The fire at Western Excelsior is a major disaster not only for the company and its employees, but for the Town of Mancos. It is also an opportunity. Not one Mancos would have sought, but one that now prompts consideration of what kind of industry fits the community best in the 21st century.
Western Excelsior has provided steady employment, supported the local community and added economic value to local timber resources by creating environmentally friendly sediment- and erosion-control products. The mill grew from being a family-owned business to a branch of a distant corporation. That corporation took up its local responsibilities, while providing a coast-to-coast distribution network.
Western Excelsior employed approximately 100 people, although fewer than half lived in Mancos. Some of those employees chose not to relocate to Mancos and instead lived in temporary housing to accommodate their shifts. Ideally, a large business attracts new residents to a community. That should be an ongoing goal.
No manufacturing business, and especially no decades-old plant, is completely without problems. Over the years, Western Excelsior suffered from safety issues and injuries, complaints about sawdust emissions, and now, obviously, evidence that fire hazards were not adequately addressed.
If the decision is made to rebuild the Mancos plant – and we hope that happens – future problems can be prevented by careful planning and investment in the rebuilding process. Although the mill was insured, that insurance money is not restricted to rebuilding in Mancos. The corporation could sell off the logpile and invest the money elsewhere. Mancos and Montezuma County leaders would have to figure out how to fill that economic niche and replace those jobs.
It is a definite hardship to lose, even temporarily, a large and longstanding business. We know what happens to some towns when a major employer closes. That is not a likely fate for Mancos, which is a bedroom community for larger towns in both directions, but the loss of Western Excelsior hurts. It hurts a lot.
We are thankful for the Mancos Volunteer Fire Department and all the fire crews that responded and provided mutual aid. Everyone is thankful that no lives were lost, because every fire has the potential to be a killer. This fire is a wakeup call for those who believe a fire code and fire inspections are not essential. This disaster could have been so much worse; now Mancos has a chance to make the best of a situation no one would have chosen.