind of a Libertarian in that way and I don’t believe that government should get involved.’”

The corporate attorney I talked with, George Mocsary, agreed that condemning buildings is really the only avenue small towns might have in a situation like Walden’s. 

In an email to me, Mayor Jim Dustin pointed out that the town has demolished two buildings on Main Street recently, but only when they became dangerous. Neither of them belonged to Jim Moore. The mayor told me, “Just because a storefront is empty doesn’t give the government the right to come in and condemn it.” 

 

The Buzzkill Effect

 

But actually, there’s a long tradition in the American West of not getting involved when the super-wealthy start buying up stuff. Jim Moore isn’t North Park’s only rich guy. Jim Dustin says there’s a club of them.

“They used to call it the Club of 26 because there’s 26 millionaires,” said Jim Dustin. “And they have supported the fire department single-handedly. When they need a new truck, the Fire Chief goes out and asks them and I think he always got some money. And they have supported the airport big time, because they need it.”

I talked to Jim Moore’s former crew manager Todd Larsen on the phone about it. He sees the Club of 26 as a boon for North Park.

“Anything to make us grow can’t hurt,” said Todd. “The way I look at it, even the people who buy cabins up here but don’t live here. Well, they’re paying taxes here and providing a tax base to services, but they’re not using the services, so they’re kind of generating more resources for the county without actually using them up, if that makes sense.”

These things might be true, but I can’t help wonder, what’s the use of stockpiling all those taxes if you don’t have a community to spend them on? 

I recently had a fascinating conversation with the sociologist Justin Ferrell, who did an ethnographic study of the rich who are moving into Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Justin wrote a book on the subject called Billionaire Wilderness: the Ultra Wealthy and the Remaking of the American West. I met up with Justin in a quiet study room on the campus of my alma mater, Colorado State University. Justin looks like a quintessential Western guy: thick black mustache, plaid shirt, the works. He told me it was just as hard for him to interview the West’s very wealthy as it was for me to interview Jim. It took him years, but finally, he put together a clear-eyed portrait of the super-wealthy who are migrating to the West. 

I told him all about my hometown, and he explained that the wealthy really do want to conserve the nature and culture of the West, but maybe not for the benevolent reasons we all think.

“They want to protect their experience of nature, which is this kind of elite, high-taste sort of experience of nature. The Tetons represent that. It’s a very ecologically pristine area, obviously. It’s the best you can get, like a nice fine wine, if you’re into wine. It’s the top of the line.”

Basically what it comes down to is the American West has the best views that money can buy. It reminds me of Jim’s reaction to first seeing his ranch at the foot of the Rawah Mountains. It really is one of the finest views anywhere. 

“Well, you had Rockefeller back when he secretly bought up all the ranches that became Grand Teton National Park,” said Justin. “That became a paradigm of conservation for a lot of these people. They hear about that, they read about that. I call them in my book the New Rockefellers. They want to essentially do what he did, but they can’t really do it there. So they’re trying to do it in Montana, they’re trying to do it in Idaho, wherever there is private land available and maybe more ranches. It’s more about them and their identity, whether it’s the notoriety that comes with that, being like Ted Turner, or this dream they have to own a chunk of the American West. To actually own it.” 

But Justin said there’s this weird contradiction to that desire to own the West. He said they also come here because it makes them feel like regular people.

“That was something I encountered that actually surprised me,” he said. “I kept hearing over and over again in the interviews, like ‘I’m just a normal person, I come here to be normal. I want to be normal,’ just over and over, normal, normal. And when I would go to events, many had on Wrangler jeans, sometimes cowboy boots. I tried to dig deeper into that and I really found one of the main themes in the book had to do with authenticity and trying to become that different person that they perceive to be authentic.”

Jim did express that attraction to Walden’s people, calling them real and he pointed out his own humble beginnings. But Justin found that Jackson’s ultra-wealthy didn’t want to be too authentic.

I asked Justin, “When you talk to folks, some of the wealthy in this community, did you hear an awareness of that problem of the disparity in wealth, and any ideas or or desire to try and do something about it?”

“Rarely, there wasn’t a lot of knowledge of that. For example, 30 percent of the county is Hispanic (or maybe even actually more, that’s underestimated because of the undocumented status of a lot of folks there). But they weren’t generally aware of that. It’s all hidden beneath the surface. And that’s the way I think a lot of people want it, honestly,” said Justin. “I call this the Buzzkill Effect. They come to rural paradise–maybe they live in Manhattan, or maybe they live in Los Angeles–they don’t want to see poverty. They don’t want to see homelessness, or they don’t want to see the figures about how many kids are on free school lunches.”

When it comes to true conservation of a place, Justin said the ultra-wealthy aren’t thinking big picture. They’re thinking of their own needs.

“It’s the fact that a lot of the issues in which they’re interested, they’re very localized,” said Justin. “It’s ‘What’s the moose population in Wilson, what’s the moose population in the park, and that it’s declining.’ You know, they love to see moose. When their friends visit, they want to see wildlife, and they expect to see wildlife. And so a lot of those issues are just very localized.” 

Jim Moore and North Park’s Club of 26, yes, they want to support the services that protect their rural paradise. They want to preserve the wild West character they moved here for. They want Walden to look presentable in case they bring their business associates to visit. But are they up for the task of rescuing its schools? Staunching its slide into poverty and rural despair? I mean, who would want that job? That’s not paradise…that’s social work.

