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?
To me, this is much more than a dispassionate journalistic question, because this is a story about my yearlong search for my next hometown. I really can’t say how many towns I have scrutinized, because, like a lot of people who have grown tired of the ruination of the Colorado high country, every time I hit the road, I envision the possibility of moving to whatever town I happen to be passing through. And I’ve passed through an awful lot of towns, from Alaska to Brazil.
Here’s the double karmic whammy: Selling your 83-year-old house in ski country after 17 winters for as much money as possible drives yet another nail into the socio-economic coffin of the town you’re leaving; while taking that money somewhere else, where the housing costs are cheap by your distorted resort-town standards, only further pushes housing prices out of the range of most of the locals, so that you’re hammering yet another nail into your new town’s socio-economic coffin. Yes, I would be contributing in not one but two places to all the bad things we Westerners talk about when we’re drinking beer and lamenting how things "around here" ain’t like they used to be — no matter where "around here" is.
Patrick Conlin, however, is unencumbered by such remorse. As Silver City’s most successful broker/agent for the last three years (he made more than 100 sales in 2005 alone), Conlin is riding a seemingly unlikely fiscal crest all the way to Fat City. "I think the real estate market here is very healthy and very sustainable," he says. "I see the market increasing the next three to five years, with prices continuing to go up, along with demand. There’s no sign of it letting up. Without real estate, Silver City’s economy would crash."
I wish I shared Conlin’s enthusiasm, but after he dashes out into the midwinter night, I sit and ponder a couple of salient questions: Is it possible to move to a new place in the West without contributing to the killing of that place? And can you cash out of the old place without leaving behind a nasty karmic wake?
My main I-would-love-to-live-here fantasy town has long been Cicely, Alaska, the fictional setting of my all-time favorite TV show, Northern Exposure. The show was actually filmed in Roslyn, Wash., and, so, like many people, I inaccurately and unfairly overlap the two, to the degree that, when I visited Roslyn last August, I expected at any moment to see characters like "Chris in the Morning" walking down Main Street.
An old coal-mining town, Roslyn, population about 1,100, managed to maintain its unpainted cultural underpinnings — a cross between aging redneck miners and the hippies who came here 30 years ago, when you could buy a house for $1,000 — despite being just 100 miles from Seattle and despite the fact that, from 1990-’95, the town was beamed in situ into the living rooms of several million adoring Americans every week during the Emmy-Award-winning heyday of NX.
Stunningly, the Northern Exposure influence scarcely scratched Roslyn’s surface. When the show was cancelled, Roslyn was still Roslyn. For about five years, that is. Then Suncadia, the largest resort development in Washington state history, reared its imperialist head a mere mile outside of town. Suncadia, when it achieves build-out in 10 years or so, will have 2,500 homes and three championship golf courses spread about its 6,600 acres. (Most of those homes, according to Suncadia media relations person Alex Hillinger, will be second homes, which opens up a whole ’nother can of real estate boomtown worms, which we’ll get to later.)
One of the side effects has been that the price of local housing in Roslyn has literally doubled in the past four years, according to the town’s mayor, Jeri Porter. You might think that the locals, long accustomed to scraping by, would be dancing in the streets, counting their fiscal blessings and checking out timeshares in Puerto Vallarta.
Not so, said Cheryl Cox, a fourth-generation Roslyn resident who owns Lefty’s, a java hut/restaurant/natural-food store. (It’s right across Pennsylvania Avenue from "Joel Fleischman’s" Northern Exposure office, which now serves as one of the few reminders that NX was ever there; it is a gift shop specializing in "Cicely, Alaska" T-shirts and coffee mugs.)
"A lot of people moving here now just don’t get it," Cox said as we sat outside in the rare Cascades sunshine. "They effuse about the increased property values, telling us that, if we don’t like what’s happening in town, we can cash out with enough money to retire and go somewhere else. But where do we go? We don’t want to leave. We like it here."
