Wednesday, August 25, 2004

Resort towns struggle with growth

Housing is crucial to preserving sense of community in face of dramatic growth

Express Staff Writer

Price-restricted housing can accommodate families and residents who might otherwise not be able to live in the Wood River Valley. Balmoral Apartments, Hailey?s first community housing project, is usually bustling with activity. Left to right, Joey Richardson, Francisco Molina, Lessett Molina and Melissa Molina play on the sidewalk in front of their apartment. Photo by David N. Seelig

Following World War II, Americans started skiing, and an exodus to the mountains began. The budding industry—beginning with Sun Valley Resort in 1936—began to flourish, and by the mid-1970s, nearly 750 ski areas were up and running across the country. Once-rural mountain valleys were brimming with new homes and impressive resort lodges.

Although skiing would pave the roads to the mountains, it would not, in itself, secure long-term economic stability in the remote and rugged regions. After an intense decade of growth, skier visits plateaued in the 1980s and haven’t grown much since. Yet, mountain towns throughout the West continue to experi-ence escalating growing pains as they transition from ski towns to quality-of-life communities.

“Destination business in Western resorts is fairly stagnant,” said resort-town researcher Ford Frick, who works for Denver-based BBC Research and Consulting. “At some point in the 1980s, skiing became even more marginalized. It’s just a form of recreation. Now it’s one of the amenities that a Western town offers.”

Blaine County’s $171 million annual construction industry is a key indicator of the growth still under way at ski resorts throughout the West. It is each community’s vision that varies, but growth is the tie that binds them together.

People fuel today’s boomtowns

In the days of iron men and wooden skis, pioneers built the towns that would become the West’s posh and increasingly crowded resort communities.

In present-day Blaine County, a man by the name of Isaac I. Lewis was the Wood River Valley’s first significant land developer, miner and entrepreneur.

In 1881, he pitched the first tent on the present-day Ketchum town site and bought four lots for $2 each. Investing $5,000 for property and construction, he built the town’s first successful bank, which still stands on Main Street today. In all, he owned 37 local properties and businesses that he built from the ground up.

“I have virtually made the town,” he wrote in his unpublished autobiography on file at the Ketchum Community Library. “At least I have expended more money and labor for it than any of 10 other men of the country all put together.”

But Lewis might never have surmised the extent of today’s development. He might never have imagined Blaine County as a sprawling sea of homes, buildings and resort accouterments valued at $8 billion. Moreover, he might never have guessed the amount of money he invested in all his local properties then (even adjusted for inflation) could not even buy a lot and build a home in Ketchum today.

In the race to build on remaining open land, and in the face of the continuous influx of people and money, resort towns across the West are reliving their boomtown years, like those when Lewis helped shape the face of the Wood River Valley during its mining heyday.

In many respects, modern-day Western boomtowns are like those that came before them. Populations are flourishing, and local residents are struggling to grapple with the repercussions intense growth brings. The most fundamental difference is that modern-day prospectors are mining real estate and lifestyles rather than minerals. The fuel for these modern-day resort-economies is people.

At the root of most economic and construction-related growth—not to mention social and political hornets’ nests—is population growth, and resorts throughout the West are experiencing tremendous swells of new residents looking for lifestyle communities or seeking solace from more urban environments.

Plus, as baby boomers reach retirement, a glut of new second-homeowners are turning their eyes toward the mountains and other resort areas nationwide, said Ralph Gentile, an economist with Massachusetts-based McGraw-Hill Construction.

“Since baby boomers are nearing those peak buying years, look for vacation homes to be very strong as well,” Gentile said. The increase in home prices in resort areas nationwide suggests “very substantial demand” that has been “something of an eye opener.”

From 1990 to 2000, Blaine County’s population surged ahead 40 percent, to nearly 19,000 people. The U.S. Census Bureau estimates the population grew to nearly 21,000 by 2003.

But Blaine County’s overall growth pales in comparison with its largest city, where the majority of its employees live and where real estate prices are shooting through the roof. Hailey grew 73 percent from 1990 to 2000 and continues to burst at its seems. Bellevue also outpaced the county, with 43 percent growth during the same time period.

