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Park City firefighting agency provides minute-by-minute rundown of early response to Parleys Canyon blaze

Smoke from the Parleys Canyon Fire rises, as seen from S.R. 224 in Kimball Junction, hours after the blaze began on Aug. 14. The Park City Fire District on Thursday provided a detailed timeline of the battle against the fire, which forced thousands in the Summit Park, Pinebrook and Timberline neighborhoods to evacuate.
Park Record file photo

It was at 1:16 p.m. on Aug. 14 when the Park City Fire District was sent onto Interstate 80, toward Parleys Canyon and the border between Summit County and Salt Lake County.

The report involved a brush fire, described as small at that moment. To the Fire District it was a routine sort of report, the agency said on Thursday during a presentation to Mayor Andy Beerman and the Park City Council. There are numerous small fires each year like what was indicated on Aug. 14, the Fire District said. This one, though, would quickly become the raging Parleys Canyon Fire.

Peter Emery, the deputy chief with the Fire District, provided a detailed rundown of the first hours of the emergency response to the blaze. The Parleys Canyon Fire ultimately charred 541 acres, climbing up from the interstate and forcing evacuations from parts of the Snyderville Basin. The giant smoke plume was visible for miles in one of the most dramatic fires in the Park City area in decades.

The appearance of Emery at the City Council meeting, held virtually as leaders continue to attempt to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus, was designed to be informational in nature. Neither the Fire District nor City Hall appeared prepared to hold a detailed debriefing on Thursday, but the discussion likely indicated government leaders in the area will continue to address lessons from the blaze for some time.

The timeline presented by Emery was especially intriguing as he covered the step-by-step response. The Fire District as part of the initial dispatch sent three engines, a truck designed to fight brush fires, a battalion chief vehicle and a water tender, which transports water to a fire scene. The Unified Fire Authority in the Salt Lake Valley sent four engines and a battalion chief vehicle at about the same time.

The elected officials were told the battalion chief from the Fire District, who was driving on the interstate, reported a fire of upward of 10 acres, with the flames reaching 30 feet into the air. The battalion chief requested firefighting air support “for a fast-moving fire headed towards Summit Park,” a slide shown on Thursday said.

Some of the other parts of the timeline presented to the elected officials included:

• at 1:26 p.m., which was 10 minutes after the first report of the fire, firefighting resources from outside of the local agency were committed. The resources included a helicopter, two air tankers and three fire engines from the U.S. Forest Service.

• at 1:31 p.m. a Fire District battalion chief arrived and reported there were two fires within 1/2 of a mile of each other. The battalion chief coordinated “PCFD crews to begin an offensive fire attack on the east fire closest to Summit Park and has Unified Fire Authority attack the fire to the west,” the timeline said.

• within 30 minutes, the fire grew quickly, to between 50 acres and 100 acres, and the two fires merged into one moving in the direction of Summit Park. “PCFD crews are no longer able to reach the fire from I-80 and begin moving into Summit Park for structure protection,” according to the timeline.

• at 2 p.m., the command and control of the air response indicated more than 1,000 residences were at risk and within 1/2 of a mile from the fire.

• at 2:12 p.m., four air tankers from Colorado, Idaho and elsewhere in the West, under the control of the federal government, were ordered to the scene. They refueled and fire retardant was loaded at Hill Air Force Base in northern Utah. At the same time an evacuation order was given in Summit Park, with more than 90% of the people abiding by the order.

• at 3:30 p.m., an evacuation order was given in Pinebrook. A “strike team” of five engines was called for from the Salt Lake Valley.

• by 4 p.m., “most of the fire is only reachable by air.” The timeline indicated “an aggressive air campaign is waged during daylight hours.”

The firefighting efforts coupled with precipitation stopped the spread. The fire was essentially contained after six days and was ultimately extinguished.

“It was extremely close,” Emery said in his remarks to the mayor and City Council.

The elected officials did not hold an extensive discussion but appeared grateful for the firefighting efforts. They mentioned the importance of collaboration and coordination in the response to the fire.

Park City Mile Post 2021

Author Elisabet Velasquez will show Park City readers how it feels ‘When We Make It’

Poet and author Elisabet Velasquez will talk about her debut young adult novel "When We Make It" Wednesday at the Park City Library's Community Room. The free event is presented in partnership by the library and Utah Humanities Book Festival.
Photo by Jonathan Rojas

New York-based poet and author Elisabet Velasquez wants to introduce a girl named Sarai, a first-generation Puerto Rican eighth-grader, to Park City.

