Day 23: In A Skiing Boomtown, A Different Kind Of Bust

Sep 23, 2020
Originally published on September 23, 2020 4:37 pm

Nate Hegyi, rural reporter for the Mountain West News Bureau, is embarking on a 900-mile cycling trip crisscrossing the continental divide in August and September, interviewing and listening to Americans ahead of the 2020 election. You can follow along on social media, an online blog and this "Where Is He Now?" map.

September 18: Muddy Pass to Steamboat Springs, 26 miles

An important note here: These are my first-glance takeaways. Think of this as a reporter's notebook. A mosaic of voices over the next few weeks, cycling 900 miles across four states and dozens of small towns.

My last crossing of the continental divide happens at Rabbit Ears Pass, along the way to the terminus of this trip: Steamboat Springs, Colorado.

The sign marking the divide feels like an old friend who pops up to say hello every few days. But now I’m saying goodbye for awhile and it’s bittersweet – well, mostly bitter, actually.

I’ve felt freedom for nearly 24 days on these Western highways. The cold, dry air in the morning and the hazy, wildfire-laced heat of the late afternoon. The snow, rain and friendly tailwinds pushing me south to this point.

Now I feel like I’m eating my last meal and I savor everything.

I can barely hear the traffic whizzing by as I begin my descent into Steamboat – I notice the yellow aspens and willowy meadows framed by tall, blue spruce. The dead porcupine curled up on the highway’s shoulder. But the pass becomes steeper and soon I’m flying down towards reality at almost 40 miles per hour.

Massive homes and large-windowed condominiums sprout from the hills surrounding Steamboat Springs. There’s a golf course and a mansion that can only be described as a manor – like a Western version of a home you’d see in the English countryside. This looks like Jackson, Wyoming’s little cousin. A wealthy ski town surrounded by mountains.

Ending my trip here in Steamboat wasn’t part of the original plan, but wildfires shut down the viable highways through the mountains towards Greeley, which is home to one of our partner stations, KUNC. Even though I’m about 100 miles shy of my initial goal of riding 900 miles, I’m pleased the story ends here because Steamboat feels like the endpoint for Western, small towns that embrace tourism and growth. It’s been doing that for almost two decades.

Once I’m downtown, I grab some chicken tenders and sweet potato fries at the Shack Cafe. Owner Greg Williams is wearing a mask and takes down my contact information in case there’s an outbreak of COVID-19 that stems from his restaurant. It’s required by Routt County. After a while, we begin chatting. He’s 35 and has lived in Steamboat all his life. When he was a kid it didn’t have a Wal-Mart or a McDonalds, but in the early 2000s it exploded, he says.

“It’s a mixed bag,” he says. “Before I owned a restaurant I just wanted the town to myself. Now that I’m a business owner – the more the merrier.”

He says the construction of high-end homes is a big deal here.The median home price is about $650,000, according to the real estate website Zillow. Meanwhile, the median household income is about $71,000, making the purchase of a home nearly impossible for most families. So those homes, according to Williams, are being bought by wealthy out-of-towners who bring their money into Steamboat. That’s actually helped him raise wages at the restaurant.

“The rent here is so high that you have to pay your employees very well,” he says. “I start a line cook, for example, at $16 an hour and that’s just for two weeks of training.”

After that, they’ll go to $17, $18 or even $19 an hour. Williams says labor is his biggest expense and he recoups the cost by turning around tables quickly – he says he often has a line outside the door and down the sidewalk. But the pandemic has hurt his bottomline. The restaurant is operating at about half-capacity but he says he still has a decent profit margin in part because he owns the building and doesn’t rent.

Despite the high housing costs that tourism has brought here, Williams believes that the industry is a viable and stable option to reinvigorate a town’s economy.

“Just look at Steamboat now,” he says. “Even with COVID going on, the tourists are still coming. They’re spending their money. They’re paying their taxes – we have a [local] sales tax here. We have a lodging tax that’s specifically pointed at the tourism industry. That’s helped us survive.”

But I still circle back to the pain I’ve heard time and time again in tourism-dependent towns along this journey. It’s exceptionally tough to rent or buy a house in these towns if you are a working person that either doesn’t own a profitable business, have a trust fund or work as a doctor, lawyer or other highly-paid profession offering at least a six-figure salary.

It’s a struggle for Laura Tamucci, a mother and part-time art teacher at the Montessori School here. She’s reading to her two young kids in a park.

“It’s really tricky – like it is for most mountain towns – because living expenses are really high. I think there are tons of young people who can’t make it here. It was definitely a struggle for the first five or 10 years we lived here,” she says.

Tamucci’s husband works at Big Agnes, an outdoor gear manufacturer based in town. She says it’s hard for that company and others to attract new talent here.

“It’s always sort of hard to recruit and get someone to move here because rent or a mortgage are pretty high here,” she says.

Living expenses are the biggest concern for Tamucci when she thinks about the future of Steamboat Springs, in part because she says it shuts out economic and social diversity. Instead she believes it attracts more part-time residents. But she also takes pains to note that the local government has tried to preserve the small town feel here, and there are a lot of locals who have made the town work.

“It feels like a small town, which not a lot of small towns still feel like, I think, in mountain communities,” she says.

At that point her three-year-old daughter grabs my microphone and begins conducting her own interview. She babbles into it – I think she has the beginnings of a great public radio reporter.

Tamucci and her family eventually leave the park and I’m left alone there, sitting next to my bicycle and staring at the river that passes through town. The sun is on my neck and the ground is warm. The wave of nostalgia hits me again. I’m done with this bike trip, waiting for my colleague and buddy Beau Baker to meet me here in a rental car from Fort Collins.

When he arrives, we pack the recording gear into a hotel and hit the town – spicy margaritas at a fancy restaurant, courtesy of my editor, and then some long walks along Steamboat’s extensive bicycle and running trails. Late at night we spot a black bear lumbering near the hotel – a wild remnant of a valley that was transformed, long ago, into a skiing vacationland for Americans escaping their jobs in the city.

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