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Interstate 70’s swath continues to expand

Essay by Ed Quillen

Tourism industry – February 1997 – Colorado Central Magazine

One of the inspirations for starting this magazine occurred several years ago on a snowy afternoon while I was sitting in a saloon in Buena Vista, enjoying the view out its big window until a Copper Mountain bus pulled up and disgorged a dozen or so people.

“That whole Interstate 70 resort-belt scene is what I moved here to get away from,” I mused to my companions, “and now it’s invading this valley. What is it, 60 miles to Copper? And they’re reaching down here, coming after us? Is there no escape from that glittering freeway off-ramp sacrifice zone?”

Before moving to Salida in 1978, I edited the Summit County Journal in Breckenridge. Although I had some good friends there, I pretty much hated the place. Nobody could afford to live a decent life in Summit County on the wages you could earn there.

The result was either eight people jammed into a studio apartment, or some commuting. I sampled both, sometimes commuting the 50 miles over icy and winding roads from our house in Kremmling, and sometimes staying with friends in their crowded domiciles.

Neither struck me as a good way to live. If you’re the editor of the local paper, you ought to live in town, or else you lose touch. Rents were outrageous, and I knew that the wages of small-town journalism would never make me a property owner in Summit County.

Salida looked wonderfully normal after Breckenridge. It had a wide range of population, from babies to retirees (everybody at the Summit seemed to be my age), and we could afford a house, even on Mountain Mail wages.

That’s just personal reminiscing, but this is borne out by such statistics as I’ve been able to find. Mostly these numbers are out of date, since they come from the 1994 County and City Data Book whose most recent figures are from 1992.

But in a general sense, the numbers still reflect the differences between the I-70 resort counties — Eagle and Summit — and the rest of us.

The resorts are considerably richer, with a median household income of $36,000, as opposed to Chaffee and Lake’s $24,500 or $16,000 in Saguache.

But does more money translate into an improved “quality of life,” especially the “American dream” of owning your own home in a peaceful and relatively stable community?

Let’s compare Eagle County, home of Vail and Beaver Creek and one of the richest counties in Colorado, to Saguache County, one of the state’s poorest counties.

In Eagle, only 57.5% of the houses are owner-occupied; in Saguache, it’s 67.1%. The median house price in Eagle is 368% of the median household income; it’s 246% in Saguache.

Lenders like it when your house costs less than three years of income — 300% — and so, you’ve got a better chance of grabbing that part of the American dream if you’re making $16,000 in Saguache County than if you’re making $35,000 in Eagle County.

As for stability, 64.2% of the residents in Eagle had moved in the past five years; 41.3% in Saguache. As for serious crime, Eagle had 10,358 reports per 100,000 population; Saguache 3,464.

The point here isn’t to encourage people to move to Saguache County, which has some growing pains now, but to show that certain items extolled by various boosters and promoters — higher incomes, exalted real-estate prices — don’t necessarily improve life for the rest of us. Indeed, they may make daily life worse.

Another way to make life worse is to commute. One thing I liked about Salida in 1978 was that I could walk to work. It took five minutes, and cost nothing but shoe leather.

Now consider the average worker residing in Park County, where 65% of the population works outside the county. Each one spends an average of 81 minutes a day commuting. To my surprise, less than 5% of Summit County’s workforce commutes from Park County; most of this commuting goes to other destinations.

Park County, with all the upscale subdivisions in the Bailey area, is not a poverty-stricken county. The average wage for these commuters works out to about $16 an hour, so the commuting time — that is, time they have to be away from home, but time they aren’t being paid for, comes to about $5,400 a year.

If they’re driving 35 miles to work, and we figure 25¢ per mile in costs there, there’s another $4,375 a year, for a total annual commuting cost of $9,775.

Park County looks somewhat prosperous on paper, with a median household income of $32,102, but if you subtract those commuting costs, Park’s resulting $22,327 is less than Chaffee’s $24,474.

Other costs of being a “bedroom community” are more indirect. People tend to shop near where they work, not where they live. So in 1987, Park County had retail sales of only $1,893 per capita; the average county had $6,700. To put it another way, the average Park household spent only 15.3% of its income inside the county, as opposed to the statewide average of 55.8%.

Since local governments rely heavily on sales tax (the argument is always “tourists will pay”), that means Park County and its towns are strapped for cash. Its commuting residents want services at home, but since they don’t spend money at home, the county doesn’t have money for those services.

The I-70 resort belt offers jobs, but not housing. So it attracts commuters. Many of those commuters will come from Central Colorado. I just showed one effect of commuting on Park County, and as Sharon Chickering points out in her article on page 14, this process of becoming a “bedroom town” leads to social and economic problems in Leadville.

