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Teton Pass closure means different things for Jackson area businesses

 A road sign with two blinking red lights on top and the words “Wyoming 22 Closed: Return To Jackson When Flashing.” Behind the sign is a hillside covered in pine trees
Hannah Habermann
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Wyoming Public Media
Wyoming Highway 22 remains closed after the roadway "catastrophically" failed on June 8 due to a landslide.

On any normal weekday morning in Wilson, a long line of cars would be commuting down Teton Pass and through town on their way to Jackson. But Pearl Street Bagels manager Aimee Sulzen said this past week has been a little unusual.

“It's just quiet. It feels like a ghost town. It's really strange and it's kind of eerie,” she said.

A section of Wyoming Highway 22 over Teton Pass catastrophically failed on June 8, disconnecting the tourist destination of Jackson from a sizable chunk of its workforce. The Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT) has said it’s on track to have a detour around the collapse open in a couple weeks as the agency works on a more permanent fix.

For some businesses, the impacts have been manageable so far. For others, the way forward is a bit unclear.

With a location right at the base of the pass, Pearl Street Bagels is a staple for locals and tourists alike. Sulzen said sales at the shop have been noticeably slow since the closure. Normally this time of year, they’d be ramping up for the peak summer season, when traffic really starts to pick up.

A woman wearing a tan baseball hat and button-up sweater smiles in front of a log-cabin storefront.
Hannah Habermann
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Wyoming Public Media
Aimee Sulzen is the manager at the Pearl Street Bagels location in Wilson and bought the next-door ski and bike shop last fall. She said both depend heavily on summer tourism and recreationists.

“Up to 15,000 cars travel over the pass every single day, so that's a substantial number and a lot of those people stop. They stop for coffee and a bagel, they stop if they're traveling through or on road trips,” said Sulzen.

When Sulzen first heard about the pass closure, her stomach dropped. But it wasn’t about the bagel shop, which has been around for 35 years.

“My first reaction, to be completely honest, was the bike shop, just because the access on the pass brings us so much business,” she said.

Last October, Sulzen and her husband Dave bought Wilson Backcountry Sports, a ski and bike shop right next door to Pearl Street Bagels. It was a weird winter for backcountry skiing, so they were really banking on a strong biking season to make up for that lack of business.

The top of a storefront with two signs that read “Pearl Street Bagels” and “Wilson Backcountry Sports.”
Hannah Habermann
/
Wyoming Public Media
Neighboring businesses Pearl Street Bagels and Wilson Backcountry Sports.

“Teton Pass is so unique and iconic and people come from all over the country to ride those trails. So without it, why is anyone coming out to Wilson?” she said.

As of June 14, the road to the top of the pass is open to hikers and bikers, and recreationists can access hiking and biking trails on National Forest land on the east side of the pass from trailheads at the base.

However, many bikers access the trails by driving to the top of the pass and biking down. According to Bob Hammond at WYDOT, they’re “waiting to have the whole thing open” rather than opening up the road to the top of the pass to cars.

Meanwhile, Cowboy Coffee has a location right on Town Square in Jackson. Co-owner Pete Macllwaine says not much has changed there.

“You know, it’s summer as usual. It’s getting really busy,” he said.

A window with the words “Cowboy Coffee Co.” and an antler arch and buildings reflected in the glass.
Hannah Habermann
/
Wyoming Public Media
Cowboy Coffee on Town Square in Jackson.

He said they have seen a spike in traffic at their location south of town, which is now right on the path of the new extended commuter route.

“Down by the drive-through, it's very noticeable how jammed up the traffic is heading down towards Hoback,” he said.

Only five of Cowboy’s roughly 50 employees live over the pass right now. While one’s been making the drive, the others are waiting to see how the situation shakes out. Macllwaine said even before the closure, they’ve been trying to hire more folks who don’t have to drive the pass.

“You need people in the coffee shop early to open it and you rely on those people. If there's an avalanche, if there's landslides or whatever it might be, or a car accident – a lot of times that coffee shop can't open,” he said.

