It always comes down to finding a place to live

  • Lake Creek Village, 270 new units of worker housing, sits below interstate

    Ray Ring

(This is a sidebar to an HCN magazine cover story on the New West's servant economy.)

Summit County, Colo., the top ski destination in the nation, did more business last season than all the ski areas in Utah. The county's resorts hosted more than 3 million skier visits. Neighboring Eagle County hosted another 2 million skier visits. Together, cashing in on skiing and other tourism, the two counties ring up more than $1 billion a year in retail sales.

The boom and linked population growth create their own undertow, though, and sometimes it may appear that life jackets are being ignored.

"In Summit County now, we have three towns talking about building year-round ice rinks, and somehow we have no money for social services," says Joe Sands, a Summit County Commissioner.

But Sands, an ex-miner and constant firebrand, would have to admit some recent progress. Both counties have efficient public bus systems to move tourists and workers. Both have opened medical clinics to provide low-cost care to low-income residents and workers; the Summit County clinic is staffed by doctors, nurses and clerical staff who volunteer their time.

With as much as 90 percent of the mothers working (said to be the highest percentages in the nation), and the stress showing in an increase of child abuse, the counties are groping to establish more full-service, affordable child care. "We're the only center in Summit County that takes infants," says Margaret Maywalt, assistant director of Zoomer's day care in Dillon. "We have a waiting list. Parents sign up when they find out they're pregnant."

In Eagle County, the Vail Valley Foundation is working with the Catholic Archdiocese to borrow a child-care model from an adjacent working-class county. The model, called The Center, is based in the Lake County seat, Leadville, where it serves every family that needs child care: 700 kids in all, ranging from infants to high-school kids who come after school.

"Yale University selected us as one model for the 21st Century. Harvard has done a study on us, too," says Kathy Brendza, director of The Center. "We've been studied to death on the effects of child care and how it helps communities." Eighty-five percent of the kids have parents who commute to jobs in the ski counties. Because so many parents work weekends and holidays, The Center is open every day; a couple of dozen kids will be there Christmas Day. Thanks to government programs and grants, needy families pay on a sliding scale - some as little as 50 cents an hour.

"We're convinced that model will work in Eagle County," says John Garnsey, president of the Vail foundation. "We have the same problems they have in Leadville' - lots of families with both parents working.

There is a stumbling block: To get a few acres of state land for a school and possibly the child-care center, the Archdiocese is paying more than $100,000 an acre.

With real estate ruling the West, especially in the ski counties, nearly every problem comes down to housing. Recently there's been a burst of creative projects to supply affordable, decent rental units to lower- and middle-class workers. The model for such projects is provided by the Catholic Archiocese, which has harnessed the profit motive of developers and investors to a higher social good (see related story). Towns offer tax breaks and other enticements to such projects.

Not surprisingly, the reduced-rent apartments for low-income people tend to be stuck along Interstate 70 or in similar less desirable locations. One project in Summit County died last year when neighbors protested property-tax breaks the developer had been given. Always there is the attitude: Put it in somebody else's backyard.

The great majority of workers are left to fend for themselves in the free market, where a two-bedroom apartment goes for $1,000 a month or more. To make sure their workers have an affordable place to live, some businesses, including restaurants and stores, buy or lease apartments.

In the old days, miners might be paid in company scrip that was good only at the company boarding house. Today, people certified as year-round workers in Eagle County can apply for admission to the Lake Creek Village complex, just built with cooperation from the county and the ski company, Vail Associates. It looks like nice condos below the interstate.

But the portion of the complex leased by the ski company for its workers operates like a dorm, with strangers assigned as roommates. A resident says searches are conducted when pets or other rule violations are suspected.

The Keystone ski resort provides dorm rooms to many of its workers, charging $300 per person, sleeping two and three to a room. The resort, which is expanding, is committed to providing housing to 40 percent of its workers. County commissioner Sands wonders, "What happens with the other 60 percent?"

"If you get into that situation up here - having your boss be your landlord - you learn that's not the way to go," one worker says. "The boss holds it over your head, and if you have trouble on the job or trouble at home, either way, you have no escape from it. Lose the job and you're out on the street."

- by Ray Ring, HCN senior editor

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