Friday, May 4, 2007

Challenges abound for young professionals

20-somethings ponder challenges to valley living

Express Staff Writer

A panel of young Wood River Valley professionals made a few things clear Wednesday evening.

They love living here, but they don't see many ongoing professional opportunities, and it's a cost-prohibitive place to live and play. Most would rather live in the north valley than the south, and most alluded to the fact that they may not stick around.

The recently created Wood River Economic Partnership hosted five 20-something residents to share what they perceive to be the professional and personal challenges for the local community in terms of attracting and retaining young people. Roughly two dozen local residents converged on the Roosevelt Tavern to listen and learn. The panel consisted of an architect, an engineer, a businessman, an Internet developer and a fund-raising specialist.

Retaining people in the 20- to 30-year-old demographic is an important part of sustaining community, said economic partnership director and founder Jima Rice.

"We need you to carry on, and we need you to survive, and we need you to carry on when we all move on," Rice told the five panelists.

Ever-escalating property values—and wages that don't match—were a key focal point for the discussion.

"The cost of living will draw everyone away at some point," said Nicole Ramey, an architect with Michael Doty Associates in Ketchum. "Yea, we're all OK renting for now, but when you get into your 30s and 40s, you want to maybe have a family and have a place of your own."

Eric Dobbie, who works for ESS Eyewear in Ketchum, also pointed to the cost of property.

"Ideally, yes. I would stay here, but the cost of living is a big factor," he said. "I found a condo three years ago. At this point I know I wouldn't be able to afford that."

Several of the panelists pointed to Sun Valley Co. as part of the problem. Recreation is one of the things that attracts young people to ski towns, and recreation—skiing in particular—is not affordable.

It's a "huge factor" that ski passes cost so much, said Megan Thomas, a former ski racer who works in the donor relations department of the St. Luke's Foundation.

"When young people are considering a ski town to live in for a while, why would they look at Sun Valley with an $1,800 ski pass when they could go to Colorado and pay $350?"

But that issue is merely representative of the myriad of challenges facing young people in the valley, Thomas said. It is also manifested in high property values, relatively low salaries and the overarching issue that Sun Valley Resort and most of the community cater to an aging, wealthy demographic.

Brian Bailey has been a structural engineer for Power Engineers for five and a half years. He agreed with Thomas' assessment.

"The consensus seems to be that Sun Valley doesn't care about the local residents," he said. "There was a guy at Power who came here to ski, but he can't afford to ski. It's ridiculous."

Sun Valley City Councilman Nils Ribi agreed that the retirement community mentality is a hurdle to overcome.

"It's one of the problems in this end of the valley, and that's that there are a lot of people with more gray hair than I've got who think we ought to close the gates and shut you people out, keep you people off the mountain," Ribi said. "And that's the reality of it, and it's something we have to try to change."

Bailey said he moved to the Wood River Valley for a combination of ski bumming and career opportunity. His job pays fairly well and offers a path he is satisfied with.

"But the one limitation of the valley is if something were to happen, and I were not working at Power, I would most likely not be living here," he said. "The housing is a major issue."

Bailey also said salaries here are lower than elsewhere.

"I took a significant pay cut to live here," he said. "The salary needs to be a little more competitive."

Thomas reiterated the point.

"I know I've heard from employers that being able to go out the door and go hiking is compensation itself, and that's a big part of why we live here, but we've got to be able to pay the power bill," she said.

Like his peers on the panel, Greg Boyer moved here to ski and enjoy mountain living for a while, and found a good job with Cancer Consultants in Ketchum.

"I intend to continue working as a Web developer," he said. "That's my career. Whether I stay here or go somewhere else, that's what I'm going to do, but there aren't really any Web development companies here, so if it's not Cancer Consultants, I'm probably leaving the valley."

He, too, said he could make more money elsewhere, to the tune of $20,000 more.

"I've thought about moving to a city because life in this valley tends to be a little monotonous sometimes," Boyer said.

On the flip side of the coin, Ramey, an Idaho native, pointed out that working in a small architecture firm has given her job experience she would not receive at a larger firm in a city.

All panelists, in fact, offered cup-half-full perspectives in addition to their criticisms, and proximity to the outdoors was pre-eminent among them. But that can only accomplish so much.

"The Ketchum area is losing its youthfulness, I believe," Dobbie said. "A lot of people who are living here are just barely hanging on to the cost of living."

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