A man wearing a blue t-shirt, baseball hat and sunglasses smiles in front of a coffee shop bar.
Hannah Habermann
/
Wyoming Public Media
Cowboy Coffee co-owner Pete Macllwaine at the company’s downtown location. He said the impacts of the closure will likely depend on the length of the closure, but he thinks things will “go back to normal once they get the road back open.”

Tourist staples like Cowboy Coffee are in for a busy tourism season: Industry data show overnight bookings are up 11 percent over last summer, but time will tell if visitors will change their plans because of the pass closure.

Executive Director of Communications for the Teton County School District Charlotte Reynolds said for the schools, the timing was pretty fortunate. The last day of school for students was June 12.

“It's one thing to make that commute for a couple of days. It's another situation entirely to be thinking about that for months,” she said.

The school district employs roughly 600 people and Reynolds said about 10 percent of their employee base lives over in Idaho. Teachers over the pass were able to work remotely for their last two days on Thursday and Friday, and the district offered dry camping and a shuttle over from Idaho.

But Reynolds said that according to a survey sent out to employees, the majority of people had plans lined up already.

“They indicated they were going to drive themselves or had made arrangements with friends or family who live on this side of the pass,” she said.

The school district runs a variety of programs throughout the summer, ranging from credit recovery for high school students and extended support for students receiving special education services.

But according to Reynolds, only two of the staff members helping with those programs live in Idaho. She said the school district is keeping its focus on the short term for now.

“We have a little bit of time before we have to start thinking about what this would look like in the fall. So we thought, ‘Instead of going down that path too far, let's see how WYDOT’s efforts come together,’” she said.

Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is another one of the area’s big businesses, with about 500 employees in the summer. President Mary Kate Buckley said roughly 15 percent of those folks live in Idaho and need to work in person.

“I haven't heard that anyone has not made it over and I think this is just a great network of employees and the whole valley is so well networked,” she said.

The resort has been working with Teton County to ease up limitations on how many people can stay in their employee housing, as well as who can qualify for the employee housing and who can access short-term housing leases that might otherwise be restricted.

An emergency declaration issued by Teton County on June 12 allows all employees working at Teton Village to camp in the Ranch Lot parking lot at Teton Village.

Buckley said they’re also looking at letting people work different schedules and covering costs for those making the commute.

“We're terming it a hardship stipend, recognizing the increased burden of getting to work for the people who are based in Idaho,” she said.

Drone footage shows a highway making a 180 degree turn, with a big chunk of roadway missing. Bulldozers are clearing a detour to the inside of the turn.
Wyoming Department of Transportation
Construction workers clear trees to make a temporary detour around the landslide on Teton Pass.

However, the stipend doesn’t apply to people who are driving by themselves in an effort to encourage carpooling or riding the bus.

When it comes to how the closure might influence the resort’s approach to providing housing for its employees more generally, Buckley said they’ve got new housing in town for more than 80 employees that should be open within the month. They’re also trying to build more housing at Stilson, a major transit center at the intersection of Highway 22 and Highway 390.

“We just continue to look for opportunities to offer housing to our employees because it's so important to their ability to live here,” she said.

While the date of the pass’ reopening isn’t set in stone yet, Pearl Street Bagel owner Heather Gould said she’s hopeful it’ll all be temporary.

“I know that they're working around the clock to make it happen and there's just so many thousands of people that depend on that road,” she said.

Gould was working from home in Alta, which is in Wyoming but still over Teton Pass. She said the closure has got her rethinking having businesses in Jackson while living on the other side. She’s already been working to open a new Pearl Street Bagels in Driggs, Idaho.

“Depending on how that goes, that might affect whether or not I keep my shops open on the other side,” she said.

One thing’s clear: The community will have to keep rolling with the punches.

Hannah Habermann is the rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has a degree in Environmental Studies and Non-Fiction Writing from Middlebury College and was the co-creator of the podcast Yonder Lies: Unpacking the Myths of Jackson Hole. Hannah also received the Pattie Layser Greater Yellowstone Creative Writing & Journalism Fellowship from the Wyoming Arts Council in 2021 and has taught backpacking and climbing courses throughout the West.

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