Roslyn is starting to see the development of parallel cultural universes. For example, according to Cox, the Suncadians have their farmers’ market in the middle of town, with no concern whatsoever about the impact that organic produce has on the business that she’s worked five years to build. "I have an organic grocery section, and, on the days when they have their farmers’ market, my business takes a big hit," she said. "Not once has anyone come over and asked if I would like to participate in the farmers’ market."
The next day, Arnold Palmer helped dedicate the first of Suncadia’s three championship golf courses. More than 500 people watched as Arnie hit a few shots down a perfectly coifed fairway. I scanned the crowd for familiar Roslyn faces. There were none. I made mention of this to several townspeople later that day. "I don’t know of anyone here who was invited," was the unanimous answer.
"Why would we have invited any of them?" was the response from Hillinger, Suncadia’s media guy. "They don’t own homes at Suncadia."
I picked up a copy of Roslyn’s MLS listings and spent an afternoon wandering the town’s back streets. When I did the same thing two years prior, I seriously thought I could cash out of Colorado and move here. Now, not only were the prices completely out of my range, but the town’s vibe just flat-out felt different. There were more new SUVs parked around town. And the houses, which had remained pleasantly unpainted for 100 years, were now blazing in bright Victorian pinks and purples.
On the surface, all this may seem good, or, at worst, benign. But I couldn’t help but notice that the local workmen were giving me what can best be described as the hairy eyeball as I walked around, assessing $300,000 fixer-uppers that, like the new Suncadia resort residences, are increasingly the domain of second-homeowners. (Apparently the workers figured that since I was looking, I was one of "them.")
"What do you think this town will be like in 10 years?" Cox had asked me, knowing that I lived in the belly of the real estate beast. I was tempted to ask her if she’d ever visited Telluride, Colo., but I didn’t. "It will be different," I said, in the same honest-but-evasive tone Kevin Costner used in Dances With Wolves, when asked how many white people the Sioux ought to expect for dinner.
Actually, I have no earthly idea what Roslyn will be like in 10 years, because I don’t know how things work in the Pacific Northwest. But I do know that I have, with a heavy heart, checked Roslyn off my potential relocation list, the same way I have, one by one, eliminated towns as disparate as Homer, Alaska, Silverton, Colo., and Jerome, Ariz., and for the same reason: Too damned late.
Pulling into downtown Jarbidge, Nev., on Labor Day weekend, I knew (just KNEW) deep down in my corpuscles that this would be IT, the last undiscovered cool Western hamlet. This was a place so far removed from the cultural and economic mainstream that there would undoubtedly be dozens of nice and funky fixer-uppers. I would soon be trying to decide whether the historic log cabin back in the aspens or the quaint false-fronted general store — both surely available for under $20,000 — would be more to my liking.
Jarbidge boasts that it is the most remote town in the Lower 48. It’s 105 miles from Twin Falls, Idaho, where people go to shop. It’s 102 miles from Elko, the county seat; you can’t even get there in the winter because of a snowed-in dirt-road pass. It boasts one little general store that looks like something straight out of The Outlaw Josey Wales. Jarbidge has a population of 40 or 50 in the summer and eight to 12 in the winter. Crossing Jarbidge Creek and turning onto the main drag, I had visions of Bisbee, Ariz., circa 1975, a place that, with the proper progressive planning and the right population mix, could become an artsy haven for folks like me who are weary of the New West’s increasingly obtrusive rat race.
But the first thing that caught my eye as I slowly drove from one end of Main Street to the other — a distance of a mile or so — was the preponderance of FOR SALE signs. A total of six or eight in a town that boasts maybe two dozen houses. And, with the exception of one cabin best described as "cozy; needs bulldozing" (which, come to find out, was listed for $52,000), all the available properties were closer to $200,000 than to $20,000.
I headed to Jarbidge’s one bar, the Outdoor Inn, for a cold one. It being midday and all, I was the only customer, and I started hobnobbing with the bartender, who had lived in Jarbidge for three years. She had just learned that she was likely going to have to move, because the owners of the place were going to mothball the bar — and her employee apartment out back — for the winter.
"The few houses here for rent run $800 a month, and there’s no way on earth I will ever be able to buy a house in Jarbidge; they’re just too expensive," she lamented. "The prices keep going up and up every year, and people, mostly from California, keep buying ’em as fast as they are listed. They’ve got the money."
