Montrose wants to welcome vets home with more than a parade

MONTROSE — Parades and public tributes are fine ways to honor returning veterans, and the city of Montrose has held its fair share of them.

But now this Western Slope community wants to throw out a welcome mat for veterans that will go way beyond a quick “thank you for serving your country.” It has the potential to go beyond the scope of anything being offered for returning veterans across the country.

The project, called Welcome Home Montrose, would reshape this city by removing barriers for returning veterans in everything from housing to jobs to recreational activities.

The realigning of municipal thinking to pull this off would also affect economic-development efforts and city and county planning for new facilities. Already, it has pulled a town together with support from politicians, church groups, social services, the medical community, business entities and veterans organizations.

“The vision of this shows a level of compassion the likes of which are rare in our world,” said John Brown, a Montrose businessman, former Navy SEAL and an adviser to the folks putting together the huge undertaking.

He said he initially approached the plan with cynicism and some hesitancy because it would be such a massive amount of work.

Now that so many wheels are turning, he said, that has changed to “guarded optimism.”

The wheels initially began whirling in the brain of a Montrose jeweler and jewelry-store owner, Melanie Kline. She was moved by a television news story about a triple-amputee veteran finding a way to thrive again with the support of people who gave him the opportunity to enjoy kayaking.

“I thought, ‘Geez, this is the kind of thing they need to be better. And this is what we have to offer.’ It hit like lightning. I started calling everyone I knew,” Kline said.

In dozens of calls to — and meetings with — community leaders, Kline floated the idea of having an entire community of about 20,000 residents and a surrounding county or more than 40,000 offer that kind of holistic support for as many veterans as possible.

Two weeks later, she had a website up. A week after that, she held her first community meeting — funded by a small grant from Western State College in nearby Gunnison — to test the public waters.

That was Dec. 19. On Dec. 22, she applied for nonprofit status for Welcome Home Montrose. The first donation came within another week, and an office was set up in a bank building when the new year was barely underway.

Since then, the notion has been on the fast track, with buy-ins beyond this farming valley that is surrounded by outdoor recreational opportunities on every side.

State Rep. Don Coram, R-Montrose, and his wife, Dianna, are on board and have been spreading the word about the idea to the offices of U.S. Rep. Scott Tipton, a Republican from Cortez, and Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat. Montrose Mayor Kathy Ellis got word to Republican presidential hopeful Rick Santorum, who commented when he visited town that he supports such community-based efforts.

Practically every mover and shaker within the Montrose community now has a hand in it. Tuesday, the three members of the
Board of Montrose County Commissioners individually gave it their support and will officially do so as a governing board after a legal resolution is drawn up.

“The reception has been tremendous. The more people we talk to, the more support we get,” said Bob Brown, chairman of the Montrose Downtown Development Authority. Brown is also a Vietnam veteran and a member of the Welcome Home Montrose board of directors.

Brown said this is not just an effort that would be of great benefit to veterans and good for the soul of a community. He sees opportunities to draw businesses that manufacture adaptive equipment so those with disabilities can participate in outdoor recreation. He sees vacant houses and buildings being retrofitted for veterans. He sees downtown jobs being offered to those who need a new purpose in life.

“Being a veteran of the Vietnam time, we witnessed a terrible homecoming,” Brown said. “We just do not want to blow it again. A homecoming for these veterans in a place that has no barriers would be tremendous.”

The Welcome Home Montrose board will move into a planning phase next that will include focus groups from many segments of the community. This summer, the board plans to bring a group of wounded veterans to Montrose as a focus group that can test-ride the concept.

The focus groups will also tackle some tough questions that Brown said need to be asked — such as how the community will cope if this effort draws those with drug addictions and serious mental problems to town.

They are questions that need to be asked upfront, Brown said.

“And I think they are things that could be dealt with,” he said.

Nancy Lofholm: 970-256-1957 or nlofholm@denverpost.com

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About Lee Ann Colacioppo

I am the Senior Editor/News at the Denver Post. I have been at The Post sincd 1999 in a variety of positions, including city editor and investigations editor. I previously worked at The Des Moines Register, Greenville, S.C., News and Kingsport, Tenn., Times-News. I'am a Denver native and graduate of Drake University in Des Moines. View all posts by Lee Ann Colacioppo →