Ketchum is a modern-day boomtown, but the boom is reverberating and shattering old myths about growth like a diva's voice shattering glass.
That's basically what the head of a Jackson, Wyo.-based think tank believes. Jonathan Schechter of the Charture Institute believes the economies of communities like Ketchum and other nice places to live are no longer primarily tourism-driven but, rather, fueled by their natural resources and because they are "nice places."
Schechter gave his presentation titled, "Sustaining the Gold Goose: The Dynamics of Growth in Resort Communities, & What They Can Do About It," to the Colorado Association of Ski Towns when it met in Jackson in late September.
The list of Ketchum elected officials and administrators who attended the session includes Mayor Randy Hall, Planning Director Harold Moniz, City Administrator Ron LeBlanc, as well as some members of the City Council and Planning & Zoning Commission.
They also toured local businesses, an affordable housing complex and a performing arts center.
The ski town association is composed of seven ski towns in Colorado and three towns outside the state: Park City, Utah; Jackson, Wyo.; and Ketchum.
Schechter, executive director of the institute, said he has a maxim that holds "economies change faster than perceptions, and perceptions change faster than politics." The economies of what he calls the A9, his archetypal list of eminently livable places that includes Ketchum-Sun Valley, have undergone massive transformation in the past 15 years, he said.
"The A9 communities (counties) have exploded and will continue to explode, and the drivers of the changes are not tourism but lifestyle and quality of life," Schechter said in a telephone interview.
He believes there is a disconnect between longtime residents who often constitute the leadership of A9 towns and the changes Schechter believes many haven't yet perceived. In many of the ski towns there is "an unspoken consensus that we are a tourist town."
He suggested that local newspapers can reinforce this by the reporting of local sales tax collection numbers but said they neglect other important economic indicators. Schechter and others reinforce their ideas with the decline in skier numbers. Sun Valley Resort numbers declined about 12 percent from 439,000 skier days in 1995 to 387,000 days in 2005, he said.
Moniz said he agrees with much of Schechter's presentation.
"Tourism, while an important part of the economy, isn't driving the economy," he said.
Moniz pointed to the number of investment firms and banks as a reflection of the economic shift, adding that skier days haven't risen in 10 years.
The A9, the theory goes, are representative of "nice places to live" throughout the country and the world. The A9's nine counties are: Eagle, Colo. (Vail); Pitkin, Colo. (Aspen); Routt, Colo. (Steamboat Springs); San Miguel, Colo. (Telluride); Summit, Colo. (Breckenridge); Blaine, Idaho (Ketchum-Sun Valley); Nantucket, Mass. (Natucket Island); Summit, Utah (Park City); and Teton, Wyo. (Grand Teton National Park-Jackson Hole).
Part of the "Golden Goose" presentation includes charts and graphs that show Blaine County has moved into the top 10 counties in the U.S. that had the greatest median home price increase between 1990 and 2000. That increase of $40,500 was calculated by looking at all of America's 3,140 counties.
The list with the top median price locations starting with No. 1 includes: New York City, $512,000; Aspen, $297,000; Nantucket, $278,100; Vail, $233,000; Jackson Hole, $232,000; Telluride, $206,000; Breckenridge, $196,000; Park City, $188,200; Steamboat Springs, $173,600; and Sun Valley-Ketchum, $161,000. The prices represent the counties in which these cities are located. In the United States, the median price for a home in 2000 was $119,600.
The reaction he gets after the "Golden Goose" presentation is often, "a lot of stunned silence at the end," said Schechter. "It's causing them to rethink their world."
The A9 towns are benchmarks "for understanding the growth and change going on in resort and gateway towns." The changes are occurring "in all nice places to live throughout" the nation and the world, the report said.
Schechter said some communities falling within the "nice place-gateway" category are just now realizing what he believes is the reality.
"Because these communities seem to be geographically isolated they didn't realize they were going through the same thing," he said.
LeBlanc said that stories in the Jackson newspaper could have come right out of the Mountain Express because they dealt with affordable housing and growth issues.
"It's always helpful to meet with people and know they are challenged by the same issues we are," he said.
The not-for-profit Charture Institute does research on sustaining Jackson, but Schechter believes those ideas are transferable to other A9 towns and those like them.
"We can serve as the connected tissue to help them learn from each other," he said.
Moniz pointed out that the A9 are "extremely desirable" places to live.
"People have the ability to make choices that affect livestyle values," he said.
The Schechter presentation points out some shifts away from the tourism engine that has traditionally given nice places to live traction, he said.
The Internet and rapid delivery offered by shipping companies makes the former long commute to the office now just a trip down the home hallway, Moniz said. But if gas prices eventually go up to $4 or $5 a gallon this could further erode tourism-based economies, he said.
A year ago, Schechter's institute started something called "1% for the Tetons," a program that helps fund sustainability grants in and around Jackson.
"We're basically three counties in two states," he said.
The Institute encourages businesses to give 1 percent of their sales for these projects. The guidelines for the grants are that they have to relate to the environment.
"There's no reason this can't work in other areas," Schechter said.
"1% for the Tetons" takes its clue from "1% for the Planet," started in 2001 by Yvon Chouinard, the environmental activist and founder of Patagonia Inc., and Craig Mathews, owner of Blue Ribbon Flies. "1% for the Planet" is a worldwide business alliance contributing 1 percent of their sales to environmental groups.
The "Golden Goose" provides caveats for planners, politicians and residents for A9-type towns, which it calls "lifestyle economy" towns. Residents are drawn to such places because of "recreational amenities" and see them as representative of the "public good." You "screw-up your town, and well-to-do residents will leave it just as quickly as they came."
The "nice" places "are where the rest of the world is heading" but the bad news is leaders are using third-generation tools in the planning and revenue generating areas as well as mindset for fourth-generation challenges, the study says.
As the 20th century ended it became clear that the boom was not in a particular state but is scattered around the country with communities connected by their environmental qualities and their beauty, the study says.
The report refers to these as America's Places of Ecological and Aesthetic Significance (PEAS). "The growth they enjoy is threatening the very qualities driving that growth."
During the 1990s, growth in the 42 largest PEAS—those counties with national park gateways or with major resorts—grew twice as fast as the rest of the country with a growth rate of 31 percent.
Moniz said he's heard the presentation before, but added that he still brings something away from it. "This information is critical to how we approach problem solving in this community," Moniz said.
He cited community-based planning as an example, pointing to the results of the Ketchum Downtown Master Plan.
"We gave people information, and they came up with good decisions," he said.