A new breed of 'ski bums' is anything but

Young people have to get creative if they’re going to survive in mountain towns

  • Wood River Valley in Idaho

    Diane Sylvain
  • Mathew Gershater in downtown Ketchum

    Tim Sullivan
  • Mathew Gershater with campers

    Tim Sullivan
  • Matt Hankes

    Tim Sullivan
  • Aaron Domini

    Tim Sullivan
  • Beth Callister

    Tim Sullivan
  • Pierre Herrera

    Tim Sullivan

KETCHUM, Idaho — In a grassy field at the center of this mountain town is a hot dog stand named Irving’s Red Hots. It was opened by a young ski bum from Chicago in 1978, back when Ketchum was the kind of town that closed Main Street each year for a Halloween party. Young lifestyle junkies were flocking to this former mining town just up the road from Sun Valley Ski Resort.

"I came out in a VW bug with skis and everything I owned," says local resident Ed Simon, who arrived in 1975. "That winter I skied 110 days and enjoyed the nightlife six or seven nights a week."

The cliché around Ketchum and other mountain towns was that you came for the winter and stayed for the summer. Simon is one of scores who bummed around for a while and then sank roots. As they got older, they bought property. They opened outdoor gear stores, restaurants and outfitting operations — businesses with an aura of fun that helped lure more young people. They started environmental advocacy groups, and served on public boards and ran for office. While the seasonal workers came and went, they provided the community’s backbone.

They also helped change Ketchum forever. A generation later, Irving’s Red Hots is one of the few landmarks in Ketchum that has survived. Once surrounded by bars and stores and beat-up miners’ shacks, it now faces tony antique stores and offices for psychotherapy and real estate. There are no more Halloween street parties. The streets, once full of young people heading to the bars in the evenings, are now packed with commuters driving south to affordable living quarters far down the valley.

And Simon, now 58, is the town’s mayor. Like other Ketchum leaders, most of whom are of his generation, he’s come to accept Ketchum as "an elitist town," which still thrives on the energy and labor of the wide-eyed twenty-somethings who arrive each winter. While nationally, 25-to-34-year-olds made up 14 percent of the population in 2000, in Ketchum, 20 percent of residents fall within that age range. The same age group in Jackson, Wyo. — another resort town — makes up 26 percent of the population.

"There will always be people coming and going," Simon says with a shrug.

But even in Ketchum, with its higher-than-average percentage of young people, it’s more often people Simon’s age who are coming, and younger people who are going. According to the U.S. Census, residents aged 55 to 65 rose from 7 percent of the town’s population in 1990 to 13 percent in 2000. During the same decade, Ketchum’s residents between the ages of 25 and 34 dropped from 28 percent to 20 percent. The statistics are similar in other resort areas like Jackson, Aspen and Telluride (HCN, 10/25/04: Can Vail find room for its workers?).

"(Young people) are really struggling," says Charlene Gallina, Jackson’s director of planning.

Despite the challenges, a determined new generation of entrepreneurs and civic activists is fighting for its place in the West’s mountain towns. Unlike its forebears, this new generation of "ski bums" is anything but.

A revolving workforce

Blaine County School District Superintendent Jim Lewis understands the difficulties facing young people in mountain towns. He says his district — which includes Ketchum and Hailey, and is often recognized as the best in the state — has been successful because it has a teaching staff that includes an older, seasoned core, as well as young, fresh minds.

But as the area’s cost of living has risen, it’s become harder to maintain that mix, he says. In Hailey, once regarded as an affordable living place for Ketchum’s workers, the average selling price of a home rose from $245,961 in 2002 to $338,465 in 2003, an increase of 37.6 percent.

Starting salaries for teachers are around $35,000, so most rent houses, and cannot afford to buy. Lewis says one out of every four new hires hands back his or her contract after an unsuccessful search for a home. Another 25 percent quit within the first five years.

In response, Lewis is mounting a campaign to keep young teachers from slipping through the district’s grasp. He has asked the Blaine County commissioners to build more affordable housing, and is eyeing 17 district-owned houses in the valley as possible teacher housing. He has also begun meeting with superintendents from other resort areas. "These communities, they need these young people," Lewis says. "That’s energy. That’s lifeblood. I think a community becomes unhealthy when it’s privy to only one age group."

It’s not just public employees like teachers, police officers and firefighters who are being priced out. Even professionals who cater to the surging building industry are hard-pressed to find a place in Ketchum.

Thirty-two-year-old Michael Shamblin took an apprenticeship with a Ketchum architecture firm after earning a master’s degree in architecture from Montana State University in Bozeman, where he wrote a thesis on environmentally sustainable building. In Ketchum, he does mostly high-end residential projects — many of them second or third homes, exactly the kind of thing he railed against in his thesis — but he’s still not making a living. He earns about $2,100 a month, but pays $800 a month for his apartment.

