Town Shopping

 
Maintaining karmic balance in the New West’s real estate economy

"What if what you do to survive
Kills the thing you love?"

—Bruce Springsteen, "Devils & Dust"

When Patrick Conlin arrives on time, I’m so badly stunned I almost drop my still-frothing pint of amber ale. For 25 years, I’ve covered the real estate profession for a succession of small-town Western papers, most of them located in places where real estate is king. In all those years, I do not remember a single "real estate professional" ever arriving on time for a meeting.

Conlin, who has graciously been trying to schedule a meeting with me for several days, barely manages to squeeze in an hour between back-to-back-to-back property showings. His phone rings at least five times while we sip our beers and talk about the real estate boom, in which he finds himself bobbing like a cork in a whirlpool. He seems frazzled to the core.

"The real estate market here is unreal," he says, in the same detached-yet-panting tone in which Edward Abbey described Arches in Desert Solitaire. "It’s bigger than us; it has a life of its own. Right now, I am working all the time."

Conlin’s breakneck schedule typifies the lives of those who have answered the higher calling of real estate in hot-market towns like Ketchum, Park City, Jackson, Prescott and the various resort communities of the Colorado high country, where I live. But what is sobering here is that we are in none of those places. Conlin and I are talking in the Silver City Brewing Company in Silver City, N.M.

Silver City has always been my relocation fallback point, the town I have long suspected I would flee to when the development craziness of the Colorado high country finally wore me down. I lived here from 1976-82. I hoped, by the time I was ready to go back, that Colorado’s development craziness would have appreciated my home’s value enough so I could afford to sell out and pay cash for a house down here. (And it certainly has appreciated; I must say I appreciate it.)

But in the past couple years, Silver City has started to emulate the place I am getting ready to hightail it from. Along with the brew pub, Silver City now has a wine bar that serves only products from New Mexico. It also has a brand-new martini bar, a handful of impressive java huts, several new bistros, a great farmers’ market, a couple of bookstores and an amazing arts district. Few of these things would be here without the influx of newcomers, who run the stereotypical gamut from retirees to telecommuters to lifestyle-migrants.

Conlin is one of them. A native of Chicago, he came to Silver City after several years in Seattle, where he worked in the conference-planning business. "I fit the demographic of the people who are moving here perfectly," he says. "I’m from a major metropolitan area. I was looking to simplify my life, and I was looking for a progressive, eclectic town with a university. I was able to sell my house in Seattle and make enough to move here without a job, but not enough to retire."

Less than a year later, Conlin, who has a degree in public health, decided to get into real estate. Business has been bonkers ever since.

But every yin comes with a yang. There are palpable downsides to the boom that are tough to mitigate: Property taxes are going up, which is hurting locals. Rising housing costs are making it more difficult for lower-middle income people to enter the market. Silver City is sprawling in every direction, impinging on the surrounding wildlands and straining the town’s precarious water supply. And there are impacts on the local culture, the roots of which go back many generations.

For me, the transformation of Silver City from blue-collar copper-mining town with a small college (Western New Mexico University, my alma mater) to a vibrant real estate boomtown, boasting double-digit annual inflation and more than 500 properties listed, has been absolutely mind-boggling. My first reaction is: Man, if Silver can become a real estate hot spot, then, hell, anywhere can. Which is exactly the problem: Anywhere already has. Almost everywhere has. Unless you’re talking about Medicine Bow, Wyo., or Saguache, Colo. — towns that are flat-out dying — then, if it’s in the West, it’s most likely exploding.

According to Thomas Michael Power, professor and chair of the Department of Economics at the University of Montana, the West’s real estate boom is fueled by "investors looking for a productive place to park their money, given low interest rates and a dormant stock market."

The boom would hardly be more than a pop without certain pieces of our federal tax code, which encourages people to buy second homes, and to buy and sell real estate like so many stocks. In the case of Silver City (and not a few others) the transformation got a little help from the likes of Outside magazine, National Geographic Adventure, the L.A. Times and, yes, even Oprah.

In the West, it’s long been said, real estate follows "amenities." That used to mean ski areas, but the very definition of "amenities" is transmogrifying, says Patrick Holmes, with the Colorado College State of the Rockies Project. Amenities now include sunny weather, golf courses, horseback riding, quaint downtowns, music festivals, senior-friendly health-care facilities, and, if you read Outside magazine’s annual "Dream Towns/Where To Live" issues, charter schools, organic farmers’ markets (no ordinary farmers’ market for Outside’s readers!), hiking trails less than five minutes away, and the availability of yoga classes conducive to the needs of breast-feeding mothers.

