Wednesday, September 1, 2004

How a resort town loses its soul

By Allen Best

Allen Best is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( He also coordinates a wire service, Mountain Town News, that gathers reports on Western resort communities.

If not paradise, Aspen during the summer comes close. The mountains are dazzling, the gussied-up Victorian homes beguiling. The musical menu is rich, and a Nobel or Pulitzer prize-winner lectures nearly every evening. Everywhere are trails. It?s a heaven for tourists.

But Aspen is no longer a tourist town in the conventional sense. A new kind of tourism, one dominated by extravagantly expensive homes, has gained economic swagger in Aspen and Vail, Colo., Jackson, Wyo., Sun Valley, Idaho, and several other resorts of the West. This second-home economy is bigger than skiing, bigger than summer tourism and in some places bigger than both.

Mountains have always been places of weekend and summer cabins. Then, during the 1960s and 1970s, as skiing became a lifestyle, condominiums pro-liferated. But in the 1980s and 1990s, a fundamental shift occurred. Buyers wanted stand-alone homes, sometimes miles from the ski slopes.

"Supersize me" can apply to more than fast food. Homes of 10,000 square feet have become common, even if used only a few weeks or months of the year. The sweepstakes winner of this conspicuous consumption is the 55,000 square-foot mansion in Aspen owned by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States.

Even at little-known Fraser, Colo., a "cabin" in a mountain resort goes for $450,000. And a cottage in this vacation world goes for even more. Talk about a cottage industry: It takes hundreds of people to build one of these mansions, then a steady stream of workers to scrub the floors, tend the flower gardens and keep the pantry stocked.

The trickle-down is enormous. Many maids get $30 an hour, and immigrants who barely speak English can earn $18 an hour chiseling stone. No wonder low-paying tourist businesses complain they have a hard time getting help.

Demographers predict a strong demand for such vacation homes as baby boomers conclude their peak earning years and then retire. Some second homes will become first homes, at least for the early retirement years, a phenomenon that is already occurring.

All of this means existing trends will continue. Few people working in the resort communities live there. In a market hyper-inflated by the demand for second homes, land becomes too expensive for laborers. Almost all affordable housing in resort towns is subsidized. One-time down-valley towns have be-come upscale, which means bedroom communities are ever farther away. One-way commutes of 30 or 60 or even 90 minutes become common. Just as sec-ond-home owners have dual existences, so do the workers.

The massive infusion of money from second homes has also helped cause profound demographic shifts. Ski resorts were once the domain of young white kids, but the median age is rising rapidly--close to 60 in the Aspen area without including second-home owners. There are proportionately few GenXers, as couples in their 20s and 30s have found the resort communities too expensive to sink roots into.

In most resort towns of the West, the term "second-home owner" has almost pejorative connotations, similar to "developer." But the truth is nowhere that simple. Spend some time in a small mountain town that hasn?t had fresh blood in three generations, and you?d probably be happy to see a few second-home owners in your midst.

Many resort towns have begun to question whether this new industry pays its way. Most towns depend upon sales tax revenues, and unlike factories, these homes pay few taxes. A lot of people look back fondly to the old days of tourism, where the tourists rented hotel rooms instead of buying the corner lots.

Some locals also say it?s hard to relate to second-home owners who have so much money they don?t buy their own groceries, let alone know the price of bread. Social divisions between the haves and haves-not, between the locals and the second-home owners, are widening, and that?s not good.

In Aspen, former Mayor Rachel Richards observed this year?s Fourth of July parade, noting that second-home owners were the spectators while locals participated in the parade.

"We need each other," she said. But the issue, she added, is one of balance. Once a town loses that balance, it?s hard to get it back. Aspen, she thinks, has tipped. Other towns, she said, should take note.

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