Mountain town statistics for 2013

Sizzling statistics: Numbers that matter from mountain resort valleys

by Allen Best

Mountain towns of the West, those with ski runs in the background, speak more or less the same language. And sometimes they have numbers that echo. Here are some statistics I gleaned during the last year.

Living on fire’s edge: 42%

That’s the percentage of homes in Vail that are at high risk of wildfire, according to a new map created by fire chief Mark Miller. Vail has never had a big fire in its 50-year existence, nor were there any before in recorded history. But Miller points out that even the best mitigation measures cannot totally eliminate risk for homes located in what is called the wildland-urban interface. Forests will eventually burn.

In 2007, beetle kill was in your face at many locations in Vail. Many trees have now been removed, but a new study found 42 percent of homes at high risk in case of a wildfire. Photo/Allen Best

In 2007, beetle kill was in your face at many locations in Vail. Many trees have now been removed, but a new study found 42 percent of homes at high risk in case of a wildfire. Photo/Allen Best

With a warming climate and aging forests, that’s reality that almost all mountain towns are being forced to reckon with. Attitudes have spun 180 degrees from 15 years ago.

In Breckenridge, permits were required to remove trees from residential lots. Officials feared denuding in order to maximize views and hence real estate values. But with arrival of the bark beetle, community leaders realized the need to remove trees form near buildings and have encouraged it. The town now has nine Firewise-designated neighborhoods, the most in the nation for the voluntary program.

Peter Grosshuesch, the town planning director, now worries about the effects of a large-scale fire on the community’s watershed, as has now occurred several times along the Front Range, just across the Continental Divide.

One such hot fire southwest of Denver fused soils like a marble countertop, causing runoff from a summer storm to rapidly fill a major reservoir with sediment. Removal of the sediment has been expensive. Grossheusch imagines an even worse scenario effecting Breckenridge’s small reservoir. Could the town be forced to truck in water from elsewhere from several months.

A plan now in the works suggests creation of check dams immediately after a fire, in the drainages with the most vulnerable soils.

In Park City, local fire, water and other districts got to work this year on a community plan to address the risk of wildfires.

In the Ketchum-Sun Valley area, the threat of wildfire ceased being theoretical in 2007. That fire burned several homes on the edge of Ketchum. In August, another major fire blew up, threatening Hailey, site of the courthouse for Blaine County. Just one house was lost in a rural subdivision, but there are now calls for more measures to mitigate risk.

Fighting such fires is very expensive, and the federal government mostly picks up the tab.

In Jackson Hole, the U.S. Forest Service this fall issued a bill to a man who had let a trash fire spread a year before, leading to a major fire that had hundreds if not thousands of residents of Jackson, the valley’s only town, packing their bags in case of evacuation.

Price of commitment: $689

That was the price of the Epic Pass, the powerful come-on by Vail Resorts if purchased by Sept. 1. It provides unlimited season passes at 12 U.S. ski areas plus privileges in the Alps, all of what used to be the price of a season pass at just one of the resorts.

It’s been a powerful business innovation that has upended the ski industry pricing structure, particularly in the destination resorts of the West.

Discounted season passes is not a new idea. It originated at a ski area near Duluth, Minn., in the 1980s, was copied in the Tahoe area and then by Idaho’s Bogus Basin before spreading to Colorado. Vail Resorts just upped the ante, slashing prices deeper and adding more value through an expanding array of ski mountains.

Other ski areas have been forced to respond with what might be called friends-with-benefits packages. Prominent is the Rocky Mountain Collective, which costs $399 and provides two days each at Aspen/Snowmass, Jackson Hole, Whistler-Blackcomb, Mammoth, Alta and Snowbird, and Squaw Valley and Alpine Meadows.

Even isolated resorts, such as Sun Valley, have been forced to lower their season pass prices.

Yes, it still costs plenty of money to ski if you buy a single-day lift ticket. Between Christmas and New Year’s, the price was $139 at Vail and Beaver Creek. At Aspen, it and Snowmass, it was $124. At Deer Valley, it was $114.

