[copperpress-advertserve-ad zone="3"]
ARCHIVED  June 18, 1999

Jackson Hole sheds chaps for chic

JACKSON, Wyo. — LaRell Walker had no idea it would be so difficult for his family to find an affordable home in Jackson Hole.

Currently, the Walkers pay $600 a month in rent for a tiny 400-square-foot apartment, where they live with their two children. Their living conditions are cramped, and their children have no place to play.

Ironically, Walker has lived in Jackson since he was a baby, and his ancestors were some of the first to homestead in Jackson Hole during the turn of the century.

The Walkers plight is common among working-class families who struggle to make ends meet in Jackson Hole’s increasingly pricey resort economy. For years, Jackson Hole was a small, yet bustling, resort town. But, during the last decade, it has become more upscale, trendy – and expensive.

Jackson Hole’s initiation into an elite group of upscale North American ski resorts that includes Vail and Aspen has been a mixed blessing for its community, experts say. The community is paying a high price for its new status while it concurrently reaps the economic and cultural benefits of becoming “tres chic.”

Lack of affordable housing is a problem. However, the valley’s housing market is thriving. Contractors are working seven days a week during the building season to keep up with skyrocketing development.

Dennis Johnson, head of the Teton County Building Department, said his office issued a record-breaking number of building permits last year.

Jonathan Schechter, a local economist and business consultant, says Jackson’s strong construction industry has had a marked effect on the economy. At least 15 percent of valley residents work in the construction industry, and at least 25 percent of local earnings are generated by that industry, he said.

One trend evident among developers is the desire to build homes on larger lots. Despite county efforts to encourage clustered development, many builders choose to construct trophy homes on large lots because they bring in more money, said Bill Collins, Teton County planning director.

“There’s more money to be made selling larger and fewer lots for high-end housing than there is to be made selling small less-expensive housing for the labor force,” he said.

Gene Hoffman, owner of Hoffman & Associates Real Estate Appraisals, said there are few homes available for less than $200,000 in Teton County. And that’s why so many working-class families are forced to move to outlying bedroom communities.

Planning director Collins compared the tax records of people who moved into and out of Teton County last year. He found that median incomes for people moving into Jackson Hole are five times greater than for people leaving the valley.

“People coming in have added purchasing power, and they’re driving up the land costs,” Collins said.

Other trends include a rising number of upscale buyers.

“It wasn’t too many years ago when we sold the first million-dollar home in Jackson Hole, then it was $3 million homes sold,” Hoffman said. “And now it’s commonplace to sell up-to-$10 million homes.”

According to a Hoffman & Associates newsletter, the median sales price for residential homes in 1998 was $370,000. The most-expensive sale was $8.15 million, and the most-expensive listing was $25 million for a 100-acre estate next to Teton Village and the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort ski area.

The greatest number of sales are occurring in the $200,000 to $500,000 range, Hoffman said.

And therein lies the crux of the valley’s affordable-housing crunch.

“The need for affordable housing is outpacing our capacity to build it,” Collins said. “It takes all the angst of birthing an elephant to produce an affordable-housing project.”

Several nonprofit groups are tackling that problem and collectively have built 82 units, with another 200 homes planned. The Walkers are one of the lucky families to benefit from the subsidized projects.

In stark contrast to working-class families such as the Walkers are Jackson’s wealthy second-home owners. When people with high incomes began to move to Jackson Hole, they boosted the economy, expanded cultural opportunities and bolstered charitable organizations.

Now, Jackson has it’s own domestic-violence shelter, dance company and summertime symphony — the Grand Teton Music Festival. Private groups are thriving as well; one land conservation group has preserved more than 10,000 acres.

Jackson’s flush economy and real estate market are a boon to many in the community but do not come without consequences. In particular, a crush of wealthy home buyers has brought with it the imminent demise of Jackson’s rural western character and the disappearance of the ranching industry — once the livelihood of most Jackson residents.

As land values rise, the pressure to develop becomes stronger, especially for ranching families who often struggle to make a living.

“I’m sorry to see things like ranching diminished in the community,´ said Bob Graham, president and founder of Real Estate of Jackson Hole.

As more development occurs, Jackson Hole faces the continued threat of overdevelopment and sprawl. Despite land-conservation efforts and a limited amount of available private land, the valley has plenty of development potential, planners say.

As for loss of the town’s western character, Collins said it is a slow, insidious process – one residents in upscale resort communities don’t notice because they’re too close to it.

“We lose the character of our community and then we take on a Disneyland feel,” he said. “You can’t buy a banana on the Town Square in Jackson, but you can buy a $150 dollar bra.”

Eventually the town becomes an exclusive playground for the wealthy, Collins said.

Another byproduct of Jackson’s upscale shift is that some long-time residents are moving away.

“There’s a sadness to that,” Graham said.

In downtown Jackson, many local businesses are being pushed out by skyrocketing rents and replaced by upscale national chains such as Coldwater Creek, Eddie Bauer and Ralph Lauren.

Real estate appraiser Hoffman said that local businesses don’t stand a chance against national chains that have huge financial resources.

“It’s a matter of competition; the locals can’t compete with them,” he said. “They’ve just changed the whole commercial character of Jackson Hole.”

Prices on the Jackson Town Square continue to rise, expensive restaurants and boutiques populate the quaint boardwalk-lined plaza, and locals are forced to bring their business elsewhere.

Hoffman believes Jackson already has become a sophisticated urban environment.

“Jackson is probably the most urban place in the state of Wyoming,” he said. “It’s gone from the traditional western atmosphere to urbanization.”

The valley’s social structure has changed too, with the advent of more-distinct class lines.

“People came here in the past because of the social environment, which was probably less sophisticated and less affluent, and they all mixed –there was no social distinction,” Hoffman said. “But I see a tremendous social distinction between the various areas of the valley.”

And as for Jackson’s old-time, western lifestyle, that’s gone too, Hoffman said.

“People still say we’re the last and best of the Old West, but that’s a fallacy,” he said. “In my judgment, it’s gone.”

JACKSON, Wyo. — LaRell Walker had no idea it would be so difficult for his family to find an affordable home in Jackson Hole.

Currently, the Walkers pay $600 a month in rent for a tiny 400-square-foot apartment, where they live with their two children. Their living conditions are cramped, and their children have no place to play.

Ironically, Walker has lived in Jackson since he was a baby, and his ancestors were some of the first to homestead in Jackson Hole during the turn of the century.

The Walkers plight is common among working-class families who struggle to make ends meet in…

[copperpress-advertserve-ad zone="3"]

Related Content