Johnstown snags Colorado’s first Buc-ee’s as it continues to grow along northern Front Range
Johnstown, home to Johnson’s Corner, a landmark truck stop, restaurant and purveyor of enormous cinnamon rolls, is on the grow. And one of the best indications is news that Texas-based Buc-ee’s is building a massive gas station and convenience store at a gateway to the northern Colorado community.
It’s not clear what the new travel center off Interstate 25 will mean for the decades-old truck stop, although locals don’t expect much to change. One lunchtime regular at the Johnson Corner’s restaurant said there will be plenty of people to keep area businesses going. Maybe too many people, Dave Cumpsten added.
“I think the growth is too much too fast,” said Cumpsten, who has what he calls a hobby farm in Larimer County.
Cumpsten plans to keep patronizing Johnson’s Corner. “Actually, the food’s not bad. The waitresses are pretty good. And it’s more convenient for me.”
The growth playing out in Johnstown, 47 miles north of Denver, is similar to that of other once-small-and-rural communities along the northern Front Range: Erie, Frederick, Firestone, Dacono, Mead and Windsor. Northern Colorado grew the fastest of all regions in the state over the past decade, said Elizabeth Garner, the state demographer.
Larimer and Weld counties combined grew 24.5% between 2010 and 2020, compared to the statewide increase of 14.8%. And Johnstown was poised to capitalize on the growth after strategic annexations in the early 2000s.
Buc-ee’s will be built at the southwest corner of Interstate 25 and Colorado 60, where graders are busy moving earth. The travel center, which will have a 74,000-square-foot convenience store and 120 gas pumps, is the first Buc-ee’s planned outside the South and will be the farthest West.
Johnstown Mayor Gary Lebsack said the project is part of the town’s efforts to welcome growth while conserving Johnstown’s roots, whether that’s Johnson’s Corner, area farms or the historic downtown.
Meanwhile, across the highway from the Buc-ee’s site, on the east side of I-25, about a million square feet of commercial building is planned in the Ledge Rock development.
Hundreds of housing units are under construction or in the planning stages across Johnstown. A new high school and elementary school are being built. A 250,000-square-foot Scheels sporting goods store opened in 2017 in the Johnstown Plaza business park. The Iron Horse industrial park is drawing new businesses.
The town is expanding its water plant, building a water tower and improving roads.
“There are people who say we shouldn’t be growing, but you know if we don’t grow, someone around us is going to,” Lebsack said. “We might as well be in control of our destiny rather than sitting back and watch someone else do it around us.”
The town’s population nearly doubled between 2010 and 2020, said Matt LeCerf, town manager. The current population is roughly 18,000, with more than 70% in Weld County and the rest in Larimer County.
“We’ve been seeing consistently over the last few years about a 3.5% average annual growth rate,” said Sarah Crosthwaite, the town’s economic development manager.
Between 2020 and 2040, the combined population of Larimer and Weld counties is projected to increase by 45%, Garner said in an email. The current estimated population is 702,904.
In the face of growth, town officials want to maintain Johnstown’s sense of community by supporting longtime businesses and the historic downtown, just up the road from Town Hall and a YMCA that opened in 2020. The town’s deep agricultural roots are evident in the fields of corn waving in the wind, not far from new and half-finished houses.
Growth must be sustainable, environmentally and financially, LeCerf said.
“Our policy is in order to develop in the community, you need to bring the water at the time of development,” LeCerf said.
Johnstown owns about a third of the shares in the Home Supply Ditch and Reservoir Company. The town is using about 2,800 acre feet of its 4,800 acre feet of water.
One acre foot of water is roughly enough to supply two households annually. LeCerf said the town will lease its excess water to farmers because agriculture is an important part of the community.
“At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is manage growth and at the same time accommodate improvements to transportation, trails and development and things of that nature to make the community even better,” LeCerf said.
Gateway to northern Colorado
Lebsack, a retired farmer and lifelong Johnstown resident, considers his town the gateway to northern Colorado.
“We’ve got the best of all the worlds around us. We’re only 30 minutes from any of the major cities around us: Greeley, Loveland, Fort Collins. Forty-five minutes and you’re in Denver,” Lebsack said.
Rocky Mountain National Park is a little over an hour away via U.S. 34.
The town’s location played into Buc-ee’s decision to build a travel center in Colorado, said Jeff Nadalo, the company’s general counsel.
“We locate in areas where we know there are families and people on vacation and areas where people who like to take road trips will frequent,” Nadalo said. “And we identify locations where local officials are enthusiastic about the project and also where we have a number of great potential employees to pull from.”
Buc-ee’s, whose mascot is a red-capped beaver, has 34 stores in Texas, two each in Alabama, Florida and Georgia and one each in Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee, according to its website.