Velasquez will do that during an author presentation on Sept. 29 that will cover her debut young adult novel, “When We Make It,” which tells Sarai’s story.

The free event, which is presented by the Park City Library and the Utah Humanities Book Festival, will run from 7-9 p.m. in the library’s Community Room.

“It will be my first time in Utah,” Velasquez said. “I’m looking forward to it.”

“When We Make It” follows Sarai, who can see the truth, pain and beauty of the world both inside and outside her apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, which happens to be where Velasquez grew up in the 1990s.

Along with her sister Estrella, Sarai navigates the strain of family traumas and the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity in a rapidly gentrifying Brooklyn, according to Velasquez.

“Sarai is trying to figure out what it means to make it, and her story is inspired by my own life and my own questions about where my life was headed as a young adult,” Velasquez said. “With this book, I wanted to raise questions about the kinds of lives we’ve been told we have to live before we can say that we’re successful.”

Elisabet Velasquez's first young adult novel, "When We Make It," is about a girl named Sarai, a first-generation Puerto Rican eighth-grader who lives in Bushwich, Brooklyn. Velasquez, who is known for her poetry, wrote the novel in verse form and it addresses issues such as family traumas, the systemic pressures of toxic masculinity and housing insecurity.
Courtesy of Dial Books

That idea stems from when Velasquez became a single mother at 16.

“I had to leave high school to look for a job to support my daughter,” she said. “I was raised in a hugely religious family, and from the moment I found out I was pregnant I received messages and statistics from my mom, the news and pastors and society who kept telling me that I ruined my life.”

But Velasquez decided not to believe what the “experts” were saying, and turned to her imagination to find solace.

“I refused to be defined by those messages, and I began to dream up worlds that I previously hoped to live in,” she said.

Those vivid dreams led Velasquez to writing poetry.

“I think poetry is a good segue into hope, and I have always felt that even though we find ourselves in situations that seem completely hopeless, we still experience moments of hope,” she said.

Velasquez’s poems, which are an exploration of her own life, hit a nerve, and a few years later, she found herself performing at Lincoln Center Out Of Doors, the Pregones Theatre, the Bushwick Starr Theatre and other venues and events.

Her work was then featured in other media, including the Huffington Post, Latina Magazine, Vibe Magazine and on NBC.

Working on “When We Make It,” which she wrote in verses, was a different type of literary experience, she said.

“I feel like I’ve been writing this book my whole life, because I had fragments of poems, as well as complete poems, that I had been publishing through social media,” she said. “By the grace of the universe, folks related to my writing and began sharing them, and they went viral.”

The poems caught the eye of a publisher at Dial Books.

“The publisher reached out to me and I thought it was a joke at first,” Velasquez said with a laugh. “But it wasn’t and we met for lunch.”

At that time, Velasquez only had 40 pages of the story written.

“She told me to send her the pages, and then a week later, she told me she wanted to publish the book on the strength of those 40 pages, which meant I needed to come up with a narrative arc,” Velasquez said with a laugh.

Velasquez knew she wanted to keep the book in verse format, because she wanted to connect with her readers on different levels.

“I wanted the poems to be able to stand on their own, so someone could read from any page and take something away without getting lost in the story,” she said.

Velasquez also wanted to write against the expectations people put on each other when it comes to impressions regarding race, class and gender.

“Each of us were born with a number of rules based on what people see, and I feel that those

rules become limitations,” she said. “When I got pregnant, I felt like I was in a movie that everyone had ended for me. So, I had to walk out of that theater and write my own script that hadn’t been written yet.”

Velasquez also wanted the book to take issue with people’s perceptions of success.

“Folks tend to celebrate the singular story of how people overcome situations and get their doctorates,” she said. “The narrative is, ‘I did it, and you can, too,’ but what is happening is that we become accustomed to sizing ourselves and our accomplishments up against those feel-good stories, when sometimes getting out of bed some days or just staying alive are huge accomplishments.”

Katrina Kmak, Park City Library’s youth services librarian, said Velasquez’s trip to Park City was made possible through Willy Palomo, program manager for the Utah Humanities Utah Center for the Book.