Both sides benefit in this deal. Ski area operators get assurances of income even if the snow doesn’t fall. They don’t have to wait until winter to get that money. Consumers willing to commit in advance of ski season to a season pass get on-mountain skiing cheaper than it’s ever been.

Emissions: 37% vs. 6%

Aspen is sort of a bellwether for climate-change activism in ski towns of the West. Even before the worries about climate change accelerated, it had taken steps to distance itself from coal. In 2005, it adopted the Canary Initiative, setting goals, including a 20 percent reduction in greenhouse gases by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

By 2013, Aspen had made strides, but mostly within the confines of municipal operations. Emissions reduction of 37 percent reduction were reported as compared to the 2004 baseline, because of improved energy efficiency of city hall and other buildings, changed transportation choices by city employees, and other steps.

Overall community reduction was only 6 percent, really no better than the United States at large.

At Whistler Blackcomb, the ski company has maintained economic growth while significantly reducing carbon emissions, thanks largely to a new hydroelectric plant and improved energy efficiency.

Quietly, Vail Resorts has also made major gains in reduced energy use. Solar gardens, also called farms, went online courtesy of purchasers in Breckenridge and Summit County, plus Telluride, Mountain Village and San Miguel County.

Congratulate Aspen and the others for a job well done. But keep in mind that how much remains to be done in this great energy transformation. Mountain towns above all remain dependent on transportation, especially by jets. Jets aren’t powered by pixie dust any more than cars are. This will be a slog.

A bag? 10 cents

Breck shopping bag reduced

Sturdy, reusable shopping bags provided by Breckenridge in lieu of throw-away plastic bags

The drive to crimp the use of disposable shopping bags continues to spread through ski towns. It began in Telluride several years ago, spread to Aspen and Carbondale and this year expanded to include Breckenridge. There, beginning in October, it cost 10 cents to get a plastic or paper bag in most stores. Later in the year, the California towns of Truckee and South Lake Tahoe similarly adopted restrictions on disposable shopping bags.

Non-cheap talk: $3,000

That’s the cost for a full pass to the Aspen Ideas Festival, the annual talkfest held just before the Fourth of July, drawing big-brained folks from Washington, New York and other orbs of the universe with movers and shakers eager to leave the city behind to talk about the big issues of the day in the pleasing surroundings of Aspen.

Such talking has always been part of Aspen’s resort schedule, but now the yakking goes on nearly year round. This is just the biggest talkfest.

Columnist and commentator David Brooks being interviewed by

Columnist and commentator David Brooks being interviewed by Walter Isaacson, president of the Aspen Institute.

Other resorts also chew the fat about big issues of the day. This year, Sun Valley hosted the Dent the Universe conference, while a TED talk session fled southern California for Whistler. Vail hosted the second annual Global Energy Forum, a partnership with Stanford University. Ski towns aren’t all about sweat and thrills, fine dining and Architectural Digest-quality homes.

Splashier summers: 18%

That’s the increase in sales tax collections last summer in Mt. Crested Butte. Located two miles from the old mining town of the similar name, it was built in the 1960s expressly as a ski town. But like most ski towns, the growth in summer business has been fast outpacing the gains of winter.

Why is this? Perhaps the increasing heat of summer in cities, a trend likely to continue, according to climate change projections.

On-mountain gain: 100%

That’s how much additional business Vail Resorts has estimated it can gain in sale of summer passes for activities on its ski mountain at Breckenridge. Congress in 2011 adopted a new law that expanded the uses permissible under special-use permits issued ski area operators on national forest lands. The old law somewhat vaguely limited use of those national forest lands to snow-related activities.

The new law somewhat fuzzily expands uses into summer. Outright carnival rides? No. Water parks? No. But where exactly is that line?

Vail Mountain, followed by Breckenridge, is the test case, but all the ski areas in the United States operating on national forest are paying close attention, most with plans of their own.

