Once dominant and thriving, is the Sun Valley 20-something teetering on extinction?
Trevon Milliard, 24, investigates the destruction of their habitat and how to encourage their reintroduction.
Photos by Mark Oliver, 28.
Several simple industrial buildings sit on a disjointed, one-block stretch of Ketchum’s Leadville Avenue. No signs or colorful logos welcome customers, but next to one door hangs a white flag displaying a mint-green polar bear to break up the monochromatic mix.
The door opens into a skinny room, filled with a row of tables supporting 40-year-old sewing machines. Stacks of pink, blue, green and orange cotton fabric overflow the high-walled shelves running the length of the room. Each stack is cut into the shape of a short-sleeved shirt.
In a back room Jeremy Bull, 27, and Alex Floyd, 25, sit at their desks, chairs back to back. They are co-founders of this fledgling organic-cotton polo shirt company, Collared Greens.
Coming to Sun Valley, Idaho wasn’t Bull and Floyd’s plan following graduation from college in Virginia with degrees in economics. It wasn’t even Plan B. They planned to enjoy the ski-bum lifestyle in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, for a couple of years. By chance, a friend, Randy Ashton, proposed they help him start a polo shirt company in Sun Valley. A new course was set.
A brief hiatus out West is something of a rite of passage for East Coast college grads. But Sun Valley isn’t usually on the radar. Most of Bull’s and Floyd’s friends back home had never heard of Sun Valley, and neither, according to a 2008 survey, have three-quarters of Americans. Their story is something of an anomaly. Twenty-somethings are just not coming to Sun Valley in the droves they once were.
In 1975 Carol Knight arrived sight unseen, age 25. “I had never seen Sun Valley. And I just had this image in my mind that this is a place I’d like to go—Sun Valley, sun,” said the schoolteacher from Minnesota. The 1970s were a booming decade. The number of 20-somethings here doubled between 1970 and 1980. Many of them, like Knight, worked back-to-back menial jobs until they started their own businesses, a number of which still thrive today.
By 1980, one in every four Blaine County residents was in their 20s, according to the smudged, type-written census report of the day.
By 2008, while the county’s resident population had more than doubled to 21,700, the estimated number of 20-somethings decreased by 312 to 2,123. “People have to start coming soon to replace us,” said 75-year-old Sun Valley resident Bill Wright of the Sun Valley Resort Area Marketing Committee, tasked with investigating the failing health of the economy here.
Examination of decennial census data shows the 1970s as the one-and-only mass migration of young adults into Sun Valley. In 1980, the dominant age group, percentage wise, was in their 20s. A decade later, it was the 30s, next the 40s, and now the 50s. Every decade, the valley’s controlling age group is 10 years older—meaning it’s the same people. They’re just getting older.
Baird Gourlay, 51, a member of this dominant age group, moved here in 1980, skied for a month, maxed out his credit cards, and then got a job working as a bank janitor. “I told my dad I was cleaning up in banking,” he said with a smile. Gourlay eventually fell into the sports business and co-founded PK’s Ski and Sports in 1981.
Currently a member of the Ketchum City Council, Gourlay is a champion for affordable housing to attract and retain young adults. Because, as he is all too aware, if the trend of an aging population continues, in two decades Sun Valley’s dominant group will be those over age 70.
Bull and Floyd are happy here, but it comes with a price. Work a lot and make a little. “We didn’t pay ourselves for the first year,” Bull said. “We were making shirts for free and bartending at the [now closed] Cavallino Lounge.” Now they pay themselves to live, but that’s about it. “A night job is still a part of it,” Bull said. “And we’ve got a firewood business on the side. It’s a struggle, but we’re surviving.”
Even though the business is established and growing—60 stores currently sell their shirts and neckties—they have been singularly unsuccessful in drawing their friends out here. The problem isn’t convincing them the valley is worthwhile—photos on Collared Green’s website and Facebook page do that. “Our friends are generally sitting in their ties in a cubicle and they’ll look at these pictures. That’s kind of an exciting part of their day,” Bull said.
But taking the leap to Sun Valley is another story. “They’ll literally talk about it and talk about it and talk about it,” Floyd said. “But as soon as it’s time to pull the trigger, they say, ‘I can’t do it.’”