“Her narrative speaks to so many people from so many different backgrounds, and I think everyone in our community will find something of themselves in this book,” Kmak said. “There are different perspectives shs provides. The local Latinx community deserves to have a voice and she provides that voice, and I think she will make a tremendous impact on the youth in our community.”

Utah Humanities Book Festival and the Park City Library Presents Elisabet Velasquez

When: 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 29

Where: Park City Library Community Room, 1255 Park Ave.

Cost: Free

Web: parkcitylibrary.org and elisabetvelasquez.com

Lineman Ian Morris dominates defenses on the gridiron, exams in the classroom

Park City High School senior Ian Morris, right, works on his blocking technique during offseason workouts. Morris is also a National Merit Scholarship semifinalist and an accomplished powerlifter.
Park Record file photo

Luke McCurdy met Ian Morris when they were both freshmen lifting weights in preparation for the Park City High School football season. McCurdy took one look at Morris’ large, bulky frame and knew immediately that he would be a force on the offensive line someday.

McCurdy and his friends were doing their workouts, and since they were freshmen, weren’t lifting all that much. But then they watched Morris go to work.

“He goes in, and I think he five-reps 315 (pounds),” said McCurdy, now a senior for the Miners. “And we’re like, ‘Are you kidding me? Who is this kid?’ and it was just a moment of, like, ‘This kid is a monster.’”

Park City’s offensive line believes that it’s one of the strongest in the state, with all of the seniors capable of squatting over 500 pounds. At the forefront is the 6-foot-2, 247-pound Morris, who is both a powerlifting world-record holder in his age and weight group for squatting 683 pounds and a semifinalist for the National Merit Scholarship, which is based on his score on the PSAT last fall. He’s played at tackle, guard and center for the Miners, depending on injuries to other offensive linemen or other changes.

“Ian’s a unique individual, he’s so much fun,” Miners coach Josh Montzingo said. “He’s one of the strongest kids I’ve ever met, a dedicated, hardworking guy. Super smart in the classroom, there’s not much he can’t do, he’s such a great guy.”

Morris’ trademark is his large water jug, which travels with him everywhere between school, the football field and the weight room. It even made an appearance at his side at last year’s team banquet.

“It’s always been his thing, it’s kind of indicative of who he is,” Montzingo said. “Like, ‘Hey, it’s going to be some hard work, I’m going to be ready, I’m prepared, here we go.’ And it’s just kind of a fun thing, we all kind of enjoy it. He is such a fun personality, it’s enjoyable to watch him go to work sometimes.”

Whether it’s on the field or in the classroom, Morris’ work ethic is unmatched. While others might relax for the rest of the day following summer workouts, Morris was taking an hour or so every day to work on SAT prep. In college, he’s hoping to study engineering or physics.

“Honestly, the biggest thing with both sports and academics is just keeping yourself organized and planning everything,” Morris said. “Football season is pretty laid out, which makes it nice because I can schedule everything around that. And it’s just a lot of work there, but you just got to sit down and do the work and then you’re good.”

In the same vein, the day after helping the Miners obliterate Ben Lomond 48-7 last year, Morris masked up and headed back into the classroom to take the SAT.

“You feel like crap in the morning, but honestly, have a cup of coffee while you’re taking the test, and you’ll be fine,” he said.

Morris’ natural intelligence benefits the Miners as well, like when he tutors his teammates when they need help. McCurdy, for instance, once approached Morris when he needed a boost in calculus.

“He’s at that point where he’s so smart that he expects it the way it’s supposed to, and sometimes it’s not at that level,” McCurdy said. “He’s a very straightforward person. He’s really funny to be around just kind of with how blunt he is sometimes and how straightforward (he is). He doesn’t beat around the bush at all. If he has something on his mind, he’ll definitely say it, no doubt about it.”

It also carries over to the field. McCurdy likens Morris and his football IQ to having a graduate assistant on the field.

“He’s really good at coaching without directly impeding the actual coach and what he’s instructing, what he’s saying,” McCurdy said. “Does a very good job of it and he is very mindful of the younger kids and teaching them about stuff they’re doing wrong, what they can do right, what he’s learned, how he went through it and how he learned how to do it.”

Morris has been a gym rat ever since he was in elementary school. Morris said his dad has always been lifting, so he started with “really light stuff” back when he was in third grade. But it went to a completely different level in high school.

