Valley’s middle class: growing but troubled?
Middle-class life is hard to define, but folks know it when they live it.”We’re a country that considers itself middle class,” Colorado Springs-based economist Tucker Hart Adams said. The group of people who consider themselves “middle class” can range from those barely scraping by to successful business owners and professionals who “scrape by” at a higher level.For definition’s sake, Adams suggested looking at household income, then throwing out the bottom and top 20 percent, leaving the remaining 60 percent as the “middle class.” Using household income figures from the 2000 census, 55 percent of Eagle County families earn between $35,000 and $100,000 per year. While the census statistics are pretty aged now, low inflation and a national recession through those years probably means the household numbers haven’t changed too much.But Adams, who draws up annual economic forecasts for Colorado, suggested middle-class status goes beyond numbers on pay stubs.”I tend to think of the middle class as people with discretionary income,” Adams said. “That means they can handle the basics, with a little left over.”For some, that means a spring break trip to Hawaii or Disney World. For others, it means low-budget camping trips or vacations to relatives’ homes. But all those families get out of town once in a while.For Adams, who has also done work in Russia, the idea that middle-class life is covering the basics and a little extra seems to apply around the world. “In Russia, it’s the same, but the middle class is much smaller and the incomes are a matter of hundreds of dollars,” she said. Beyond discretionary income, middle-class status has a couple of other benchmarks. Owning a car or two is a good sign, but owning a home is a better one, Adams said.”Home ownership is crucial in the mountains,” said Colorado State Demographer Jim Westcoatt, whose office tracks home prices, employment and myriad other information about state residents.While renting may be a realistic alternative for middle-class families elsewhere in the nation, owning a home in the High Country can mean the difference between settling down and moving on.”As long as they can get a toehold, they may stay,” Westcoatt said. “Finding a place to live is a start.”How tough is it?Finding those places can be tough. Young families who remain in the region can’t buy homes similar to those their parents moved into 20 or 30 years ago. Those homes, in fact, may be sold for a handsome profit as vacation homes.Rising home values due to pressure from second-home buyers make Linda Venturoni think the middle class is in trouble in mountain resort counties.
“People have the most difficult time living a middle class life,” said Venturoni, a researcher for the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, a research and lobbying organization that represents local governments in the state’s northwest corner.That seems to be true for one young professional.”Buying a house is my biggest thing,” said Scooter Slaughter, 24, a graduate of Eagle Valley High School in Gypsum. “I wouldn’t mind paying a few hundred dollars more a month to buy instead of just throwing money away renting.”But having the money to take the leap into home ownership is a high hurdle.”Around here it’s not hard to find a place to buy, but it’s hard to find a place I can afford,” Slaughter said.It’s a problem that affects a lot of Slaughter’s friends from high school.”There are a lot of them in Denver or Rifle now,” Slaughter said. “Their long-term plans are to come back, but for now they’re buying places where they can afford it.”Asked if he thinks it’s harder for people in his generation than that of his parents to get established, Slaughter didn’t hesitate. “Oh, definitely,” he said.
Coming homeDan Gerbaz of Glenwood Springs had that advantage. After graduating from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, Gerbaz, 37, came home to the family business, Berthod Motors in Glenwood.”I’d done it all my life,” he said. “I’d worked after school and weekends, and it was easy to come home.”While Gerbaz was getting established as a young adult, he lived with his parents, which allowed him to save money to buy a home of his own. Gerbaz acknowledged a place to live and a spot in the family business gave him a leg up on a lot of his Glenwood High School classmates. But he knows full well the challenges of getting established in the mountains.”If you want to live here, there has to be a very real reason for it,” Gerbaz said. “Whether it’s family or outdoor activities, you have to know it’s going to cost you a little more to live here.”And, as Gerbaz goes through life, he’s seeing something surprising.”When we first graduated (from high school), nearly everybody wanted to get out,” he said. “But I see more and more people I know, and more I hear from tell me they want to move back. “This is a wonderful place to live,” he added. “You can’t find a better place in the world than this.”Always toughBut it’s always been tough to get a toehold. Dave Schiessel and his wife, Terry, are retired now, but remember clearly buying their first home in the Upper Kaibab subdivision just east and south of Eagle.”If I’d dug a little deeper, I could have had a lot of money today,” Dave Schiessel said. “I remember the lot next to us was $10,000. I just didn’t have it.”Getting that first chunk of money together was the problem then, and remains a problem now. But one local real estate agent believes there are opportunities for young families. Laurie Slaughter, Scooter’s mom, works for Prudential Gore Range Properties out of that firm’s Gypsum office. “The supplies are low right now,” she said. “And in the under-$300,000 market there’s much less available.” But buying a home today is easier than it was even a few years ago, she said.”Interest rates are low, and with 100 percent financing and other options, there are opportunities,” she said. “I’m helping a lot of my kids’ friends buy their first homes.”While home ownership seems to be one element of admission to the middle class, it’s far from the only one. Schiessel is a longtime member of the local Lions Club. He’s noticed a drop in younger adults joining the local service group.The Eagle-based club has just one member in her 20s, Schiessel said. Most of the club’s members these days are in their 40s or older.”It just seems like people in their 20s and 30s have a lot going on,” fellow Lion Ed Smith said. “They just don’t have the time.”Making it work
While money and spare time may be tighter than ever for families just starting out, opportunity still knocks.”If you have a niche, you can make it work,” said Jim Skoronsky, former owner of Jim ‘n I Auto Repair in Eagle. After more than 20 years of working for other people, Skoronsky opened his own shop a few years ago. It was a good move, he said.”I don’t think it would have been any tougher or easier anywhere else,” Skoronsky said. “I was able to bring a lot of customers with me when I opened up. That’s the great thing about small towns.”But opportunity, like housing, comes with a price. “The opportunities are here,” Schiessel said. “But you’ve got to have something to start with.”Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vail Daily, Vail Colorado