Ski growth lagging: 20% vs. 37%

Growth in skier days in the United States from 1980 to 2011 was 20 percent, but overall population growth was 37 percent. In other words, growth in the skier business trailed general population growth. But growth of minorities has been even more rapid, and except for Asian-Americas, with high education and income levels, skiing has not attracted strong participation by racial minorities.

It could be worse for the ski industry. Baby boomers remained on the lifts in much larger numbers than their parents, thanks to innovations in skis, improved grooming and medical technology.

Baby boom bulge: 23%

A few years ago, Crested Butte’s winter marketing campaign poked fun at the “retirement villages” along I-70. In fact, most ski towns have a decidedly older tilt to them. The percentage population in Aspen and Pitkin County that is 60 or older, for example, is now 23 percent.

The gains are most eye-opening when expressed in percentage increases. In Vail and Eagle County, the population of the 65+ demographic grew 134 percent during the first decade of this millennium. That demographic is projected to grow another 165 percent this decade. Other ski-based mountain counties in the United States have similar figures.

In Canada as a whole, probably including its resort towns, the influence of the baby boomers is even more dramatic.

The implications are varied and profound. Demands for improved medical care are one aspect. In the last decade, new hospitals have opened in both Summit County, Colorado, and Summit County, Utah.

Plans are afoot in many ski towns for new or expanded continuing care facilities.

Perhaps the most novel twist is in Aspen, which has the largest affordable-housing program of any ski community. People in the local workforce have been allowed to retire into deed-restricted affordable housing. Covenants restricted anybody in affordable housing from sub-renting. But the exception has been made to allow the retirees to escape winter, maybe check out a new site for relocation, while allowing more room for seasonal employees.

Longevity: 81.65 years

The University of Washington this year issued a study about longevity and public health in the United States. The counties in which ski towns are located popped out from most of the top-10 lists for longevity, lack of obesity, activity and other good-health indicators. Leading the list among mountain counties was Gunnison (Crested Butte), which was No. 2 in the nation for longevity for men, at 81.65 years.

To an extent this is a result of self-selection: healthy and people gravitate to mountain towns, and continued activity maintains that health. Conversely, those who suffer declining health tend to leave.

These statistics—the counties containing Jackson Hole, Aspen, and Vail, plus Durango, Truckee, Park City and Steamboat were also in the top-10 lists—point to just how remarkable these places are.

Diversifying economy: 4

Ski towns have always been attempting to tweak their economies, to be less dependent on snow and tourism and the whims of real estate. Last winter, the Telluride Foundation announced a Venture Accelerator Program, giving grants to four businesses and entrepreneurs and pairing them with mostly second-home owners with business expertise. In this way, the Telluride Foundation hoped to incubate growing businesses in Telluride, Mountain Village and San Miguel County.

Another manifestation of that impulse to diversify economically is the effort to improve the width of the information highway into ski towns via broadband connectivity. Such efforts were in the news from Crested Butte to Steamboat to Ketchum in recent months.

And in Jackson Hole, a specialized data-intensive company arrived from California, with no reason to be in Wyoming other than the taxes are low, the schools are good, and you can’t beat the scenery or lfiesstyle.

 

Lots of land remains for sale on the margins of mountain resorts, probably including No. 27 in Idaho's Teton Valley. Photo/Allen Best

Lots of land remains for sale on the margins of mountain resorts, probably including No. 27 in Idaho’s Teton Valley. Photo/Allen Best

Real estate: 7,000

That’s roughly how many lots remain for sale in Teton County, Idaho, the poor-sister of Jackson Hole on the opposite side of the Teton Range. In a gust of laissez faire public policy, virtually all subdivisions were approved, many after very little review about economic and environmental impacts.

Then, in 2007, the curtain fell, and sales have been sketchy since then, except to commuters from Jackson Hole.

Will the real estate economy revive? In Aspen, even Vail, there’s new fiber to the market. But the energetic speculation of a decade ago is missing. Are ski towns and mountain valleys the better for this more sober view? Probably.

One ski-town observer who probably wishes to remain anonymous summarized the future real-estate market in this way: “Select product, in select places, for select markets.”

 

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