“When I went into my freshman year, I was kind of reaching a plateau on how much weight I could lift, so I took it up with my now-coach Jake Benson, and we’ve gone from there to get me good at powerlifting,” Morris said. “My initial goal when I started that whole process was 500 squat by the end of senior year, and I kind of blew that out of the water. So, we went ahead and did a meet, and here we are.”

Morris attended the 2021 USPA FitCon Powerlifting Cup in Lehi in June, when he successfully squatted 628.3 pounds and then 666.9 pounds after jumping the ref’s count on his second attempt. He was allowed to make a fourth attempt for a personal record, so he loaded the bar with 683.4 pounds. With two men supporting the bar on each side as well as another one behind him, Morris huffed and puffed and managed to successfully complete the squat to hold the record for heaviest squat.

“My main focus there was to listen to the (referee for the count) because there’s very little that you could actually think about when you have that much weight on your back,” Morris said. “You can’t really breathe that much, so you just got to focus on one thing. And all the squat stuff was just muscle memory by that point, so that’s what I was focusing on.”

Working toward squatting so much weight that you can’t breathe isn’t something for the faint of heart, but neither is being an offensive lineman who can block the biggest players in Region 6 and also ace a calculus exam. The monster of the Park City weight room is more than just muscle.

“That’s kind of the nature, you get that a lot on the O-line and D-line, frankly,” Morris said. “You’re chucking yourself at another 300-and-something-odd pound dude for three hours in a row every Friday night. Being sane for that is not exactly a benefit, nor is it normal. But it’s fun to do, so I do it.”

Mile Post: Affordable housing crunch continues

Some people call it the “shoutiest debate on the internet,” and with good reason — the lack of not only affordable housing but housing in general impacts communities on a national level. The National Low Income Housing Coalition, for instance, says there is a shortage of more than 7 million affordable homes, affecting 11 million low-income families.

In Utah, Summit County and much of the rest of the state are feeling the crunch — and have been for quite some time. The challenge of satisfying the need for affordable housing was an issue long before the pandemic occurred.

“The real race is to create more dwelling units than households,” said Jeff Jones, economic development director for Summit County. “From 2010 to 2020, the housing gap in Utah shows a shortage of 44,500 units. It used to be that we developed enough housing units to where we could keep this in balance, but it’s become more challenging, particularly coming out of recession.”

Jones said developers were hesitant to reenter the housing market following the Great Recession, so communities fell behind on housing production.

“But people were still moving into the area for jobs while we fell behind in production, and we’ve been trying to play catch-up ever since,” he said.

Jones said the affordable housing shortage has broad impacts on the Park City community, acting as a force multiplier on issues such as traffic congestion. More people having to commute into Park City to reach their jobs, for instance, increases traffic on S.R. 224 and S.R. 248.

Yet, while most people in Park City support the ideal of affordable housing, not everyone is eager when a development is proposed near their neighborhood.

“The issue of acceptance is also a unique challenge,” said Jones. “Building a home is often a person’s largest investment. Many people don’t react in a positive way to new housing projects going in nearby. So you have the pressure to build more housing, but you also have the pressure of people who are less accepting of new growth.”

However, Summit County is already experiencing natural growth, Jones said.

“The last assessment completed illustrated we have an annual demand for affordable workforce housing around 400 units needed per year based upon our net natural increase and our net migration,” he said.

As winter nears, the need for service and hospitality workers stretches to around 6,000 jobs. Yet only 38.6% of Summit County’s workforce lives in the community, Jones said.

When Jones asked the Summit County Council what percentage of the workforce they want to capture, three council members indicated they’d like to see that number move closer to 50%.

Reaching that goal is likely to be challenging, as the issue of affordable housing has vexed many rosters of local elected officials over the years. But progress is being made.

“We have a number of housing projects in the pipeline right now, and we need to see what our numbers look like after some of those units are complete,” said Jones, referring to units at Silver Creek Village and a workforce project at Canyons Village involving 169 units and 1,100-plus pillows.

When companies move to Summit County, where their employee base will live is part of the conversation. The company must be able to recruit employees. If housing is not available, it jeopardizes the business. Summit County already has an inclusionary requirement, meaning that if a developer builds a new commercial space, they must set aside 20% of a project for affordable housing. Jones confirmed that applies to 80% of the area in Summit County.

“I think everybody is trying to find the best solution for housing affordability,” Jones said. “A lot is happening on the state level where people are trying to understand the needs and examine the best way to facilitate the production of housing. Hopefully, we all get smarter about how we build our cities and communities.”