She was especially bummed because almost every house in Jarbidge would be shuttered in the winter. "They’re almost all second homes," she sighed, as I started looking for the hidden Candid Camera crew. This just couldn’t be happening here — not the same dreary beat-down monologue that has echoed through the Colorado high country ever since downhill skiing became more of a real estate amenity than a fun thing to do in the winter.
Arguments about this kind of second-home market are likely to rage forever. Some say that second-homeowners put less of a strain on public infrastructure while paying the same property taxes as full-time residents. Others say second-homeowners don’t contribute as much to local economies, because they’re simply not there enough to support local grocery stores and bars the way full-time residents do. But one thing is indisputable: Second-home mania causes a drop in the housing supply for locals, driving real estate and rental costs up and up in an endless spiral.
"You could try Tuscarora, if this is too expensive," said one old-timer, who was puttering in his yard. He was selling his two-bedroom, one-bath house for $170,000 for no other reason than he figured he could get that much. "Supply and demand," he snickered. "We’ve got very little supply of housing here in Jarbidge, and there’s a lot of demand for it. There aren’t many places like this left. People are looking for remote towns that are unaffected by growth that they can come and live in the summer."
The old-timer told me he was looking to cash out of Jarbidge so he could buy a motorhome and spend his golden years traveling around the country. "It’s the American dream," he said, putting a funny spin on the slogan.
It took me 15 minutes to find Tuscarora on the map. By the time I found it, of course, I was already too late.
Now, in January, I’m telling all this to Gary Clauss as we stroll to the top of Boston Hill, where we can see almost all of Silver City. I know the nooks and crannies of Boston Hill well. Thirty years ago, I hiked all over this mine-pocked ridge many, many times. In those days, Boston Hill was where people went when they wanted a little exercise but lacked the time or (in my case) a vehicle reliable enough to drive to Gila National Forest.
Today, Boston Hill is dedicated open space, 400-plus acres of land protected in perpetuity by the Silver City town government. It boasts a volunteer-built trail system and parking areas replete with interpretive signs.
Though the Boston Hill Open Space is a result of Silver City’s real estate boom (it was established to protect the place from development), now, ironically, it’s another lifestyle "amenity."
Clauss, a member of the town council, is running for mayor in the April election. He emigrated to Gila County from Ridgway, Colo., 11 years ago, mainly because he was tired of all the growth in Ouray County. He bought a little casa (the first he has ever owned) in an old part of Silver City and went about the slow process of integrating his life into his adopted town.
While Clauss points to the single-acre plots, adorned with the latest in single-wide architecture, that form the western and southern peripheries of the town, I look north toward my beloved Gila National Forest, at 3.3 million acres the largest contiguous national forest in the Lower 48. (Now that’s an amenity!) I look at the sea of rooftops extending into the Little Walnut drainage, where I once lived in a $65-a-month trailer. Less than a century ago, this was the home turf of Geronimo and his much-feared Chiricahua Apaches. When I lived here, there were only a few houses out Little Walnut way ... the story of the West.
Clauss seems tired, like a man who has fought too many battles, who now fights as much out of habit as desire. "I find it hard to agree that, just because real estate prices are increasing, that’s good for the town," he says. "Sure, real estate/amenity economies bring new people to town, and some of those people are going to contribute very positively to Silver City, but the basic premise of the pro-real estate argument is that our population has to increase. You can’t have a strong real estate economy based upon long-time locals merely selling their existing houses to each other.
"I don’t mean to diminish the value of the new construction jobs our real estate boom has caused. The locals really need that work. And I don’t want to diminish the importance of the new capital that is coming to town," he adds, like a man being politic. But so far, he says, the boom has benefited the realtors and developers more than the longtime locals. "All we get out of the deal is more houses and higher rents and property taxes. As it is right now, we do not have the economic infrastructure to pay local workers enough to get into the increasingly inflated housing market. How is that good for Silver City?"
