The Grand Junction Report: Issues of Equality in the Mesa Valley

Chapter 2

Historical and Demographic Overview of Grand Junction and Mesa County

The Grand Junction Metropolitan Statistical Area (total population 116,255) includes the incorporated communities of Grand Junction (41,986), Fruita (6,478), and the town of Palisade (2,579).[1] It is the fifth largest MSA in Colorado and the 12th fastest growing in the southwestern United States.[2] The western slope of Colorado has seen a continuous population growth during the 1990s due primarily to in-migration.

The area was first settled in 1881 at the confluence of the Gunnison and Colorado rivers. Irrigation turned the valley into a productive agricultural region, inspiring rich orchards, farms, and ranches. Major population growth was spurred by the arrival in 1887 of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.[3] Valuable dinosaur fossil bones were discovered throughout the region in the early 1990s. Following World War II, Grand Junction became a focal point for uranium resources that were required to fuel the nation’s newly important nuclear power plants. Although this activity eventually declined, Grand Junction continued to grow. In the 1970s, the area experienced another boom, this time due to a great interest in the development of oil shale created by a national energy crisis. Rich and abundant supplies of this natural resource were to be found on the western slope. This boom turned to bust in 1982, causing significant economic dislocation.[4] However, the region recovered to become a major trade and service center for western Colorado and eastern Utah. According to Grand Junction city planners, “The area’s recovery from the economic slump of the mid-1980s has now passed and both population levels and economic indicators currently exceed the highest levels experienced during the boom period of the late 1970s and early 1980s.”[5] The population of the city of Grand Junction increased 44.6 percent between 1990 and 2000, due to in-migration, family size increase, and annexation.[6] The population for the Grand Junction MSA has more than doubled in 30 years, from 55,287 in 1970 to 116,255 in 2000.[7]

Surrounded by red rock canyons, mesas, mountains, and lakes, the area’s beautiful natural setting and quality of life continue to attract tourists, retirees, and outdoor enthusiasts. One study concluded that tourism accounts for 17 percent of the jobs and 11 percent of the income in Mesa County.[8] It also found that tourists pay directly or indirectly one-third of the sales taxes generated in the region.[9]

Once dependent on mining and agriculture, Grand Junction’s economy has become more diversified. Its role as the region’s trade, services, transportation, and health care hub continues to expand. Because of its excellent location on Interstate Highway 70, it is also a key distribution center. Grand Junction has a regional airport with commuter flights to several major cities and is served by Amtrak’s East-West passenger service.

Major employers are the public schools (Mesa County Valley District 51) with 2,402 employees, St. Mary’s Hospital (1,948), City Markets (1,229), and Mesa State College (1,163).[10]

While the region has continued to grow, more than 52 percent of its jobs are now concentrated in lower-paying sectors, such as retail trade and services.[11] A high level of underemployment also characterizes the labor force.[12] The unemployment rate in December 2001 was 4.2 percent.[13]

According to city planners, the city of Grand Junction and Mesa County lack an adequate supply of affordable rental housing and the current housing stock is not meeting the needs of low- and moderate-income households. Many families pay more than half of their monthly gross income for housing.[14] Nonetheless, developers continue to concentrate their efforts on supplying more expensive homes.[15]

In the city’s analysis of barriers to affordable housing (2000 Consolidated Plan/Community Development Block Grant), the city noted, “There has been little development of affordable housing,” and cited cost as the major barrier to affordable housing.[16] It also noted that another barrier to affordable housing is “the inability of people to pay for housing because of low paying jobs.”[17] It further explained that low-wage and/or part-time jobs offer limited benefits and limited affordable day care. In August 1999, the city adopted its Analysis of Impediments to Fair Housing and listed low wages, land development costs, lack of transitional housing (particularly for the homeless and mentally ill), the “not in my backyard syndrome,” and lack of affordable housing units as among contributing factors.[18]

In its 2001 Five-Year Consolidated Plan, the city of Grand Junction elaborated on issues of housing and poverty affecting the community:

Population growth in Grand Junction has significantly exceeded growth in the number of affordable housing units. Waiting lists for the limited number of existing assisted housing units are a year or more. . . .

In Grand Junction, housing costs have increased as much as 207 percent while wages have increased only 46.3 percent in the last ten years to an average of $22,355 in 2000. Over half of all workers in Mesa County are employed in the Retail and Service sectors, historically among the lowest paying jobs in Mesa County.