"Lift-lines and gondola rides are the naive dreams of those who haven’t spent much time in the West," Holmes says. "Most people come here to live an idealized lifestyle, and many are probably finding that the ski towns, with all of their hubbub and condo-land, can’t provide that lifestyle anymore. People are looking for other things ... climate, slower pace of life, lower cost of living, space. And, more and more, they are taking themselves and their money to relatively unknown parts of the West that offer those things."

So, great: More of us are inclined — and can afford — to pick and choose which out-of-the-way, up-and-coming, as-yet-"undiscovered" towns we will call home. The question that needs asking, then, is: What impact does that hyper-mobile fiscal reality have on places like Silver City, N.M. — the towns that now present amenities packages that are up to snuff for portfolio-bearing emigrants seeking that perfect lifestyle investment they can call home?

 

paolob
paolob
Apr 10, 2006 12:33 PM

The following came in via our editorial box. -Paolo Bacigalupi, Online Editor

At first, I thought your jabs at the real estate profession were mildly amusing. I mean, in a recent issue you had two letters to the editor from Paonia realtors taking you to task for some comments you made, you stab them back with a cartoon placed smack in between the letters, and not less than two pages away is an advertisement for a 1300 square foot beach "retreat" going for only $1.6 million. Who wouldn’t get a chuckle? But the cover story in your last issue (Undiscovered Mountain Towns, 03/20/06) went right over the cliff. There are hints of realization by M. John Fayhee that the problem is really that there are so many people out there exactly like himself, but he never quite seems to tie it all together. He suffers post-Yuppie angst at the prospect that he might make a bundle on his home in Frisco, mostly because profiting on his investment would be offensive to his earth-muffin friends (a majority of whom no doubt have trust funds). Never have I seen so much success breed so much whining.Yes, people like to live in nice places. Yes, when demand outstrips supply, prices go up. I typically expect your cover story to present multiple sides of complicated issues. This one is nothing more than the stereotypical Northface fleece and cap wearing longhaired unshaven opinionated wanker driving his sticker-plastered VW van around the West, looking for a place to live. Please, for God’s sake, don’t land in my town.
Don’t get me wrong -- I have long referred to our local business group as the Fort Collins Area Chamber of Real Estate Agents. But before you print another inane, mostly offensive exploration of the obvious (many of your readers, myself included, are "them" after all), you might want to consider how much of the real estate boom money was once earmarked for your research fund.

Kevin Bailey
Bellvue, CO

szakin
szakin
Apr 10, 2006 12:36 PM

Great article - dilemma a lot of us are facing.

btw, it's "a couple of" not "a couple" - little grammar point

paolob
paolob
Apr 10, 2006 12:51 PM

Great article, but John forgot to mention geezerdom as the number 1 factor affecting his high country experience.  You're getting old dude, just like the rest of us.   Remember when the Moosejaw was the only watering hole in Frisco?  When Loveland Pass was the only way to Denver?  When Vail was a high-valley cow pasture?  When a night in the Hotel Jerome cost $30?  When Crested Butte still had dirt streets, coal smoke and dogs off leash?  When Telluride had no down-valley?  When El Jebel was just an intersection?  When Leadville had real miners? When a beer in Prescott was 25 cents, and Whiskey Row had real cowboys and no video screens?  You do?  Then you're a dinosaur.

Spence Havlick is right, but wrong too.  You can make a difference, but you're not going to change a thing.  Standing your ground is not going to restore the sense of the still untamed, always something new, always something fresh, always something just beyond, West.  You'll just wind up a picturesque old local, with a well-worn flannel shirt (from Patagonia for $60, though, instead of a thrift shop for $2.50) for the tourons and greyboomers to enjoy.  Kinda like the old fahrts in the quaint little ski towns in the Tyrol in their lederhosen.  You'll be a caricature, but you won't stem the tide.  What you will have is a life in a place of great natural wonder and beauty still worthy of your love.  And, you'll have broadband, soy decaf and geri-care in addition to that wonderful high-mountain air.  You could do worse than Summit County.

It's not about sprawl; it's not about the economy; it's not about real estate locusts or globalization.  It's about new generations washing over the old. Remember the Czechs in the Butte who tried to hang on while the town died after the coal mines closed through the 50s, only to be displaced by the Woodstock refugees in the 60s and 70s?  Those same pilgrims, the ones who didn't move on -- now the aging local gentry -- who seem to think everything would be find if they could just freeze time with fixes like subsidizing cattle ranching to preserve the out-West feel in the Slate River valley, are themselves being displaced the younger generations.  That's life.  One minute you're on the crest of the wave, then you blink your eyes, 30 years have gone by, and you're on the backside.