Jones would like to see future decisions lead to housing that matches the employment sectors. He hopes this amenity-rich environment is something leaders can make available to those who work in Summit County.

“For Summit County, the main thing is we want to be responsible stewards of our environment so that what we pass down to future generations is equal to or better than what we currently have,” Jones said.

Mile Post: Economy proves resilient

In the early weeks of the coronavirus pandemic, many Parkites feared the health crisis could topple the local economy. Non-essential businesses throughout the county were ordered to temporarily close. Unemployment skyrocketed to levels dwarfing even those seen during the Great Recession. The prospect of the tourism industry collapsing, leading to widespread business closures, was not far-fetched.

A year and a half later, it’s clear that nothing approximating a worst-case scenario ultimately materialized. Businesses reopened. Tourists came in the summer and again in the winter. Ski season not only happened but surpassed most expectations.

The Park City economy, in short, proved remarkably resilient.

As the second summer in the coronavirus era comes to a close, Parkites now have every reason to be optimistic, according to Jonathan Weidenhamer, City Hall’s economic development manager.

“At a high level, I would say we’ve recovered,” he said. “We’ve recovered in different ways. But in terms of performance, in terms of sales and sales tax, in terms of visitation, in terms of busyness and all the things that come with it, I think we’ve recovered to not even pre-coronavirus levels but actually to our best performance ever.”

One of the first indications that the pandemic would not sink the economy came last summer, when the town was busy despite concerns about the illness and the cancellations of the events that typically bring visitors such as the annual Fourth of July parade and the weekly Park Silly Sunday Market.

Weidenhamer said visitors drove from places as far flung as Texas and California in search of Park City’s abundant outdoor recreation opportunities, which many saw as a COVID-safe entertainment option. In past summers, visitors who drove to town typically came from within a three-hour radius.

Meanwhile, second-home owners — who either already had a home here or decided to buy one — viewed Park City as an ideal place to ride out the pandemic. Their contributions were crucial. They pumped money into the economy with each takeout order from a restaurant and every time they patronized a Main Street shop, said Erik Daenitz, the deputy budget director at City Hall.

“Inasmuch as that adds a persistent source of demand … that is a good thing, in that it creates a sort of base, a higher base, especially seen in the shoulder seasons,” he said. “That’s a trend we’ve been seeing in our models and in the empirical data.”

Those same factors remained at play throughout the winter. Despite concerns that the spread of the virus could force the mountain resorts to stop the lifts, as it did in March of 2020, the ski season not only started on time and continued through its scheduled end but saw Utah set a new record for skier days, with 5.3 million.

And now, at the tail end of another busy summer — this one aided by the COVID-19 vaccination effort and the return of large-scale events — Weidenhamer and Daenitz are optimistic that the economic momentum will persist.

That would be welcome news for Jennifer Wesselhoff, the president and CEO of the Park City/Chamber Bureau. She said the community has been fortunate to have weathered the pandemic better than many other places in the country but that the recovery has been uneven for some industries. She pointed to businesses such as restaurants, event producers, catering companies and meeting planners as ones that have been hit hardest by the pandemic.

A strong fall shoulder season followed by a stellar winter could go a long way toward helping those industries get back to full strength — though a tight labor market now presents a different hurdle.

“The challenge now is just we don’t have enough employees to manage to that maximum capacity,” she said. “I don’t really know of many businesses at all who are operating at max capacity. Almost every business you talk to has vacancies.”

Still, compared to the outlook in the spring of 2020, the economic picture is remarkably positive, Weidenhamer and Daenitz said. And Parkites have every reason to believe that the turmoil that roiled the economy in 2020 is truly in the rear-view mirror.

At the same time, they can be assured that, even once the pandemic is over once and for all, many of its effects will remain, though not necessarily in a negative way.

Daenitz expects, for instance, that the trend of visitors making lodging reservations closer to a vacation rather than booking months in advance will continue, while restaurants that didn’t offer takeout prior to the pandemic are likely to provide that service going forward.

Those, he said, are just two of many examples of how a generational health crisis will leave a lasting mark on the Park City economy, even if it didn’t, ultimately, crush it.

“The impacts and effects of COVID,” he said, “are likely to be something that will stay with us in perpetuity.”