The Colorado store, expected to open in fall 2023, and another store in Tennessee will be the largest Buc-ee’s, at least until another store in Texas that will be even bigger is completed.
The annual average daily traffic on I-25 at Colorado 60 is 73,000 vehicles, according to the Colorado Department of Transportation. A traffic study prepared for Buc-ee’s projects that the travel center will generate approximately 23,084 daily weekday trips.
And how will Buc-ee’s fare stack up against the cinnamon rolls at Johnson’s Corner? Nadalo said Buc-ee’s is known for its kolaches, fresh-made fudge and cookies, barbecue brisket sandwiches and freshly roasted nuts. Another staple is cinnamon rolls.
Johnson’s Corner, started by Joe Johnson in 1952, is well-known for its cinnamon rolls. Employees bake them and other pastries in a separate building on the truck stop’s property, along an I-25 frontage road and about six miles north of downtown Johnstown. The plate-filling rolls are 5 inches by 4.5 inches and 4 inches thick.
Johnson’s Corner bakes more than 15,000 cinnamon rolls a month for the restaurant and online sales, according to its website. The truck stop was featured in the 1995 movie “Larger than Life” starring Bill Murray and Matthew McConaughey.
In 2014, TravelCenters of America, which has truck stops nationwide, bought Johnson’s Corner from Chauncey Taylor, the founder’s stepson.
“We look forward to continuing to serve the local community of Loveland and the Denver area, while also continuing to attract thousands of travelers who make special trips just to experience this beloved location,” Tina Arundel, spokeswoman for TravelCenters of America, said in an email.
Johnson’s Corner has special meaning for Lebsack. “I had my first date with my wife there a long time ago.”
He doesn’t think the arrival of Buc-ee’s will hurt Johnson’s Corner because it’s a truck stop and Buc-ee’s isn’t. Johnson’s Corner has a lounge, showers and other amenities for truck drivers.
Nadalo with Buc-ee’s said the company doesn’t allow 18-wheelers because its travel centers are “optimized for passenger vehicles.”
Heart of Johnstown
Lebsack sees new development as a way to provide the kind of amenities people want while generating revenue to help keep overall taxes and fees down. But there are growing pains along the way.
“Last week I watched the home I was born and raised in scraped from the face of the Earth,” Lebsack said in a recent interview, calling the experience bittersweet.
He and his family raised livestock, barley, sugar beets, corn, alfalfa and pinto beans. “We farmed about 1,500 acres before we decided that somebody else could plant houses rather than corn because corn wasn’t making it.”
A housing development called The Granary is planned for the area.
However, Lebsack said the town so far has kept big box stores and major commercial development away from the historic downtown, the blocks of businesses along Parish Avenue. The street is named after Harvey and Mary Parish, who founded Johnstown. The town was platted in 1902 and incorporated in 1907.
The storefronts are a mix of newer businesses and ones that have been around for a while, including a clothing store and The Johnstown Breeze, an independently owned newspaper serving the area since 1904.
Matt Lubich has worked at the paper since 1991. He and his wife, Lesli Bangert, bought the paper in 1997 and run it together. Lubich said the town went through a development boom in the early 2000s when growth along the I-25 and U.S. 34 corridors took off. A former town manager set the stage after successfully pushing to annex what was then mostly farm land.
Another boom is underway and Lubich said reactions run the gamut. Comments about Buc-ee’s on the newspaper’s Facebook page range from positive to laments about traffic and the loss of Johnstown’s identity. However, Lubich said the town rightfully makes the case that tax revenue from the development has helped revitalize the downtown.
“Thus far we’ve done a really good job of keeping that small-town feel even though there are more people in the community,” said Stephanie Podtburg, owner of Johnstown Barber Shop on Parish.
Podtburg, who moved to Johnstown as a child, said growth is inevitable and she feels town officials want to deal with it the right way. The town staff is involved with the downtown businesses, she said.
When the coronavirus pandemic started, the town approved micro-grants and other programs to help downtown businesses. “We feel like our downtown is kind of the heart of Johnstown,” Lebsack said.
Outside the barber shop, banners with the names and likenesses of local veterans hang from poles along Parish Avenue. Town spokeswoman Jamie Barker said the first banners were hung before Memorial Day this year and will stay up until after Veterans Day. People can apply annually to have a local veteran recognized.
Residents still turn out for what used to be called Dairy Days, first celebrated more than 100 years ago. Lebsack said about 30,000 people attended this year’s event, including a barbecue, fireworks and parade the first Saturday in June.
“This is Johnstown,” Lebsack said. “We’re excited about maintaining what we have and building on it.”