You want a time-warp rural experience?  You want cheap?  Try the south flank of the Tatras in Slovakia or the Carpathians in Transylvania.  But hurry, because prices have doubled in those places in the past few years too.  Or try the western Kalahari in Numibia, where prices are still relatively flat.  Try anything but searching for that little western mountain town that is both cheap, quaint and unchanging.  The only place you'll find that is in memories.

-- B Vaughan

maw1111
maw1111
Apr 26, 2006 12:22 PM

Yep. I hear ya, JF. Here I am in Hailey, Idaho (11 miles South of Ketchum, where there are now more banks on Main St. than bars, and more, mostly vacant , multi-gazillion $$$ "penthouses-with-Baldy-view" than any of us would have dreamed of in our wildest crazy ski bum dreams). Last year real estate went up 38%. In one year. After 12% & 18% the previous years. My little aluminum-siding-over-adobe.. (...that would be IDAHO adobe....that would be MUD.) house is now worth about 7 or 8 times what I paid for it. And I, too, of course, am grateful. And I too am looking for a nice cheap town where my property taxes don't triple in the next 2 years like they did in the last 2, where I have to shovel 6" of snow instead of 6', & where I can tend my pansies & not have to go to another City Council Meeting to fight for my survival. Anybody got any ideas? I'll be a good neighbor...my dog doesn't bark & I give cookies at Christmas. mawuebker@hotmail.com

llollio
llollio
May 18, 2006 10:34 AM

After travelling Mexico and Guatemala for these past few years I have to unfortunately agree with B. Vaughn in the previous post... it's all gone and we are getting old. I think we want the beautiful open spaces and rich, rooted communities we knew as kids. For us, it's gone. Oh well, another reason for re-incarnation, we get to be the ones on top again.

cbarker11
cbarker11
May 19, 2006 12:39 PM

As a former resident of Bend, Ore., I can relate. I was one of the last working class people to purchase an affordable house there in 2004. Now it's out of reach for many locals as Bend's proximity to California equity continues to exert its pull. As a result, gated resorts and golf courses have replaced ramshackle hay farms. Even Oregon's fabled land-use system -which instituted urban growth boundaries in the 1970s, when the seeds of sprawling destruction were being sown in places like Grand Junction, Colo. - is now under attack via a brutal property-rights (takings) law that threatens to further transform the rainshadow of the Casdades into just another Colorado. Man, as someone who grew up in Colorado, it really hurts to say that.

muberuaga
muberuaga
May 29, 2006 11:17 AM

I hope no one finds my town. I hope that soon enough I will have enough money to buy my first home. That way I can really make this my place for a long time. What about the dilemma a 25 year old activist faces? Not making enough money to compete with old retired mountain seekers or young rapers of the earth. I just want my own garden soo bad. It's going to be a while on the $23,000/yr salary I get for fighting for what I believe in. Searching for ideas to save the world and survive at the same time; any suggestions?

wildiris1022
wildiris1022
Sep 14, 2006 12:08 PM

loved the article, right to the point, and i have lived in some of those towns he mentions - Ouray, Sagauche and Alamosa CO, visited Roslyn WA and Silver City NM, it is a shame the way they are all losing their old allure .........but i have to agree with B Vaughn's interpretation of it all, we are getting old and nothing will ever be the same as it was in our younger years. i now live in Medford OR, (adjacent to Ashland, familiar huh ?) the prices here and the growth are just awful. we rent our house, i would never pay these overinflated prices. come to think of it, Sagauche is sounding better and better !

wildiris1022
wildiris1022
Sep 14, 2006 12:08 PM

a PS - i cant wait for your book on Cicely Alaska to come out. please let us know when you get it written ! that is one of the all time best shows on the telly. i want to live there too !

Silver City
chip lyman
chip lyman
May 14, 2010 04:22 PM
Hey John: What's strange is now when I go to SC I find the "new" folks asking me how I like their town, like a commodity, as if it is something they hold title to. I tell them I like it. Of course, I am now grey and look like the middle-ager that one becomes when the 50's hit and I suspect they want to keep me away from their jewel. They ask if it is the first time I've visited, and I say I've been here before, smile, and then wander up to the old Turner apartments and think of a very cool place in time I one inhabited where, sometimes, I think I can still hear the guitars play. Chip