“It’s hard to get somebody to drop something that’s stable to take a chance,” Bull added. And that blind leap is getting harder. In this economy, none of their friends feels like making that risky long jump.
Bumming around a ski town for 20-somethings, while once de rigueur, is fast becoming the exclusive domain of the trust-funder. While Blaine County’s residents are in the top 1 percent of America’s richest people—per capita personal income here is $65,500, while the national average is $40,500—it’s hard to find a way to make ends meet in Sun Valley.
That’s because $65,500 a year is not a reality. Similar Western ski-resort counties—such as Aspen in Pitkin County, Colorado, and Jackson Hole in Teton County, Wyoming—also have unusually high income levels per resident. Teton County ranks second in the nation with $131,000 per person, and Pitkin County ranks sixth with $93,600. Blaine County is 25th.
“This puts Teton, Pitkin and Blaine counties in a singular class of wealth as ski-resort communities,” said Bob Youngman, a Sun Valley city councilman who is also studying the current economic cycle. His research shows these resort counties are exorbitantly wealthy because half of all residents’ income comes from investments, not jobs.
In fact, Sun Valley workers and business owners make on average $32,000 annually, just slightly above the $27,000 national average, despite the much higher cost of living. In Aspen and Jackson workers make 50 to 63 percent more than Sun Valley workers. “In the end, that’s why people don’t live up here,” Youngman said. “They don’t get paid enough.”
The lack of career diversity in Blaine County adds to this disparity. “We have a hugely overeducated workforce here,” said 31-year-old Jon Duval, a Boston native who moved here at age 27. “There’s always that comment about bartenders with Ivy League degrees here.”
Resort economies rely on 10 sectors of industry: construction, retail, real estate, accommodations, restaurants, professional services, administrative services, finance and insurance, health care, and arts, entertainment and recreation.
These industries accounted for 80 to 90 percent of total workers’ earnings in all three ski resorts, according to the U.S. Bureau of Economics’ 2008 county reports.
In Jackson and Aspen, each sector makes up 5 to 15 percent of total workers’ earnings, meaning each piece of the pie is about the same size. The economies in those towns are diverse and balanced, incorporating many kinds of jobs.
In Sun Valley, construction, retail and real estate overwhelmingly dominate, accounting for 50 percent, while each of the seven other sectors represents 5 percent or less. “If there’s no diversity, you’re trapped, just like a miner in a mining town,” Youngman said.
Creating diversity presents a chicken-and-egg problem: The valley needs to attract young, ambitious workers to build a diversified economy, but career-aspiring workers won’t come here unless those jobs are available.
Take Barclay Thompson, 25, who first visited Sun Valley last June and “fell in love with the place.” She returned for the winter, but moved back to Portland, Oregon, and her job as an event coordinator at Nike. “That’s where my career was,” she said. “I always wanted to move out here, but I didn’t want to move out here and not further my career.” Fortuitously, she happened upon a job opening at Scott, based in Ketchum, and reversed her route. “Here I am: day four.”
“We look up to guys like Scott and Smith,” said Alex Floyd. Both those businesses started in Sun Valley (Scott USA in 1958 and Smith Optics in 1965) and have attracted numerous workers like Thompson over the decades. Collared Greens could relocate to attract those long-lost cubicled friends. But, like the founders of Scott and Smith, they want to be here. Plus, “handmade in Sun Valley, Idaho” has a nice ring to it.
However, Scott and Smith are the examples trotted out ad nauseam as evidence of Ketchum’s ability to attract talented workers. The firms started half a century ago, and since then, few others have arisen to produce quality jobs.
Young life does persevere in unassuming pockets of the community, like oases in a desert. One such is a house across the street from Ketchum’s Atkinson Park. And, like an oasis, most don’t know it’s there until they summit the closest dune. No cliché Bob Marley blankets serve as curtains, no beer cans in the yard or other obvious signs mark the presence of recent college graduates.
Inside live three roommates in their 20s, and a large shaggy dog of Burmese-Pyrenees origins named Pedal. The house, affectionately nicknamed the Ketchum Community Campus, is more like a dorm, with young tenants constantly coming and going.
Kellee Havens, 26, is the matriarch of the house. She moved to Ketchum from Portland, Oregon, in 2006 and knows of the temporariness this place holds. This summer, four friends are leaving after only a couple of years in the valley, worn down by the expense of living here. Wants can outweigh needs for only so long.