And, as that Copper Mountain bus I saw in Buena Vista demonstrates, this isn’t just an issue for counties adjacent to the I-70 corridor. The monster’s swath keeps getting wider — I’d guess that in the last 20 years, the “I-70 sacrifice zone” has grown from 15 miles on each side of the highway to about 60, which means it’s getting too close to Salida for me to feel comfortable.

It could get worse, too. Vail Associates, which also owns Beaver Creek, has merged with Breckenridge and Keystone. It will have to sell Arapahoe Basin, but Copper Mountain has been sold to Intrawest, another big-league resort operator.

This means some major coördinated corporate marketing muscle along the corridor. It could hurt our local ski areas, Cooper and Monarch, because these big outfits might do their own marketing, rather than coöperate through Colorado Ski Country USA.

Joe Sands, who just stepped down after eight years as a Summit County commissioner, notes that the merger plans pay little, if any attention, to employee housing and benefits.

The idea seems to be to pack all the worker bees into Park and Lake counties, stick those counties with the social-service costs of uninsured sick people and the like, and merrily continue offering an amenity-laden quality resort experience along the corridor.

I don’t want to live in a bedroom town with all the other blessings of the I-70 corridor — low rate of home ownership, high rate of transience, much higher rate of serious crime.

But what’s the answer? And are there opportunities as well as dangers in the growth of the I-70 Resort Belt?

Some of the county governments along the corridor are starting studies to figure out how they might work together better. Eagle County is fully aware of the burden it puts on Lake County, and its government is not run by malicious people. But current state laws make sharing resources difficult — it’s going to take some time.

That’s one start on part of an answer.

This magazine is part of our effort to fight the I-70 invasion — we want Central Colorado to be its own place, not a “suburb” of that corridor. By promoting local lore and disseminating regional culture, we hope to repel the incursions from the rootless generic freeway culture.

As for opportunities, you’d think that with all that money being spent up there, some local enterprises would try to “export” to Eagle and Summit counties.

What I had in mind was along the lines of a Paonia operation I read about. They grow fresh herbs and haul them daily over McClure Pass to Aspen, where the chefs are willing to pay well because their well-heeled customers appreciate fresh stuff.

Perhaps there are a few ma-and-pa operations, like perhaps cabinetmakers or computer wizards, who do export primarily to the corridor. But they’re pretty rare. Neither the Buena Vista nor Salida chambers knew of such enterprises, though both said it made sense for local businesses to look north for markets.

One logical contender in Salida is Scanga Meat, which, it seems, could supply meat to resort-belt restaurants. But when I talked to Jim Scanga, he said that they’ve looked into that market, but found it too competitive — “somebody from Denver is always looking for ways to undercut you there, and it’s a little too far away for us to provide good service.”

So the I-70 zone apparently hasn’t become much of a market for local entrepreneurs. Ironically, Salida and Buena Vista attract tourists from those world-class four-season resort areas, primarily people who want to golf or mountain-bike when it’s clement in the Arkansas valley and snowy over there.

At any rate, the relationship between Central Colorado and the resort belt is a little more complex than low-cost housing (which may be a temporary phenomenon anyway, since housing prices have continued to rise in Lake and Chaffee counties).

How do we come to grips with a rich and growing area nearby? Do we let it take over, subsuming us into a violently seasonal economy dominated by big corporations? And if even we’d prefer to do things our own way, with a diversified regional economy and a population spread all across the economic scale, do we have any choice?

Money functions like a gravitational field, and fighting gravity requires energy and dedication. It also requires constant attention. Lake County seems to know this, but elsewhere in our region, well, I’m as bad as anybody else.

I tend to think of I-70 as a distant planet that I fortunately managed to escape from. Then I look up, and see the damn bus hauling my neighbors away. I look at what long-haul commuting does to towns and people, and I wish the state would just close Tennessee and Frémont passes.

That won’t happen. Another thing that won’t happen is a living wage — that is, one that enables people to live near their jobs — for the majority of resort workers. The very nature of amenity tourism militates against that — how “exclusive” could a resort town be if it allowed mere waiters, mechanics, and chambermaids to live inside its boundaries?

One solution might work — strong unions in the tourist industry. On that account, regular workers in the tourist trades own homes in Las Vegas, enjoy good fringe benefits, and send their children to college.

We recall the mining industry as a provider of good jobs, but that’s not because mining companies were run by community-minded philanthropists. The wages and benefits arrived after half a century of violent industrial warfare.

But two factors work against that. These aren’t good political times for unions, and resort workers, such as ski patrollers in Aspen a few years ago, weren’t all that supportive of a union.

So I don’t know that there is a way to repel the I-70 monster as it oozes ever further from the corridor. But I do know that this metastasizing growth must be fought, somehow, and, well, there’s nothing quite so invigorating as a good fight.

–Ed Quillen