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Colorado Growth Week: How the small town of Elizabeth plans to retain its charm

Facing a flood of new residents, the town of Elizabeth grapples with how to preserve its small-town charm and historical identity.

ELIZABETH, Colorado — All this week on 9NEWS morning we're looking at how cities are addressing population growth and preparing for the future.

About an hour from Denver, 1,700 people live life at a much different pace. Were it not for the Ponderosa Pines and stunning mountain vistas, it would be easy to forget you’re in Colorado. 

The people who live in Elizabeth describe their town as quiet, friendly, and beautiful. They take pride in knowing each other by name and are fiercely protective of their home and its past. 

Soon, Elizabeth’s residents will have many more names to commit to memory. The Colorado State Demography Office projects Elbert County, where Elizabeth is located, will grow by about 30,000 people by 2040. That would more than double the current population. 

RELATED: Growth Week: how Colorado communities are dealing with population growth

“Most of that growth is going to be around the Elizabeth area in the northwestern part of the county,” said Grace Erickson, assistant town administrator of Elizabeth. 

The town has already seen a flood of new residents.

“We are getting people from all parts of the country,” Nora Nikkel said.

She has lived in Elizabeth for the past 26 years. She and her husband moved to the area from Lafayette. Nikkel is somewhat of a Main Street staple.

Fourteen years ago, her family purchased an old building on Elizabeth’s Main Street that likely would have been destroyed.

“We were told, if we did not buy this building, the realtor was going to scrap it and sell the land,” Nikkel said.

Originally, it was the town’s community center. Now, an antique and gift paradise, ‘The Carriage Shops,’ is a love letter to Elizabeth’s history. 

“We had it restored to its original condition as much as possible. So, the ceilings and the walls and the floor is all original. The wood we believe came right here from the sawmill,” Nikkel said.

Nikkel has been a member of the Main Street Executive Board since its inception in 2008. The board is a critical part of Elizabeth’s efforts to preserve its history and charm as Colorado’s growth inches closer to town limits.

“We talk about controlled growth here which is a method of managing growth by being proactive in your planning efforts and putting responsible limits on development through different standards you have in the town,” Erickson explained.

To move forward, Elizabeth is taking a closer look at its past. The town just completed two grant-funded studies worth nearly $46,000 to better understand “Elizabeth’s chronological history and our historic inventory throughout the town.” 

Erickson said the results allowed them to identify a potential local historic district in the Main Street and old town area.

Credit: Town of Elizabeth
A rendering of Elizabeth's Main Street historic district.

As Elizabeth continues “to feel the growth pressure” it feels now, Erickson said it will take a “closer look at zoning standards, design standards, architectural standards which guide the look and feel of any future development or alterations to existing development.”

Erickson explained this could mean incentives and/or requirements for property owners in historic districts.

Credit: Town of Elizabeth
A rendering of Elizabeth's plans for Main Street Parking

Some of Elizabeth’s new businesses have already taken advantage of the historic architecture on Main Street. Nora Nikkel said that the Elizabeth Brewing Company took over the Carlston Building on Main Street.

“That’s where we had a famous sculptor. To my knowledge, they still have pulleys across the ceiling,” Nikkel said. 

Along with the Main Street Executive Board, Elizabeth will also rely on its Historic Advisory Board and Historic Preservation Program. Both are products of Elizabeth’s Local Government certification through History Colorado.

On its website, History Colorado defines counties and municipalities with the certification as having been “endorsed by the State Historic Preservation Office (History Colorado) and the National Park Service to participate in the national preservation program while maintaining standards consistent with the National Historic Preservation Act and the Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for Archaeology and Historic Preservation.”

Far from being worried about the growth projected to hit her hometown, Nikkel is excited. 

“My feeling is it’s such a great little jewel here. I want to share it with everyone. I have never felt like, ‘I’m here, close the gate, we can’t let anyone else in,’” she said.

Still, others are unsure if Elizabeth’s lofty goals of preservation will pan out.

“I think that’s a great approach. I would like to keep it that way because I think that’s what makes it neat,” Brook Brittle, owner of Powder River Custom Hat Company on Main Street, told us. “It’ll just look like the rest of Colorado, how it’s grown,” he said.

"Earlier this Fall, a group called "We Are Not Parker" circulated petitions to recall the town's mayor and members of the board of trustees. On its website, the group identifies members as "rural Elizabethans," and points to votes of approval for annexations and development as cause for concern."

RELATED: Group seeks to recall mayor and entire board of trustees in Elizabeth

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For the time being, Elizabeth will try to get ahead of a booming population. It’s currently studying median income of residents compared to housing prices in an attempt to forgo an attainable housing crisis. It’s also focusing on preventing urban sprawl to protect the environment and promote efficiency. 

 Ask anyone in Elizabeth, the goal is to keep Elizabeth looking like Elizabeth. 

“The state of Colorado is changing; a lot of communities are changing right now. So, I believe that making sure Elizabeth stays Elizabeth is a valid concern for many folks,” Erickson said.

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