By GREG STAHL and JON DUVAL
Express Staff Writers
Greg Boyer, 28, lived and worked in the Wood River Valley for five years. When he arrived in 2003, the New Jersey native thought he would stay for about a year, but he eventually landed a job as a Web developer at Cancer Consultants, and the quality of life and abundant outdoor recreation that initially attracted him prompted him to stay.
The area's challenges, however, eventually outweighed its boons. He and his girlfriend picked up and moved to Seattle in August.
"If I wanted to stay in the Wood River Valley my entire life I probably would have to work with Cancer Consultants my entire life," he said, qualifying that he is continuing to work for Cancer Consultants remotely. "If you decide to live there forever I feel like you're forced to settle for whatever profession you're in."
He is not alone in his decision to leave.
According to U.S. Census data, the number of people aged 15 to 44 in Blaine County is declining. From 2000 through 2007, the number of Blaine County residents in that age bracket went down 3 percent while those 45 to 64 rose 32 percent and those 65 and up rose 47 percent.
These trends are similar to those in competing resorts. Aspen's Pitkin County experienced a nearly 11 percent decline in the 15-to-44 age group over the same period of time, while in Teton County, Wyo., home of Jackson Hole, that demographic dropped by 5 percent.
Express graphics by Coly McCauley. The ski town exodus—the decline in the 15-44 age group Source: U.S. Census Bureau.
However, of these three resort counties, Blaine has experienced the largest growth, with its total population increasing by over 12 percent in the past seven years That means that in 2007, this younger age group was 38 percent of the overall population, 6 percent less than it was in 2000.
"A lot of them are leaving," said Jima Rice, a longtime Wood River Valley resident and president and founder of Jigsaw, a nonprofit that seeks to expand economic diversity in the Wood River Valley. "I was talking with one fellow last week, and he's one out of about eight people (in his group of friends) who are still here. The others have gone on to bigger cities, more money, better jobs."
Blaine County’s changing demographics Source: U.S. Census Bureau
Good jobs vs. qualified employees
A much-lamented chicken-and-egg situation was exemplified by the departure of New Zealand-based clothing manufacturer Icebreaker last spring. The company closed its Ketchum office, citing the shallow depth of the local talent pool, and in doing so removed one of the few corporate opportunities available to employees striving to move beyond jobs typically filled by ski bums.
The shrinking population of young, qualified candidates, when combined with high rent, is far from an enticing incentive for location-neutral businesses.
Steve Dondero has a good perspective to the problem. As a 30-year-old director of marketing for Ketchum-based Eye Safety Systems, or ESS, Dondero is a corporate manager watching his peer group dwindle.
"Having grown up here, there's been a pretty apparent change," Dondero said. "The valley has that magical allure that causes people to come for one season and then decide to make a life here. However, it's getting more difficult to get these people hooked."
The tactical eyewear manufacturer, founded 10 years ago by Dondero's father, has managed remarkable success with exactly these kinds of employees.
Of the 29 staff members in Ketchum, Dondero estimates that approximately 80 percent are below the age of 35.
"Finding a 'real' job is hard, as there obviously aren't the same big-city employment opportunities." Dondero said. "People with lots of experience do not come here expecting to find high-paying corporate jobs."
Accordingly, those that find this elusive Holy Grail of employment opportunity aren't quick to let it go, leading to high retention rates at companies like ESS.
"We definitely hire more people from other companies than we lose to other companies," Dondero said. That's due in part, he said, to the enthusiastic and adventurous corporate culture cultivated from the top down.
But while most of the company's positions are filled by members of the community, there are still instances when the local workforce is found unsatisfactory.
"We have run into situations where we couldn't find someone here that's qualified for certain positions." Dondero said. "We just don't have the population base to match all of our needs, such as (computer-aided design) engineers or master sergeants to head up military sales."
Of course, these kinds of jobs aren't the panacea for reversing the decline in the 20- to 30-year-old demographic.
"We need a reason for people to want to come here and stay," Dondero said. "We need the infrastructure to serve this purpose and offer vitality after 5 p.m."
Making it work
For every issue there is a corollary, and Jack Gilligan is Boyer's.
In many respects, Gilligan is living the stereotypical story of a young professional in the Wood River Valley. He is educated, motivated and focused on quality of life.
Three years ago, the 32-year-old left a career with Goldman Sachs in Chicago to move to Ketchum, where he landed at Cavalino Lounge tending bar and coaching skiing on Bald Mountain.
Now, three years later, Gilligan has returned to the world of investment banking. In August he was hired by Clearrock Capital in Ketchum.
But things might have been different.
"Timing is always critical, and having the patience and knowing what you want to do go a long way," he said. "You need to wait for when that opportunity presents itself."
Before being hired at Clearrock, Gilligan said he knew he needed a change. He just wasn't sure when or how that change would manifest itself, or if it would be enough to keep him in Ketchum.
"In the last year it got down to the point of saying, 'I need to leave,'" he said. "I needed to do something other than bartending and coaching."
But Gilligan said he is certain he wants to continue to call the Wood River Valley home. He and was willing to wait for the right career opportunity.
"I've got a 30-second downhill commute to work on my cruiser bike," he said. "The value of the whole lifestyle here is unparalleled. Living in the city helped clarify that I don't want to do the rat race. It gives you much more perspective on this place."
The cost of living is undoubtedly a challenge, Gilligan said. His combination of bartending and working on Bald Mountain procured enough to get by, but not with ease. Asked what sort of salary would be enough, he said $50,000 per year should work for most people, though it might not be enough to buy a home or work in earnest toward retirement.
Jima Rice, a consultant who advocates for renewed economic vitality in the Wood River Valley, has been keeping her finger on the pulse of the 20- to 40-year-old demographic of young professionals. She said she sees significant challenges to attracting and retaining them.
High-paying jobs, she said, aren't the only key.
"Many of them also want culture that we don't have. We have a very active art retail community, but we don't have a cohesive arts community that gathers together, in other words the practitioners."
The standard topic that arises in Rice's conversations with young professionals is the lack of affordable housing, but the relative dearth of "hip entertainment" is also an issue.
"The young people I speak to love Ciro's, the Martini Bar and Freshies," Rice said. "They're looking for hip places, and we're still caught up in the 1950s atmosphere."
Also, the way Sun Valley perceives itself is something Rice said doesn't fit with the 20- and 30-something mindset.
"It's a matter of self image," she said. "Our image has to be more hip, more 20th-century economy. We still market a 1938 image. It's put us behind the curve. We're not marketing to the right market."
Rice said the $2,000 season pass offered by Sun Valley Co. is certainly not aimed toward a demographic of young professionals who want to work hard and ski during their lunch hours.
"If you can get a ski pass at a discount rate, people will find a place to live, and they will find a job or create a job. That would be one huge incentive to draw 40s and under here.
"And that's too bad, because they're going to go out there and find places where the infrastructure is there to help them continue at a high level of performance."
For the young couple who moved to Seattle, the pressure was eventually too much. Boyer's girlfriend is beginning graduate school, and Boyer said they are enjoying the area's culture and more affordable entertainment.
He said he is wondering if he will be affected by seasonal affective disorder as the Northwest's notorious gray winter season settles in, but the new adventure, additional cultural stimulation and a renewed financial perspective feel like a good fit.
"Financially, I feel like I'm in a much better situation than I was before," he said. "It was either leave or settle for what we were doing. Neither of use wanted that. We wanted careers and to keep moving forward."