Havens works at the health club Zenergy and the Ketchum Grill restaurant. She’d like to drop one of her jobs “in the future.” But the phrasing makes it apparent that it won’t happen anytime soon. Yet, she doesn’t have any plans to leave. For both her and her boyfriend, Brendan Coyle, 27, that big mountain in their backyard keeps them here. “Skiing is definitely a draw for me,” Coyle said. However, the Dollar mountain groomer/parks attendant admits, “It’s a little tough. It definitely helps to hold multiple jobs.”
The house’s newest addition, 25-year-old Nick Smith, moved from Spokane, Washington, in November on the advice of a friend. “The lifestyle seemed very tantalizing,” he said. “So I moved down, and worked every night so I could ski every day.”
Now he works at the Ketchum Grill and as a wine distributor for Tastevin. He’d like to make Sun Valley his home, but the difficulty of sustaining himself scratches a question mark at the end of most sentences. “How do you keep people of that age group in the valley?” he asked. “Really, there isn’t a way. Everyone who is in our age group either has a pretty unique situation or multiple jobs.”
So where are these much-needed career paths going to spring from? The trouble is that companies with the potential to be the next Scott and Smith, like Collared Greens, need more cash to get started than their predecessors, especially to acquire property.
Mark Goodman, 26, knows firsthand the cost of building a business. He’s an associate planner for the city of Ketchum, having moved here in 2006, and sees how much money goes into new endeavors. “It’s different now,” he said. “To open up a big business on Main Street, you’ve got to have millions of dollars.”
This property price explosion trickles down to workers hoping to establish a home here but unable to afford more than a rented condo. In the 1970s, the median Blaine County home cost $87,000 in today’s money—five times the average worker’s yearly salary. It was affordable and comparable to the rest of the country.
From 2000 to 2008, the median home cost went from $360,000 to $600,000, while the average worker’s salary actually dropped by $2,000, falling to $32,000 a year—making it almost impossible to buy a home in the north or south valley. The result is young families no longer set their roots deep into the valley soil by buying a home; instead they rent. With that comes the flexibility, and sometimes willingness, to leave. “As you get a little older and get out of your 20s, renting a place is more and more a negative,” Goodman said. “Right now, I don’t care. But I don’t want to be paying someone else’s mortgage forever.”
However, the recession has created a chink of light, producing opportunities for the younger working class to buy a home in Hailey and Bellevue. House prices have fallen, and Windermere real estate agent Debra Hall said she’s doing something she couldn’t a year or two ago: selling south-valley homes to people in their 20s. Townhouses in Hailey are going for less than $100,000. “That, to me, is one of the positives,” she said. “We have a lot of things that draw people here, but we want people to live here and start businesses here.”
One example is the Cornerstone Bar and Grill, a new 121-seat restaurant that just opened in Ketchum. The owners, Erik and Meg Vorm, purchased the dilapidated 1884 brick building on Main Street a year ago, just after the economy tanked. “Everyone was on the sidewalk watching the car wreck,” Erik said. “No one was walking into the street to help out.”
Lower prices allowed the Elkhorn couple to buy the building, fix it up and provide a quality job to 31-year-old Jan Hegewald, who designed the bar area and now acts as bar manager. He had floated from job to job since moving here in 2002, at age 22. Now his roots are firmly planted.
“The whole idea is Ketchum 2010 and beyond,” he said, describing the frosty white bar he designed—illuminated at will by multi-colored LED lights. “And beyond” is an important concept for Hegewald, a member of the Ketchum Community Development Corp.’s economic development team pushing to diversify the economy by recruiting location-neutral businesses, such as Collared Greens. The CDC also wants more affordable housing (such as Northwood Place, which will have 32 units available this fall), and gives small loans to start-up businesses (25 loan applications have been received to date).
But if you build it, will they come? New housing and new business opportunities coupled with a revitalized, youth-orientated Sun Valley Resort (a new terrain park, gondola and superpipe are all aimed squarely at the younger demographic) are steps in the right direction. But without the tangible promise of a real community—where a footloose 20-something can begin to sow the seeds of a stable future—why would they?
Kellee Havens wrestles with this dilemma every day as she works two jobs just to get by. “To be honest, I can’t see myself anywhere else. I’d like to make it work here… .”
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