By comparison, Aspen’s home county, Pitkin County, grew only 17 percent from 1990 to 2000, to 14,872. But two down-valley towns near Aspen ac-counted for the lion’s share of the growth. In Basalt and El Jebel—two small cities in the middle of the Roaring Fork Valley—the population jumped 443 percent from 1990 to 1998.

Meanwhile, Teton County, Wyo. (Jackson Hole) grew 63 percent, to more than 18,000; and Summit County, Utah (Park City) grew 92 percent, to almost 30,000.

Wherever one looks in resort regions throughout the West, populations are booming, and so is the primary industry that facilitates the immigration: construction.

Sustainable growth requires accommodation

A myriad of ingredients goes into the stew that is a resort economy in the mountains. Full-time residents, part-time residents, jobs, available real estate and transportation are but a few of the very significant components.

As available real estate is consumed by expensive new homes and the population simultaneously surges ahead, a significant imbalance has come to light.

“The most noteworthy effect we’re always dealing with is that there’s so much employment and a very limited number of employees,” said Lance Clarke, assistant director of community development in Pitkin County. “The construction trade and tourism trade both have tremendous employment bases, but that job market is primarily a commuting base.”

From Aspen to Jackson, resort communities are trying to come to grips with the fact that many of their employees cannot afford to live where they work. Because the towns are exporting wages and because the phenomenon has stressed roads designed for a fraction of the use they receive, a number of commu-nities are forging ahead with housing programs to try reversing the trend.

“People are the underpinnings of the community,” said Western Wyoming’s Teton County Housing Authority Director Forrest Neuerburg, adding that his county’s employees increasingly live in Teton County, Idaho.

Compared with its counterparts, Blaine County is behind in the community-housing game. Its first efforts were highly contentious, but the underlying concepts are increasingly becoming more socially acceptable. In addition to 18 deed-restricted units that are already on line in Blaine County, 22 additional units have been approved or are under construction in Ketchum. Another seven units are anticipated in Hailey, and 14 units could come from the redevelop-ment of Elkhorn in Sun Valley.

“It’s a much more informed public, mainly because of the employers understanding the issue,” said Michael David, Blaine-Ketchum Housing Authority Executive Director. “That NIMBYism is still out there. I just don’t think they’re willing to stand up in front of a meeting and say it.”

A team of Wood River Valley developers is about to test local residents’ continued appetite for community housing.

“The plan is to develop a neighborhood of houses that would be appropriate for the local working person or family,” said Ketchum developer George Kirk.

The 23-acre development, which would be built south of St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center on the east side of Highway 75, would include about 125 homes, approximately 40 of which would be saddled with deed restrictions to restrict their initial costs and ongoing inflation.

“I think that the term community housing is an appropriate one,” Kirk said. “In order for us to provide it, the generic us—we as a community—then eve-ryone within the community is going to have to offer something up.

“That’s going to include us as the developer. That’s going to include neighboring property owners. It’s going to include the county. And it’s going to in-clude the service providers. Some degree of sacrifice is going to be made by all in order to accommodate the need.”

On the ground

For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction, and in Blaine County, the effects of growth are everywhere.

Trucks laden with equipment, dirt or building materials boom up and down the valley and weave among city blocks. Affordable housing is in short supply, and real estate prices are skyrocketing. Air pollution and water pollution are prevalent concerns. The need for new schools could creep up.

“But the housing shortage is really the most dramatic impact in my mind,” said Blaine County Commissioner Sarah Michael. “You have empty houses (second homes) in the Wood River Valley, and people are driving an hour to two hours to service them.”

Michael said local residents might not realize all the impacts of the growth until they occur.

Blaine County and its cities have fought back in several ways. The county restricted new construction to the valley floors with forward-thinking legislation called the Hillside Ordinance. The community housing program is getting off the ground. Throughout Blaine County, planning and zoning regulations are among the tightest in Idaho.

But outright growth management is difficult, Michael said.

“If you put a cap on growth, all you do is drive up the price of existing real estate. That’s been tried, unsuccessfully, elsewhere.”

And though it tries, government is not always good at looking into a crystal ball.

“I don’t think we’re really aware of all the impacts that will occur with the continued level of this pace,” Michael said. “Government is not good at predicting the future.”

*Coming Wednesday: What are the impacts and future trends of the second-home market, and their relationship to economy and the community?

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