Sitting in the Cellar, a bar in Ketchum, Shamblin says he’ll soon be leaving for what he hopes are greener pastures in Montana. "What am I doing here?" he jokes. "I can’t even afford this beer."

Entrepreneurs and eco-jobs

Despite the odds, young people in mountain towns are taking control of their destinies. Today’s resort towns, because of their wealth and infrastructure, offer oases in the rural West for professional and business opportunities. As one Wood River Valley resident told me, "There’s a lot of money changing hands here."

And the new "ski bums" are an educated bunch. In 2000, 58 percent of Ketchum’s 25-to-34-year-old crowd had a bachelor’s degree, compared to 16 percent for Shoshone, a town 50 miles south. Twenty people out of one class of 400 from Maine’s Colby College have ended up in Ketchum.

"The idea that young people are all ski lift operators is oversimplified. It’s gone beyond that," says Ray Rasker of the Sonoran Institute, a Tucson-based nonprofit that works with Western communities to conserve and restore natural landscapes. "The generation that’s graduating now is the first one that’s grown up with technology. They don’t think twice about starting a tech company in a place like Livingston (Mont.)"

Matt Hankes is a fine example. He calls Ketchum "a bring-your-own-job economy." Hankes, who is 31 and from Florida, went from one restaurant job to another before he found his ticket in the tech boom. He helped start one of 13 "headhunting" firms in Ketchum in the 1990s that matched workers from around the country with jobs in Silicon Valley. Today, he is the marketing director of fedmarket.com, a consulting business based in Ketchum that helps companies do business with the government. He owns a ranchette west of Hailey.

With much of the same gumption, 24-year-old Mathew Gershater built a summer camp called Mountain Adventure Tours. Gershater is a well-known character in Ketchum, driving the camp’s old white Suburban, honking the horn and calling to friends on the street. He began with a job babysitting a half-dozen kids, and over the next six summers developed it into a combination day-care and environmental education camp. Last summer, the camp — which now hosts hundreds of kids — grossed $100,000. Gershater, who provides housing for his five seasonal employees, owns two houses in Hailey.

Even among mountain towns’ new underclass of Latino immigrants, there are young people who have succeeded. At age 13, just after arriving from Michoacán, Mexico, Pierre Herrera began washing dishes at a country club. Then he became a prep cook, then a line cook, and eventually, a sous-chef. He considered going to culinary school, but decided he already knew enough to start his own restaurant. Today, Herrera, 22, and his brother own the Phoenix Grill, which has a menu filled with ribs and roasts, and a solid wine list. He lives with the rest of his family in a house they own in Bellevue.

"Mainly what it takes is courage." Herrera says. "I have the balls to do it."

Taking on the deeper challenges

Many successful ventures are crafted around the second-home and tourist industries, which help make life even less affordable. But other young entrepreneurs are trying to turn that around.

Beth Callister, 32, started the valley’s commuter bus service in 2002. "No one was doing it, they were just talking about it," says Callister, an Ohio native. "I’d been hearing it for two years. I was crazy and idealistic enough to say, ‘I can do this.’ "

With money from the state, Callister started running a bus between Ketchum and Bellevue during peak commuting hours. In its second year, the bus enjoys moderate success, moving about 2,000 riders a month.

Aaron Domini, a 25-year-old from Ohio fresh out of a graduate planning program, turned down government jobs that paid over $50,000 to work for $30,000 for Citizens for Smart Growth, a Hailey-based nonprofit advocacy group. After two months on the job, he is challenging valley cities that have slowly squeezed out community housing projects.

"It’s about more than affordable housing," says Domini, who pays $900 a month for a one-bedroom cottage. "It’s a narrow way of thinking. You have to think holistically." He says minimum lot sizes are too big and just encourage the building of large, expensive homes. And he says Hailey doesn’t encourage apartments above downtown businesses, even though that could provide inexpensive living quarters close to jobs for young workers.

Hailey City Planner Diane Shay says the city recognizes the problems Domini points out, and has revised its growth-management and land-use strategies to address these issues. Still, many projects aimed at helping young working people face opposition from wealthy locals — or, at best, apathy. Mayor Simon and others killed a proposal to build an affordable housing complex on a city-owned block in the center of Ketchum because they said it was too expensive and would block the view of the mountains. Beth Callister has been trying to turn the commuter bus over to a public agency, but she says elected officials have been reluctant to take control of it. That makes sense, in a way: Very few elected officials actually need the bus.

Then again, Ketchum, with its rugged climate, has always been a tough place to live, even before it became so expensive. Matt Hankes describes waiting tables at the Sun Valley Lodge, taking the order of two Hollywood producers.

"New York," one said, "If you can make it there, you can make it anywhere."

"Bullshit," the other one said. "If you can make it here, you can make it anywhere."

The author writes from Portland, Oregon.

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