 

The Stranger Returns To Town

 

A year or two ago, out of the blue, Jim Moore returned to Walden. He started working on his log home again. And he remodeled one of the old hotels on Main as a place for the construction workers to live. Eventually, he said, it’ll be a hotel again. 

Eventually…that’s a word that’s often on Jim’s lips. 

When I met with him, I asked him, “So what happened? Why’d you disappear?” He said it was a bunch of reasons. His business, Worldwide Printing and Distribution, needed him back in Tulsa. And his kids were ready for high school in a bigger city. But the biggest reason was that an infestation of pine beetles had moved into the West, driven by a warming climate. The beetles descended on his beautiful land, killing vast swaths of the forest all around his lodge. 

“We had 70 people logging for about five years,” said Jim. “We were hauling off about ten semi loads a day of wood. So it really kind of diverted the energy into mitigation of the beetle infestation so we could quickly get tree regrowth so that it would someday become more of the enchanted forest it was when I started. Yeah, so we aggressively went after the beetles. And I put the lodge on hold.”

He also put his properties in Walden on hold.

“It was mothballed for 15 years,” Jim admitted. “Yeah, it was at least it was about 15 years that it was just, we just closed it in and hardly anything was done. In fact, all of our plans were on hold.”

But now that his kids are grown and his business is stable, he said he’s ready to get back to work.  

“I told the realtor, ‘Find me the worst buildings in Walden.’ And she looked at me and said, ‘What do you mean the worst buildings?’ I said, ‘I want the worst buildings.’ ‘So why do you want the worst buildings?’ I said, ‘Because I want to make sure that they’re fixed up. And I don’t want someone to just buy it and leave it the way it is.’” 

This struck me as a contradiction since he’d done the same thing himself. I wasn’t sure why we should trust he wouldn’t do it again. So I pressed him on the subject.

“I think I failed in that regard,” Jim said. “But because I wasn’t here, I would say, I still had in the back of my mind what I wanted to do. But actually, what has happened in that same period of time, more buildings went vacant, and more buildings deteriorated. So I certainly didn’t make a positive contribution during that time period. But I’m going to make up for it now.”

I ask him why he refused to rent or sell his buildings during those long years. But he disagreed with that. He said he did rent the auto body shop a few times and worked with the Chamber of Commerce to rent a space, too, although that fell through.

“I can see why that perception might exist. But also I didn’t want to rent it to someone that wasn’t going to be a positive contribution to where I’d like to see the town go.”

I thought of my mom’s vision for the gas station and Bruce’s vision for the theater and wondered if these are the kind of plans that he thought would not align with his vision for the town. I also couldn’t help but wonder why his vision takes precedence–even if it has to wait for decades–over the vision of local people. 

Jim said offers like my mom’s were rare. Mostly people just want him to buy even more of Main Street. For instance, he just bought the other restaurant in town, his competition, the Moose Creek Cafe. I tell him that lots of people I’ve interviewed say it would be healthier for the town to have numerous business owners, rather than just relying on one.

“I’d say that’s probably true,” Jim said. “I think that would be true. It’s like the Moose Creek down here, that’s now the Mad Moose. I bought the real estate but Alicia and her husband have the restaurant. And so they wouldn’t have the capital to do the changes. So I’m going to be able to provide people with a venue that they wouldn’t normally maybe be able to afford.” 

As for the Elkhorn, Jim has no plans to remodel it anytime soon. But Jim said next on his list of projects is finishing the movie theater. 

“Hopefully we’ll have a theater for the community, for the school and for cowboy poets and just kind of give some flavor of the Old West,” he said. 

To me, it sounds like a lot of irons in the fire. Especially with the largest log home in North America still to work on. But he promises the town will be transformed in the next couple years. He said it’s the duty of guys like him from the multi-millionaire class who buy property in struggling communities like Walden to give back.

“I think there’s a social responsibility for us who have bought those ranches to invest in the community. So this is part of my social responsibility initiative.”

 

A Vision For Walden 

 

Talking to Jim, I’m never clear what exactly his vision for the town is. He clearly cherishes the wild West version of Walden; old photos of the town decorate the walls of his hotel and cafe. But does he visualize a future too? 

Helen Williams, the old-timer who grew up here, she does. 

In her dreams, Helen visualizes a different future for her hometown. She was disappointed when the town council turned down an offer to build a marijuana growing and distribution facility here because they were afraid of the message it would send to kids. 

But that doesn’t stop Helen’s dreams. She’s got other ones.

“We need a couple of anchor businesses,” Helen said. “You know, one of the things I’d love to see us do is a microbrewery up here, built on Main Street. I have the lot picked out. I only need a million and a half dollars to make that happen. 

She pointed down the street at the lot. It’s the vacant one right next door to the old auto body shop… owned by Jim Moore. And I can’t help but wish that Jim would just call up Helen and listen to each and every one of her wild dreams for the future of Walden. 

 

Next Time On Ghost Town(ing)…

 

For some North Parker, it’s not the town they’re so intensely connected to. It’s the land. All those pioneer families who homesteaded here, for instance, who raised generations of ranch kids in the shadow of these mountains. But over the last few decades, the telecommunications magnate John Malone has been buying out those family ranches by the dozens. Some say he’s prepping for a dire future after climate change. 

Ghost Town(ing) episode art by John McNamis

Music
Blue Dot Sessions