Mile Post: Rise of the remote worker

Imagine getting paid to work from some of the world’s most scenic recreation destinations. Ten years ago, few people would have considered it. But what was once a provocative marketing angle to attract workaholics to luxury resorts exploded as a strategic defense for keeping companies open during a pandemic.

With remote work now pitched as a sign-on bonus in a tight skilled labor market, its prevalence impacts Park City. But how much? And what is it about Summit County that appeals to this new workforce?

One of Park City’s more visible residents, Amy Roberts, is VP of communications at KNB Communications, a public relations marketing agency based in New York City. But you likely know her for her weekly column in The Park Record.

“I had been working for a local organization, which went temporarily remote in March of 2020,” Roberts said. “I realized I was much more productive and overall happier not going into an office. So in February of 2021, I decided to make remote work permanent and took the job with KNB.”

Roberts is one of around 48.7 million people in America, or about 35% of the employed workforce, who work from home as a result of the pandemic. This is according to a Current Population Survey (CPS) published by the Census Bureau.

And Roberts is not alone among these new remote workers in seeing the Park City area as an ideal home base. The real estate market has been hot since COVID emerged, and there’s been a sense in the community that the pandemic opened the door for many of the people moving to town to live here while working remotely.

Jeff Jones, economic development director for Summit County, said the data shows that remote workers are indeed prevalent.

“According to the American Community Survey, the people who work remotely in Summit County make up 13.7% of the labor force,” he said. That’s almost double the estimates in Wasatch County (7.5%) and the entire state of Utah, which averages around 6.6%.

The survey also listed Clearlake, California (13.4%), and Taos, New Mexico (12.3%) as top destinations. Even St. George reports a remote labor force of 13.4%. If you see a trend of remote workers flocking to areas with rich amenities — like Park City’s outdoor recreation and cultural offerings — you’d be right.

Roberts believes a destination is also determined by what it isn’t.

“Traditionally, people have been forced to live close to where they work. But now that so many employees are not at the mercy of a company’s address, it makes sense they’re choosing a location more compatible with their lifestyle. Recreation, weather, climate, quality of life, access to nature — they’re all kind of a given in Park City,” she said, adding that easy access to an international airport makes those quick trips back to headquarters relatively easy.

This new labor force may even be big enough to impact, say, the grocery store line, or the ability to get a last-minute reservation at a Main Street restaurant. But according to Jones, it’s unlikely to exacerbate the area’s affordable housing crunch in the long term because many of the workers will earn wages that allow them to break into Park City’s pricey real estate market.

“Prior to the advent of the shared economy and Airbnbs, for instance, much of the existing housing product could be offered to residents,” he said. “But because the return on that (for a property owner) is much less than short-term rentals, that’s where the competition would be. A higher-wage worker can rent another house, whereas it’s harder for a worker collecting lower wages to have that option.”

Regardless, it seems likely that Park City’s remote workers are here to stay. An Enterprise Technology Research survey, for example, predicts that the percentage of permanent remote workers is expected to double this year.

What emerged as a solution for companies in the early days of the health crisis has likely transformed the workforce — and by extension Park City — permanently.

Mile Post: Brighter days for tourism?

As the coronavirus pandemic hit in the spring of 2020 and forced an early end to what was on pace to be a record-breaking ski season, it was clear that the health crisis would be a blow to Park City’s tourism industry. The questions were how much would it hurt, and for how long.

The answers won’t be entirely clear until the pandemic is over for good. But fortunately for Park City and those who depend on the health of the town’s tourism industry, the fallout has not been nearly as bad as many initially feared.

And as the 2021-22 winter approaches, there is plenty to be happy about, said Jennifer Wesselhoff, who leads the organization tasked with promoting Park City as a tourist destination.

Wesselhoff, the president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/Bureau, is not ready to declare that tourism will see a return to pre-pandemic levels this ski season given the lingering uncertainty about how the coronavirus will affect travel — not to mention unpredictable snow conditions — but trends are pointing in the right direction.

“I’m definitely optimistic,” she said. “I think maybe cautiously optimistic is probably the best way to describe that.”

One of the factors that will ultimately determine the success of this winter is whether the international travel market, which cratered last spring, will rebound. Wesselhoff said the local tourism industry won’t be fully recovered until that happens, but the prospects remain unclear as countries around the globe continue to grapple with the pandemic.

