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The Mountain Paradox

Fall Line
posted: 02/10/2003

When Jack Mason moved to Winter Park in 1971, he found a tiny Colorado ski town with no supermarket, no doctor's office and only one year-round restaurant-a fondue house. Summers were so quiet the local newspaper ran a photo of a dog sleeping in the middle of Highway 40.

Three decades later, Winter Park is a four-season vacation community with upscale hotels, posh homes, fast food, fine dining and visitors who ski, hike, bike and shop. "Lazy dogs," laughed Mason, who worked his way up from ski patrol to Winter Park Resort's mountain manager, "can no longer sleep in the highway."

The boom that has transformed Winter Park can be seen in ski towns across the Rocky Mountains. From Ketchum, Idaho, to Angel Fire, N.M., to Eagle, Colo. (whose proximity to Vail caused its population to nearly double in the 1990s), mountain communities have exploded with new homes, spas, espresso shops, art galleries and real estate offices. This boom presents a paradox: It comes at a time when U.S. skier numbers have stubbornly remained flat at roughly 53 million for two decades.

In the Rockies, for instance, skier visits have bounced between 17.5 million and 19.3 million during the past 10 years, yet resort towns continue to burst through their borders. Clearly, it is not a growing number of skiers that is feeding this boom. So, what's up?

In short, Americans have discovered that mountains are no longer just for skiing. Drawn by 300-plus days of sunshine and the opportunity to mountain bike, hike, fish, golf, work and retire in vast landscapes, Americans are resettling to the Rocky Mountain West in a move demographers have dubbed the "Amenity Migration."

Colorado, Utah and Idaho were the third-, fourth- and fifth-fastest growing states from 1990 to 2000, a time when Colorado's population grew by nearly a third, adding a million residents. The ski-town boom is a microcosm of this tremendous societal shift.

Even with the stock market's decline, retirees are more affluent and active than at any time in history, and unlike previous generations of seniors, they're spending their money on second homes, travel and leisure. In the 1970s, investment and retirement income represented 20 percent of total income. Today it's 40 percent, and it is not uncommon for retirees to have incomes that exceed their highest yearly wages. At the same time, historic lows in mortgage rates have allowed upper-middle-class and thrifty middle-class families to buy in-whether a second home, condo or time-share. Owning a mountain vacation home was once a dream for only the truly wealthy. Now it is a reality for the middle class.

"The real estate ads say you can have mountain views, an airport within an hour's drive, city lights twinkling in the distance and elk grazing in your backyard. What else could you possibly want?" wonders University of Colorado geography professor Bill Travis.

Not much, says Craig Schroers, 52, who moved to the Colorado mountains after retiring from a job in Southern California. He fell in love with Telluride during a motorcycle trip in 1997, so he bought land and built a stone-and-timber home. Now he works part-time, skis all winter and hikes all summer with his wife. "We raft, snowshoe, cross-country ski," Schroers says. "I couldn't imagine living anywhere else."

When Herb and Sherry Luhman, 62 and 60, retired in 1998, they did something unthinkable for seniors from earlier generations. They left Florida and moved to the mountains, buying a $560,000 home in Edwards, Colo., next door to Beaver Creek Resort. They ski by day, dine at gourmet restaurants, enjoy ballet and visiting symphony orchestras at night.

So-called "lifestyle refugees" like the Schroers and Luhmans have made real estate an economic engine of the West. In Eagle County, home to Vail, real estate sales topped $1.7 billion in 2000. In comparison, the ski/board retail industry nationwide (everything from skis to parkas) hit $2.1 billion last season.

MMeanwhile, regular flights to the nation's airline hubs have made it less of a hardship to live in the mountains, says Jackson Hole Resort President Jerry Blann. "People want to live here, but they also want to be able to get away. That's now possible."

The decentralization of the economy has allowed white-collar workers to leave corporate centers and move to the mountains. Advances in technology have given birth to "modem cowboys," who remain connected to the global economy while working from a ranchette in Montana or a farmhouse in Vermont.

Unable to increase skier numbers, resort communities have turned to year-round tourism to boost profits. Examine the changing names of resorts-Telluride Ski & Golf Company, Big Mountain Ski & Summer Resort-and it's obvious that skiing is no longer the sole driver of the mountain lifestyle. Resorts run their lifts in summer for mountain bikers. Deer Valley, Aspen and Park City hold summer music festivals. Telluride and Sundance draw film lovers. Nearly every major resort has a golf course. As one resort official put it: "It's all about putting butts in beds."

"Increasingly, our resorts want to promote four-season travel," says Nathan Rafferty of Ski Utah. "Not so long ago, they turned it on in winter and turned it off in summer." Of course, this change has come at a cost. Traffic and pollution are worsening. Suburbanites fret about sprawl, but rural sprawl-the subdividing of wilderness bordering public lands-is chewing up the last frontiers. Colorado State University Associate Professor David Theobald puts it this way: "We are loving the mountains to death."

As a three-decade resident of Winter Park, Mason expressed mixed feelings about growth, but he had no doubt about the awe-inspiring beauty of the mountains. "In many ways," he said, "the mountains are like the ocean. They allow you to dream about what lies beyond."

Editor's Note: In a tragic accident just before this story was published, Jack Mason, Winter Park's mountain manager, fell from a chairlift and died, apparently as a result of an epileptic seizure.

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