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?