But as Wesselhoff contemplates the upcoming ski season, she is encouraged by the performance last winter, when the pandemic conditions were much worse. International travelers weren’t coming, vaccinations weren’t widely available and coronavirus case counts in Utah and the rest of the country were skyrocketing. Visitors came to Park City nonetheless — the state set a new record with 5.3 million skier days, for instance, though occupancy numbers in town were down compared to before the pandemic — and spent enough money to keep the economy afloat even in the absence of the Sundance Film Festival.

She characterized the winter as “way better than what anyone expected.”

“We’re really, really lucky that we made it,” she said. “And we outperformed any of our guesses of how we thought we were going to perform. With that being said, we were still down like 30%, you know. … So it’s not like we’re breaking any records.”

While the Chamber/Bureau does not yet have robust data about this summer’s performance, Wesselhoff said the early returns were strong. And it’s clear to anyone who has visited Main Street during, say, the Park Silly Sunday Market or who has sat in a midsummer traffic jam that the town is packed with visitors.

Like last summer, Wesselhoff said, people have flocked to Park City for its outdoor recreation. It’s helped that Summit County has the highest vaccination rate in Utah and that COVID case counts have been relatively low even as numbers have risen elsewhere.

Those factors will hopefully also propel the tourism industry going forward as it continues to recover from the pandemic, she said.

“Park City has a lot of the attributes that people are looking for right now, as they’re thinking about how to travel safely and how to do it in a way that will keep their families safe,” she said.

Mile Post: Boom times continue

It’s a good time to be selling a house in the Park City area. Plenty of people see it as an opportune moment to be buying one, as well.

The Park City real estate market has continued to boom in 2021, a continuation of a record surge that started in the months after the coronavirus pandemic hit and people began flocking here for access to outdoor recreation and wide-open spaces.

According to second quarter statistics released by the Park City Board of Realtors, the number of single-family home sales rose 65% between April and June in Summit and Wasatch counties compared to the same period in 2020, while condo sales increased 76%. The median sales price for single- family homes soared to $1.44 million on the Wasatch Back, a 58% spike, while that figure hit $717,600 for condos, a 9% increase.

Activity was particularly brisk in Park City proper and the Jordanelle area, but nearly every area the Board of Realtors tracks saw increased sales — of both single-family homes and condos — and higher sales prices.

Jamie Johnson, the CEO of the Board of Realtors, said the trend of people coming to Park City to ride out the pandemic seems to still be at play.

“I do think that’s still the case,” she said. “I think that there’s the component of so many other states are not as progressive as Utah has been when it comes to schools reopening, to the community reopening, and so we’re seeing individuals who may want to move away from the areas that they’re in where their kids can’t go back to school, or their families aren’t able to re-engage into the community.”

A lingering question that many Parkites have is whether the buyers who’ve moved here during the pandemic plan to stick around when the crisis is over.

To Johnson, it’s still too early to say. But it’s possible that after a few winters of shoveling snow, some will decide to return to where they came from.

“There’s still so much uncertainty in our country and the direction of the pandemic and what’s going to happen,” Johnson said. “I don’t think there can be a call on that yet. I think, just personally, that people came here for the lifestyle and for the beauty of our state and area, but I could see in a few years there being this exodus back to where they came from because if they came from Southern California, this isn’t Southern California. (But) there’s too many factors to give an answer to that question, honestly.”

Regardless of whether the newcomers ultimately put down roots, Johnson sees plenty of reason to believe the real estate market in Park City will continue at something similar to the current pace. That’s true even if the industry nationwide, which has surged since last spring, slows over the next couple of years.

Perhaps the only hiccup in the market is a tight inventory, which Board of Realtors President-elect Rene Wood said is likely to be an “ongoing issue for a while,” even in places like the Heber Valley where the bulk of homes in the area are being built. But inventory shortages are unlikely to reverse the sales trends seen since last spring.

“Over many years, we can see statistics showing that our market doesn’t ebb and flow like the rest of the country does,” Johnson said. “Even in the downturn of 2008, (Park City) didn’t dip the way the rest of the country dipped. So I don’t know that I see this major fallout in the next few years. I think we’ll continue to be this place people want to live and people want to have second homes.”

Beyond the horizon

While the Heber Valley and Kamas Valley may not have the allure and name recognition of Park City, people are finding out that they have plenty to offer prospective homebuyers. Those areas continue to be two of the areas in the region experiencing significant growth.

