Closing Range

Pay Up and They Will Come

If you can’t, you’ve got an unsustainable business model unworthy of subsidy

By Dave Skinner

Beacon reporter Skye Lucas cranked out an interesting story about some business owners and contractors hoping to create “affordable rentals” in Whitefish, mostly to take the edge off a full-blown labor crisis that is, yep, taking the edge off profits. Oh my!

Well, long ago and far away, I spent nine winters as a winter-sports “worker,” the final seven in Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

In October 1988, I brought $2,000 in ditchdigging cash (and a job already) to Steamboat, found “workforce housing” (10-by-10 feet was mine), boiling Ramen water on a shared stove. The shared john had a hose for a shower. I left on my mud season “vacation” in April with $800.

However, I’d pre-scored summer work in construction labor with TIC, a heavy-industrial-commercial general contracting firm. A little later, I found a great roommate at a tolerable price, with a real shower, real insulation AND a bedroom door. Upscale, baby! 

TIC kept promoting me and I kept buying more tools. The ski shop raised me a little, too, but honestly, my construction paychecks subsidized my winter “employment.” Working full-split-time in a 90-pair-a-night ski repair bay where we were bribed (or tipped) with tons of free food, not counting either my pass or annual pair of new skis, my net cash flow stayed negative every winter. 

Why? Well, most of my Steamboat co-worker bees were “year-offers,” well-off urban college kids, having their “adventure out West.” Almost all left for the real world after one season, broke, maybe happy, but never to return. In a nutshell, labor was plentiful, cheap, and utterly, even deliberately disposable. There’s always another fall crop of cherries, right?

Not anymore. Whitefish’s handwriting has been on the wall a long time. I’ll never forget an epic 1983 powder-bumps day at Big Sky (of all places). I was chatting up some for-real South Vietnamese lifties. They all had great English, boat people, but eventually I asked when they would get their ski break. “Oh, we don’t ski.” What? Working at a ski area and not skiing!? Incomprehensible! I learned they were 10 to a two-bedroom condo, working day lifts and night service. Wow … talk about a harbinger of change.

Four decades later, every “amenity” community in America, not just the Mountain West, has stratified into, yep, haves and have nots, with a relatively small cadre of “wanna gets,” the tiny middle tier of business owners. The haves made (or still are making) their good fortunes elsewhere, able and willing to pay stratospheric prices for residential or commercial anything (location, location, location, right?). The have nots (and never wills) form an economic underclass and social “otherclass.” Often non-white, they’re crammed into substandard housing, preferably long commutes (zoning works!) away from the fun parts of town. For one example, kids of Aspen workers don’t school in Aspen, but rather in Basalt (18 miles, taking an hour or more uphill on nice days) or further downriver.

Yeah, big cities have major stratifications, but in many degrees, not the black/white, rich/poor, inside/outside, binary way of “amenity” areas — because big cities have big, wide economies.

Most “amenity” communities don’t. Vail didn’t exist before it was Vail — now, of course, it’s “Vile.” Big Sky has been Pig Sty forever. In contrast, Steamboat was an ag market town, so was Sandpoint. Whitefish was a railroad town, all three with an economic base other than “amenities.” As those other bases shrunk relative to the “amenity” sector, the “affordable housing” curse inevitably manifested itself.

Even worse, the “amenity” is only four to eight months a year, depending on the weather AND economy AND public health — meaning profoundly fickle and unstable. How do the “wanna gets” business owners carry themselves over the dead months? Without a diverse economy providing side gigs or other clientele, their practice is to churn through underpaid itinerant employees — who, if underpaid enough, need subsidized “affordable housing.”

Build and they’ll come? Maybe in a few years — but to those needing bodies right now, here’s an idea: Pay up and they will come.

If you can’t — you’ve got an unsustainable business model unworthy of subsidy.

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