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More Dogs on Main Street

The Ritz-Carlton has checked out. They packed up the fluffy bathrobe and hit the road. To make the project work, they wanted to transfer approved density from the Deer Valley parking lots up the mountain to the Silver Lake area, making for a bigger project there, and theoretically, a smaller one on the parking lots when that comes along. They got a cool reception from the planning commission, and drew hostile fire from neighbors who were concerned that it was too big, or too much traffic, or that a Ritz-Carlton might bring down the neighborhood. So the developers decided that there were other places to make a buck and moved on.

Goodness, where will the wealthy stay?

Never fear. There is always another project. In this case, there is a couple. The Montage Resort is proposed near the Empire Lodge at Deer Valley. That’s on a site that is outside the Deer Valley master plan, and so it’s working through a slightly different process. It involves transferring density from the Park City Mountain Resort property (all those theoretical units that could be built in Jupiter Bowl) to the site. The Montage is a big project, and about as high end as they get. It’s a long way from approval, but is grinding through the process with little opposition, and a warmer-than-expected reception from the city.

Of course, the deluxe location that is closest to reality is the St. Regis and Kathy Lee Hotel over in Deer Crest. They are actually selling those units, and dirt is moving on the site. There will be mints on the pillows before you know it. The St. Regis and Kathy Lee is very high end. Their sheets have the highest thread-count in the industry. If you want a massage, they send somebody up to the room. No sticking a quarter in the Magic Fingers machine at this place.

I’ve been wrong about Park City real estate most of my life, passing up bargains and selling too soon. So, it’s no surprise that I don’t understand the sudden push to be in the luxury hotel business. It’s not like there is a shortage of top-quality lodging in town now, or that the seasonal hotel business in general is making anybody rich. I just didn’t think the market for hotel rooms that cost more for one night than most of us pay on our monthly mortgages was deep enough to support that many additional rooms. But apparently I’m wrong.

If they all happen, the sewer district will have to install new de-linting machines to get all the fibers from those huge, thick towels out of the system. The laundry facilities alone could use as much water as several homes. But the real impact for the rest of us, those who won’t be staying there, will be traffic, housing and schools.

Luxury hotels get to be luxury hotels by having a whole lot of employees there all the time. I think the figure the St. Regis and Kathy Lee people use is that there will be at least two employees on duty for every guest. Same deal with the Montage. Though Ritz-Carlton has checked out, somebody else will be checking in, and it probably won’t be Motel 6. The discussions with the Montage people are focused on park-and-ride shuttle lots out at the old tailings pond. It’s a system that is working pretty well for getting all the Empire Pass construction workers to and from the job sites up there. It’s not perfect, but it seems to have potential for helping mitigate the traffic on the mine road as all the employees move up and down the canyon.

But where will they live? Getting them to the park-and-ride lot isn’t the same as getting them home. This last year saw a huge shift in the low-end housing market. Prices have moved up so high that most of the inventory of "affordable" housing is no longer affordable to the service industry. Rents haven’t kept up with the sales prices (and really can’t unless wages also go over the moon along with the real estate prices). The end result has been that a lot of older condos that have been in the rental market for long-term rental aren’t there any more. They are either owner-occupied full- or part-time, or converting back to nightly rentals. By all accounts, housing was tighter this winter than it has been in years, despite the building binge. There aren’t enough vacant lots left in town to build that much housing.

So if each of the big hotel projects is going to require 500 or 1,000 new people to operate the place, maybe the first line of questioning at the planning commission ought to be where those people are going to come from. That question is more important than the design of the hotel itself. If the answer is that they are going to commute from Heber, Kamas and Coalville, it seems like some conversation with the planners in those town is appropriate. Three luxury hotel projects at 1,000 employees each could double the size of Kamas overnight. Real estate prices in those areas have followed the Park City market into the stratosphere.

The wages paid for hotel service workers won’t put those employees in the market to buy existing houses. They won’t be able to pay rents that support the current prices of houses or new condos. Not even as far away as Evanston. Some subsidy is inevitable and it probably involves a combination of bricks and mortar as well as transportation. The question is whether we recognize that up front, and get the subsidy built into the approval process (and the price of the rooms), or if it falls back on the rest of us to pay for the impacts on schools, traffic and, eventually, subsidized housing in order to maintain that two-to-one ratio of employees to pampered guests. I’m not sure anybody really needs a mint on their pillow at night, or fresh flowers twice a day, but if they do, I’m sure I don’t want to help pay for it.


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