Moving to the mountains, or struggling to stay
How will Eagle County's economy, population be reshaped by the coronavirus pandemic?
Speculation has swirled for months that the pandemic upending life across America could cause people to flee hard-hit cities for suburbs or more rural areas like Colorado’s mountain towns.
Business’s growing embrace of remote work options, at least for some jobs, could help more people move.
If the coronavirus sparks migration, what will that mean for places like Eagle County, which local economic development officials say is well-positioned to offer people the recreation and lifestyle opportunities they may be seeking?
Official answers to that question are likely a ways out.
For now, Vail Mountain School, at least, is seeing more students applying. The private K-12 school expects to be at capacity — with 445 students, an increase of 13 from last year — for the upcoming academic year and its waiting pool is the largest it has ever been, according to Jeremy Thelen, director of admissions for the upper and middle schools.
Interest in the school, which charges yearly tuition of $28,000 to $30,900 depending on grade, is coming from all over the country, and even internationally.
Some people trying to enroll students already own a second home in the Vail area. And the schools in many of their home cities are either not fully reopening, or not reopening in ways that inspire confidence.
“Some are looking for a one-year solution. Others are saying this is something they’ve been considering for years and this (pandemic) is just making it happen sooner,” Thelen said. “I can’t say the phone is ringing off the hook, but there is consistent interest on a daily basis.”
Thelen declined to say how large Vail Mountain School’s waiting pool is, but he added that it’s not only larger than in the past, but broader, applying to more grades.
Unlike a traditional waiting list, a waiting pool gives school leaders discretion to select students.
“I want to encourage people to apply,” Thelen said. “I feel we will see more movement this summer, and some of these folks will get in. They’re not at a disadvantage compared to the person who did it in May.”
From second home to home base
Vail Valley Partnership started a Welcome Home Neighbor campaign encouraging second-home owners in Eagle County to come back and stay for longer this year as one way to help spark demand for local goods and services.
Eagle County had one of Colorado’s highest unemployment rates in June, at 15.7%. And like many neighboring mountain counties, it has a high concentration of jobs most affected by the pandemic and government-ordered shutdowns and restrictions.
The campaign has been well received overall, with some reasonable concerns voiced about people possibly bringing the coronavirus with them, said Chris Romer, president and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership.
Romer called it a “bold and boring” campaign. Bold in that the county is one of very few areas encouraging second-home owners to return during the pandemic; boring in that people could already come to their second homes any time they wanted.
There’s no official data on how many of Eagle County’s second homes are being occupied, or how many people are deciding to stay in them longer, either temporarily or permanently, Romer said. But there’s certainly an opportunity for the county to add residents and economic activity, with about half of its housing stock composed of second homes.
“The next step is how do we encourage folks to stay here if schools aren’t opening in their home market, to stay here and do remote working from Eagle County, because of the benefits to our economy, businesses and towns,” Romer said.
“These are our neighbors, and the lights being on is better for our community at large than the lights being off.”
The hardest hit
So far, Eagle County Schools is not seeing a similar uptick in enrollment. Current projections forecast the public district to lose about 100 students, said Chief Communications Officer Daniel Dougherty.
In Eagle County and elsewhere, some affluent people may have second homes they can move to, temporarily or permanently, or be able to buy one, but migration traditionally slows during a downturn, said Colorado State Demographer Elizabeth Garner.
“Whenever there is an economic downturn, a catastrophe, a crisis, the folks always hit the most and the hardest are the lowest income, and this primarily, is what you are seeing this go-round. The jobs hit the hardest are all low-wage paying jobs except one or two, like dentists were hit hard,” Garner said.
Moving can be expensive. And a large majority of people simply cannot afford to keep a second home in Eagle County or “go buy a home up in Vail or anywhere in the mountains to escape for the year,” Garner said.
With her own state office closed to the public due to the pandemic, Garner is among the people pondering at least a temporary move to a second home her family owns in the mountains. “We’re talking seriously about it. Why not do something different,” she said.
Locally, real estate agents and firms are reporting a strong market, with limited supply and high demand keeping prices steady or rising and houses selling soon after they’re listed.
Hard to track
Garner and her colleagues around the country are tracking things such as real estate listings, sales, the supply of available homes, and vacation rentals to gauge interest. But even if people buy a home, that’s no guarantee they will live in it or make it their primary residence.
That level of detail won’t become clear until people start filing tax returns and declaring residency. “Unfortunately, it ends up being a year after the fact,” Garner said.
That goes both for high-wage earners who may be moving to second homes or considering a move as well as for lower-wage earners who are possibly struggling to remain in higher-cost areas like Colorado’s mountain towns because they have been laid off or their employer has significantly reduced hours and staffing needs.
Negotiations between the White House and Congress to pass another comprehensive federal relief package collapsed last week. On Saturday, President Trump bypassed the Congress and signed a series of executive orders attempting to provide scaled-back federal support. But the amount and type of federal assistance struggling Americans and businesses can expect in weeks and months ahead remains as uncertain as ever.
The situations of lower-income folks are what’s most worrying to people like Tsu Wolin-Brown, coordinator of the Vail Valley Salvation Army.
Through coordinated community fundraising and contributions from local governments, charity groups in Eagle County have been helping hundreds of families with rental assistance and even more with food assistance.
‘The assistance is not unlimited’
Demand for individual assistance seems to be holding steady or declining as more people have returned to work with Eagle County partially reopening. But as the coronavirus pandemic drags along into its sixth month, locally and around the country, it’s not clear how many lower-income people will be able to find enough work to make ends meet.
Throughout the pandemic, officials have reported increases in suicides, mental health problems, and substance abuse as well as food and housing insecurity. Uncertainty is likely only exacerbating those issues.
“The uncertainty of how long this is going to last, and what it will look like going into fall and winter remains paramount,” Romer said.
Local governments and partnerships need to continue core support efforts for the people and businesses most in need to help them persevere, Romer said, and Congress needs to pass another aid package now.
“Congress needs to act,” Romer said. “When we hit the fall offseason, leading into winter, we will be at emergency levels for our individuals and for our businesses both.”
Local resources and assistance can only go so far. “Even if charities have helped with rent, you can’t do that forever. The assistance is not unlimited,” Wolin-Brown said.
For now, Wolin-Brown, like many others, has more questions than answers about how the still ongoing pandemic is going to affect Eagle County, its livability, and its workforce in weeks and months and years to come.
“If this goes on for another year, I don’t know how people are going to hang on,” she said.
Tom Lotshaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.