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Tom Clyde: Density or distance

Tom Clyde
  

Park Record columnist Tom Clyde.
Tom Clyde mug

There was an article in the New York Times about the housing shortage in Sun Valley and Ketchum. It was hardly news to anybody who lives in a resort town. There is a crisis in housing for the workers who make it all function in almost every resort community in the country. Moab’s workforce is squatting on Federal land. It’s generally illegal, but since the rangers who enforce it are also among the squatters, and the local economy would collapse if they were forced out, it kind of works. Last winter was a mess for a lot of reasons, including boneheaded management in Colorado, but the bulk of the problems were that nobody in town was adequately staffed. It’s not going to get better.

There was a contribution to the paper a while ago from a woman who was rightfully unhappy with her dining experience at a local restaurant. She had ordered Sea Scallops and instead got a plate of Idaho Scallops (spuds), and appears to have let an immigrant waiter have it. Disappointing as her dinner was, I suspect we need to get used to it. Who knows what was going in the kitchen, but I’m willing to bet that two employees were doing the work of six, and wondering why they are commuting from Evanston. Cut them a little slack, but at the same time, local restaurant prices create expectations that you don’t have when eating at Olive Garden.

In the end, the housing crisis and Karen’s tater-tots are the same issue. You can’t have a functioning resort community without the front line workers that make it all happen. We talk about essential workers—firefighters, cops, teachers—but that group needs to include equally essential people like cooks, dishwashers, hotel cleaners, and plumbers and electricians.



There are two solutions to affordability: density and distance. Stack-‘em deep and rent ‘em cheap, or haul them in from as far as it takes to find affordability. Everybody hates the idea of density, so for a generation, we’ve relied on distance to provide cheaper housing in Salt Lake, Heber, or Kamas Valley. So that’s over. Ivory Homes had just released a new subdivision of almost ironically generic houses in Francis that start at $1 million. They have lovely views and a mile or so of plastic fence that the elk smash on a nightly basis. These days, the “distance” option means Duchesne or Evanston. The distance option also means insufferable traffic in town, which we all hate almost as much as density. 

The distance solution, having largely failed, has us looking to density to solve the problem. The new Slopeside Village complex at the Canyons Village will eventually house about 1,100 mostly seasonal employees in dorm-style housing. That’s a huge step forward, but doesn’t get all the way. And if you make $20/hour, they still aren’t cheap. For people who are a little more rooted, starting families and becoming part of the community (or wanting to), it doesn’t help. There are 1,300 units at Silver Creek Village coming on line rapidly. Those address more of the family need. They are also crushing the Kamas school district and the Home Depot roundabout is often overwhelmed. It combines the worst features of both density and distance.



The much despised Dakota-Pacific project at Kimball Junction is coming back to life. I haven’t seen the new iteration and will reserve judgment for now. The plan that was soundly rejected by the community was a jam-packed combination of commercial, residential, and office space. Cut by half, it’s still huge. The County is enthralled by the addition of “affordable” units. The community is repulsed at the impact of maybe 3,000 people on traffic, schools, and just life. They might fit somewhere, but it’s hard to see how it works at Kimball Junction.

Density isn’t a perfect solution. All that new affordable housing is new people, and they will shop at grocery stores, which then need to add more employees who need even more affordable housing. Many of them will have school-aged children, who will require teachers, who also need a place to live. So adding a hundred affordable units doesn’t really add that many units when you net out the affordable housing demand that they create.

On the east side, there is land, but density is impossible without water and sewer systems. You can’t build density on septic systems. The only sewers are in the incorporated towns, and they have made it abundantly clear that they are not approving high density housing to solve Park City/Snyderville problems. Density is the antithesis of rural, and the east side wants to stay rural. We’ve developed an economy that relies on a customer who expects a very high-touch, pampered experience, and then made it impossible for businesses to hire staff to meet that expectation. Last winter wasn’t a fluke. That’s the future. So how do we fix it? It’s too late to put the cows back in Park Meadows, though in hindsight, it was really good pasture. Maybe we need to look at re-calibrating the visitor expectations, or dial back the number of visitors to match the available workforce to take care of them. One thing’s for certain, those tater-tots don’t microwave themselves.

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