According to second-quarter data from the Board of Realtors, single-family home sales were up 26% in the Heber Valley and 50% in the Kamas Valley. They saw increases in the median sales price of 40% and 45%, respectively.

Rene Wood, the Board of Realtors’ president-elect, said buyers who can’t afford a place in Park City or the Snyderville Basin see the areas as attractive alternatives. They have their own amenities and perks and are still within a short drive of the ski resorts.

“Heber Valley has always been the place where people come in, they look in Park City and can’t afford Park City … so they come over the hill over here,” Wood said. “But our prices have gone way up.”

Mile Post: Workers hard to come by

While many beloved businesses temporarily closed their doors last spring due to COVID-19, the Park City economy rebounded from the shutdowns quickly. And with vaccines readily available and businesses reopened to the public or increasing capacity, the pieces are in place for a continued economic boom.

The only thing missing is the workers.

Across the country, businesses in the service industry like retail shops and restaurants are ready to kick things into high gear but struggling to find staff to hire. Jennifer Wesselhoff, president and CEO of the Park City Chamber/ Bureau, said the hiring situation is a nationwide crisis and Park City is not immune.

“With declining fertility rates, baby boomers leaving the workforce, women not re-entering the workplace, the uncertainty of kids in school and virtually no-net migration growth in Summit County, the labor supply has dwindled to the point of crisis level,” she said.

Wesselhoff said businesses are taking steps such as closing for lunch or on certain days, raising wages, enhancing benefits and allowing more schedule flexibility to attract and retain staff, “but the situation is dire now and will only increase during peak winter season.”

Wesselhoff said the end of federal unemployment insurance has brought some more people back to the workforce, but not enough to fill every open position.

“Everyone is short-staffed,” she said. “There is no one to fill the gaps. But our businesses are resilient.”

She said the shoulder season basically no longer exists, and that’s left service industry workers further exhausted.

“Owners, managers and supervisors are cleaning rooms and washing dishes,” she said.

Brooks Kirchheimer, co-owner of Hearth & Hill in Newpark, said he thinks just about every restaurant in the Park City area has at least one opening posted.

“We are doing everything we can to ensure we are fully staffed, but inevitably the problem facing the entire hospitality industry is that many former employees have changed careers or relocated, which has created a shortage of candidates,” he said.

Kirchheimer said his restaurant has offered full medical benefits to full-time employees since it opened, and has gone further in order to attract employees: a 401k with a company match after a year of employment and a free daily family meal, to name a few perks.

“In addition, we give our current associates a referral bonus if they have a friend join our team,” he said. “Plus, we’re a growing company, so we’re able to offer career advancement opportunities.”

A common refrain from current and potential employees, Kirchheimer said, is a desire for a comfortable workplace, even over higher wages.

“For many, the pandemic put a lot of things in perspective, so employees are seeking out opportunities that suit their personal desires for the future as well,” he said. “Basically, they prefer to be at a place that they enjoy and feel valued personally as people and not just as employees.”

A point of frustration Kirchheimer said he and other employers in the service industry are facing is that employees are much more likely to walk off the job abruptly.

“Because the landscape has shifted and the demand is so high for workers, those employees will probably get hired somewhere else in town the same day,” he said.

Shirin Spangenberg, who co-owns Escape Room Park City, said she recently had an employee walk out within an hour of their first shift after receiving an attractive offer from their former employer to return.

“It’s an employee market right now,” she said. “We have paid more, cut back our hours and are now thinking of shutting down a couple of days a week.”

Escape Room Park City was about to move into a new location so it could expand, Spangenberg said, but she decided not to out of fear of being unable to staff it adequately. She said many of the employees who would normally commute in from surrounding “bedroom” communities like Heber City no longer have to do so, as they can work from home for similar pay.

“They don’t need to come to Park City for a bigger paycheck,” she said. “The solutions are hard to find.”

Both Wesselhoff and Kirchheimer pointed to the potential return of foreign workers on J-1 visas this winter as a potential boon, though it will not be enough to fill the current gap. Looking further into the future, Kirchheimer said he is hopeful more permanent solutions can be found.

“I know this is a hot topic, but affordable housing will be crucial to the growing economy of Park City,” he said. “As this town has always been a center for tourism and hospitality, it’s important for us to have permanent residents to create a more robust workforce to support those industries.

“In order to do that, Park City needs to ensure it is equitable to all with fair housing options, which will only attract more workers to the area as we continue to grow.”