His close friend Joe Hutto, who has lived in Silver City for 25 years, agrees. "I understand that many newcomers have become valuable additions to our community. Towns can’t stay culturally isolated; you need new blood to stay healthy," he says. "But I believe we have not only the right, but the obligation, to deny water to new developments. I believe we should make developers pay significant impact fees, and that we should somehow figure out a way for the town to directly benefit from real estate transactions. If we don’t, the things we love about Silver City will die. It’s that simple."
That argument — often framed by pro-development people as "anti-growth" or "close-the-door-behind-you" — is hard for someone like me to hear, mainly because I want very badly for the door to be left open, at least until I decide if Silver City is where I want to hang my hat. The sad fact is that I have been making the exact same argument in the Colorado high country for almost two decades. And, in places like Aspen and Boulder, where close-the-door attitudes have spawned strict limits on building, the results, however well-intentioned, have been increased sprawl just outside the town limits, and higher housing prices inside. When it comes to karmic wrestling matches, sometimes you can’t win for losing.
There is no way to come out of this feeling good about selling my house in Colorado for as much money as I can possibly get, and moving to Silver City — or anywhere else, for that matter. As Carl Franz says in The People’s Guide to Mexico, "No matter where you go, there you are." And with you comes all your baggage.
So what’s a Westerner to do? An honorable man would take the advice of longtime Colorado writer Hal Clifford, who wrote the following in an essay in the Mountain Gazette: "This is perhaps the only answer to the paradox of the West. Be here. Not only now, but for a long time. Long enough for our kids to be here, and our grandkids. Long enough for the little fruit tree we planted in our front yard to grow and fatten until it overspreads the whole yard, the sidewalk and this old, old house we have just built. Until we decide the West is home, and not just another bonanza, another place to cash in and clear out on the way to somewhere else, we’ll never get the West right."
In other words, find your place, raise your flag and stand your ground, come hell, high water, or population increases and development pressures so severe they make your head spin. (The fact that Clifford sold his newly built house in Telluride and moved to Massachusetts to take a job with Orion magazine shortly after his essay saw print diminishes this sentiment not in the least. Well, OK, maybe a little, but only a little.)
But not all of us are cut from that holy cloth. Some of us get irredeemably tired of the constant growth-related battles and the defeats and the new shopping centers and the new this and that. Some of us just have to lower our flag and move on.
I know, I know; if I were honorable, I would sell my house in Frisco for just what I paid for it, plus what I’ve spent to spruce the place up, and the price of one final beer at my local pub. But there is nothing I could do without shooting myself in the foot. Even if I sold that house at a price acceptable to all my granola-crunchy amigos (none of whom own real estate), what would stop the purchaser from selling it to someone else for a horrendous profit two days later? This is Summit County, Colo., after all — the nation’s largest ski/real estate emporium; such things have happened.
"Become the change you want to see," Gandhi supposedly said, or something along those finger-wagging lines. It is my guess that the Mahatma never owned any real estate, or, if he did, it was not in the heart of Colorado’s ski country.
So I turn for guidance to Spenser Havlick, professor emeritus in architecture and planning at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and a man I have known and respected for some years. (For what it’s worth, he owns a second home in Summit County, Colo., near where I live.) First, he echoes Clifford’s sentiments: "Stay where you are. Run for town council. Fight for your town!" Then he surprises me.
"If you are absolutely overwhelmed by what has happened in the Colorado high country … move to one of the many dead and dying places in the West, to Medicine Bow or Saguache, places that have been missed by the boom. Then, make certain no one is ever allowed to write anything about those places. Let no one come in and argue in favor of growth as salvation. Raise your flag in a place off the map, and stand your ground!"
Havlick is a wise man, and he makes a good point. There is no way for me to relocate to Silver City without helping to kill the thing I love, no matter how hard I try to convince myself that the good I would bring with me (including my ill-gotten real estate money) would more than balance the bad. We all think that about ourselves, all of us who, as this magazine’s slogan says, care about the West.
I still plan to hightail it out of the overdeveloped Colorado high country. But I’ve factored Havlick’s off-the-map comment into my relocation search. I’m now looking hard up a lonesome desert highway, toward a little-known town called ...