Town Shopping

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

  • Author John Fayhee searches for a new, undiscovered Western town to call home

    Todd Powell
  • Downtown Silver City, New Mexico, is glowing with the fresh pastels of gentrification, including the local health-food store

    Michael Berman
  • The town of Roslyn, Washington, gained fame as the mythical Cicely, Alaska, in the television series Northern Exposure. The Roslyn Cafe mural and Old West-style Main Street remain

    Joel Rogers
  • Roslyn and its surroundings later caught the eye of the developers of the giant Suncadia resort. Now, large and lavish houses like this one are under construction

    Joel Rogers
  • Jarbidge, Nevada, fixer-upper

    John Fayhee
  • Jarbidge, Nevada's local bar

    Thomas Hallstein/Outsight
  • Signs in downtown Silver City, New Mexico

    Michael Berman
  • In the foothills, new adobes are being set on pads carved into the pino and juniper in the new Dos Griegos subdivision

    Michael Berman
  • Silver's Brewer Hill is one of the last places in town working folks can afford, and likely is next in line for the bulldozers

    Michael Berman

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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."

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