One of the most disturbing indicators of need is the estimated poverty level in Grand Junction, which grew from 29.3 percent of the total population in 1993 to 45.4 percent in 1997 (the most recent figures available). . . . Over 23 percent of the local workforce is considered “low-income” or “in poverty” while working 40 hours per week.[19]

The five-year plan notes that low wages, rising housing costs, and the high percentage of individuals and families without health insurance benefits are contributing to an increase in homelessness, which it refers to as “a growing challenge to Grand Junction.”[20]

The city of Grand Junction has devised an anti-poverty strategy with a stated objective to “provide opportunities for all citizens to realize increased stability and increased household income.”[21] Its specific strategies include activities that will increase local pay rates (living wage); increase the employability of recipients of public benefits; attract higher-paying employers to Grand Junction; increase access to employment by expanding public transportation and affordable quality child care services; foster increased household stability; and provide essential health care to the uninsured.[22]

The Mesa County Commission in its May 2001 Strategic Plan set as its number one goal “to increase average wage and benefit packages in Mesa County.”[23] The plan also calls for improving regional transit service; “increased efforts at providing education in parenting to parents of at-risk youth”;[24] and providing Mesa County families with “access to needed support services, such as mental health services, parent training education, child care, and public health.”[25]

Census Information

Of a total Mesa County population of 116, 255 in 2000, the racial/ethnic distribution is as follows:

White (non-Hispanic)



Hispanic or Latino



Black or African American



American Indian and Alaska Native








Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Table DP-1, Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000, Mesa County, Colorado, p. 2.

The Census Bureau estimates that the population of Mesa County increased by 2.6 percent, to 119,281 in 2001.[26]

The Mesa County Hispanic population of 10 percent in 2000 compares with a Colorado statewide figure of 17.1 percent.[27] In 1990, the total county population was 93,145, of whom 7,563 were Hispanic (8.1 percent).[28] Due to the influx of seasonal and migrant farm workers needed for agriculture, there is a high probability that the official census statistics represent an undercount of Hispanics in Mesa County. It is also revealing that approximately 14.6 percent of all students enrolled in the public schools are Hispanic.[29] This would suggest that the Latino population is young and growing.

According to the census, 32.5 percent of all Mesa County households had incomes of under $25,000 in 1999. This compares with a statewide figure of 23.1 percent. The median household income in Mesa County was $35,864, compared with $47,203 for the state of Colorado.[30]

Also, according to the census, 7 percent of all families in Mesa County were below the poverty level (statewide, the figure was 6.2). For families with related children under 5 years, this percentage jumped to 16.8 percent (12.2 statewide). For families with female householder (no husband present), the poverty rate was 27.3 percent (20.6 statewide). For those with related children under 5 years, the poverty rate was over 50.6 percent (38.9 statewide). The census also estimated that 13 percent of all persons in the county were below the poverty level (10.2 percent statewide); the figure for children was 18.3 percent (14.6 statewide).[31]

The median age of the metropolitan area is 38.1, which is higher than the Colorado average of 34.3. This reflects the number of retirees who have moved to Grand Junction.[32]

Clearly, many persons moving to the area are affluent, as reflected in the region’s higher-end new home construction and cost of housing in general. Therefore, it would appear that there is a socioeconomic divide in Mesa County, as poverty and low wages take their toll on the region’s ability to promote the well-being of all its residents.

[1] Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Grand Junction MSA, Colorado 2002 Profile, <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] City of Grand Junction, Community Development Department, 1999 City of Grand Junction/Mesa County Data Book.

[4] Ibid.

[5] City of Grand Junction, 2001 Five-Year Consolidated Pan, June 2001, adopted by Resolution of City Council, June 6, 2001, p. 14.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Grand Junction MSA, Colorado 2002 Profile, <>.

[8] Consolidated Plan for 2000, Annual Update and Action Plan, Community Development Block Grant Program, May/June 2000, p. 11.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Grand Junction Chamber of Commerce, Major Employers, September 2002, <>.

[11] Consolidated Plan for 2000, Annual Update, p. 3.

[12] Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Grand Junction MSA, Colorado 2002 Profile, <>.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Consolidated Plan for 2000, Annual Update, p. 3.

[15] According to Grand Junction city planners, “Representatives of first-time, buyer-assistance programs in Grand Junction report that while many low- and moderate-income families qualify to purchase a home in the $60,000 to $85,000 range, very few homes in this range are available.” City of Grand Junction, 2001 Five-Year Consolidated Plan, June 2001, p. 53.

[16] Ibid., p. 5.

[17] Ibid., p. 4.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., p. 7.

[20] Ibid., p. 29.

[21] Ibid., p. 59.

[22] Ibid., pp. 59–61.

[23] Mesa County Strategic Plan, May 2000, p. 5.

[24] Ibid., p. 14.

[25] Ibid., p. 19.

[26] U.S. Census Bureau, State and County Quick Facts, Mesa County, Colorado, p. 1.

[27] U.S. Census Bureau, Table DP-1, Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000, Colorado, p. 2.

[28] U.S. Census Bureau, Table DP-1, General Population and Housing Characteristics: 1990, Mesa County, Colorado, pp. 1–2.

[29] Colorado Department of Education, Data Summary Report, 2000, Mesa County Valley 51, 2001–2002 Student October Report No. 3, District Summary of Pupil Counts by Grade, Racial/Ethnic Group and Gender.

[30] U.S. Census Bureau, Table DP-3, Profile of Selected Economic Characteristics: 2000, Mesa County, Colorado, p. 3.

[31] U.S. Census Bureau, State and County Quick Facts, Mesa County, Colorado, p. 1 (based on percentage, 1997 model-based estimate).

[32] Grand Junction Economic Partnership, Grand Junction MSA, Colorado 2002 Profile, <>.