Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Checking in on the Joneses

Chamber compares Blaine County to other Western resorts

Express Staff Writer

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Graphics courtesy Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau A study of Western mountain resorts released earlier this month revealed that Sun Valley is behind several of its competitors in the number of hotel beds, top, and workforce housing units, middle. Although the Sun Valley area’s real estate prices are high compared to many parts of the nation, they remain lower than those of several other resorts, bottom.

Some of it you knew or at least suspected. Some of it will make you scratch your head in wonderment or perhaps pull your hair out in frustration.

On March 11, the Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber & Visitors Bureau released an economic comparative analysis of Blaine County and five other Western counties that are host to major ski resorts. The other counties were Teton County, Wyo., Pitkin County, Colo., Eagle County, Colo., Routt County, Colo., and San Miguel, Colo. The associated resorts were Jackson Hole, Aspen, Vail, Steamboat and Telluride, respectively.

"We wanted to see where we stand in the mix with our competition," said Carrie Westergard, marketing director for the chamber. "We wanted to see what was driving the increase in their occupancies."

The 12-page report looks at a number of different economic indicators, such as gross retail sales, the number of new lodging developments, skier days and average real estate sales price.

In sum, the information illustrates a number of areas in which Blaine County is lagging relative to its competition and the effect those shortcomings could be having on the bottom line.

Two examples of this, which have been the subject of much discussion among city officials and members of the public, are workforce housing and new lodging developments.

The report credits Blaine County with 68 deed-restricted workforce housing units, nearly 200 units behind the closest competitor on the list, Routt County. By comparison, Pitkin County topped the chart with 2,769 units and Teton County, the closest in terms of distance, was third with 850 units.

While the chamber estimates that 80 new workforce housing units will be constructed in the next three to five years, it also notes that the current lack of inventory correlates to an unemployment rate so low that it indicates a worker shortage. That shortage could inhibit business expansion or development of new businesses.

Not helping matters is the cost of real estate, though Blaine County is, perhaps surprisingly, on the budget end of the spectrum with the second lowest average sales price at $855,578. Of the six counties, Steamboat's Routt County was cheapest at $581,150 and Aspen's Pitkin County well above the rest with an average of $2.1 million.

By using an average, however, the numbers can be skewed by extremely expensive houses. Blaine's median price for a home, condominium or townhome is lower at $540,000. But that is still well above the budget for most employees in Blaine County, where the median household income is $71,000, according to the chamber, which said this level of income qualifies an employee for a loan to buy a $200,000 house.

As with workforce housing, Blaine County is well behind its counterparts when it comes to new lodging developments, comprised of either hotel rooms or fractional units. Since 2000, 28 new units have been constructed, all of which are fractional ownership units at Les Saisons and Thunder Springs in Ketchum.

That's less than half the number built in Telluride over the same time period and only 7 percent of Jackson Hole's new lodging development.

Perhaps even more telling than recently constructed projects is the number of lodging developments approved for construction by 2010. While Telluride is already planning on a five-fold increase to 288 units, Blaine County has not a single project approved that will add "hot beds."

However, the chamber anticipates 150 new rooms by 2011, but that's likely to depend on the outcome of three existing hotel applications, the public hearing process for which began on Monday with the Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission.

If all three projects receive approval from the city, more than 200 hotel rooms could be added to Ketchum.

The expectation is that the increase in accommodation would attract more visitors to the Wood River Valley, raising both the number of skiers on Bald and Dollar mountains every winter and the amount of retail sales.

While this winter's skier count is likely to be greater than the 362,317 skiers that took to Sun Valley's lifts last season, the resort is likely to be behind the competition, considering Jackson Hole had 600,000 skiers in 2006-2007 and Vail had 1.6 million during that same season.

However, the report did not have Blaine County lagging in every aspect.

By looking at state tax information, the chamber found that in 2006, Blaine County's gross retail sales from shops and restaurants was $803 million, comparable to Routt County's $939 million and Teton County's $1 billion in retail sales.

In addition, while the nation's economy continues to slump, the chamber reported that the county's retail sales have increased by more than 15 percent from 2004 to 2006.

While the chamber's undertaking gave some hard numbers to the economic trends taking place within Blaine County, the nonprofit organization Sustain Blaine is looking to take it a step further.

Currently in the process of raising $150,000, Sustain Blaine will use the funding to create a thorough study to determine the economic impact of the lack of affordable housing and the benefit of additional hotel rooms.

The aim is to also provide a plan for implementing the recommendations that result from the study.

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