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South Lake Tahoe has opportunities, challenges for new business generation

South Lake Tahoe has always drawn residents and visitors because of the area's lifestyle and atmosphere.

But now it's also becoming a locale for a new generation of business-minded people who see it as a viable place to live as they move away from the brick-and-mortar mindsets prevalent in the Baby Boomer generation. South Lake Tahoe's business experts and leaders see that as an opportunity, especially with a shift in where and how work is conducted.

Jamie and David Orr, two of Tahoe Mountain Lab's co-founders, said it comes down to lifestyle and a changing work dynamic as technology increasingly defines where work is done.

"Millennials are definitely working more, but we're choosing how and when we work," Jamie Orr said. "It may not be a traditional 9-to-5 or commute into the office with all your buddies on the train."

Tahoe Mountain Lab, founded by the Orrs and Jesse Walker, acts as a co-working space for a lot of location-neutral people in South Lake Tahoe. (Disclosure: The Orrs recently became co-owners of the Tahoe Daily Tribune building.) People use Tahoe Mountain Lab space as an alternative to working from home or in a cafe, while still sharing camaraderie with other like-minded individuals.

Jamie Orr said that, where Baby Boomers had a straight path (go to college, get a job, retire), Millennials have slightly different priorities.

Millennials represent the generation aged 18 to 34, most of whom came to age at the turn of the century.

Pew Research said in the first quarter of 2015 that Millennials make up one-third of the American workforce, or 53.5 million people.

"I think Millennials are much more willing to sacrifice a specific dollar amount in the paycheck for a better lifestyle," Jamie Orr said.

Examples include more flexibility in work schedule and recreation amenities not easily accessible in urban areas.

David Orr agrees, especially when it comes to a different pace.

"Keeping a fresh mind is really important, and that comes into play with South Lake Tahoe's access to recreation," David Orr said. "I can push off with one of the people here at the lab at any point in time and go for a couple of laps on Heavenly."

A push toward year-round recreation, plenty of open space and plenty of exercise are just some of the examples. South Shore's proximity to major areas like Sacramento, Reno and the Bay Area are other benefits.

Jamie Orr also noted stress as something identified in studies as a contributing factor to a loss of job productivity.

"People are realizing how much stress can affect work productivity both at home and at work," she said.

David Orr added that a lot of businesses in urban areas are starting to allow more telecommuting simply because of space limits.

"People in urban space are literally running out space so they're sending people out," he said. "In some places, the only way they can build is up."

A stable element on community, economy

People with remote and location-neutral jobs are also investing in the economy, according to Jenna Palacio, a public relations specialist, executive director of Tahoe Regional Young Professionals and a freelance writer for Lake Tahoe Action.

"They are spending their money here and boosting local spending, supporting our stores and retail areas," Palacio said.

Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce President Betty "B" Gorman agreed.

"Location neutral businesses and/or 1099 employees have a positive impact on our economy in the sense that they earn their money elsewhere and spend it in their hometown, so to the extent that they are here, we benefit from them," Gorman said by email.

Gorman added that location-neutral workers have been present at Lake Tahoe for years.

Attracting people who have the option to work remotely could also help stabilize an area known for having a transient population, according to the Orrs.

Some things like education offer incentives for people with families.

"There has been a lot of investment in this community in the K-12 schools and now in Lake Tahoe Community College," Jamie Orr said. "Families can be assured their children can stay here until they are 20 and then go to a good university."

The Tahoe Prosperity Center has been tracking job and population trends for years.

The Prosperity Center acts in a collaborative effort with other agencies to address important issues in the Lake Tahoe Basin. These new types of jobs could help diversify the economy.

"It has huge potential for lots of higher-wage jobs that contribute to the local economy," said Heidi Hill Drum, TPC's executive director.

The Center's 2010 report on Tahoe outlined the loss of 9,500 residents between 2000 and 2008 due to job loss. Approximately 2,000 jobs were lost between 2000 and 2007, followed by more in 2008 and 2009.

Drum said some of the recent indicators show there's been a drop in seasonal-based jobs from 50 percent to 44 percent, a sign that more nonseasonal jobs are finding root in the basin.

But she stressed it won't replace the current economy.

"Our main revenue is tourism and will always be based on is tourism," Drum said.

Challenges and opportunities

While South Lake Tahoe has the atmosphere fitting for a future, remote-based workforce, there are also a slew of challenges.

Affordable housing and connectivity top the list.

Overall, the use of Internet and mobile connections will continue to reshape the workplace, whether in the office or when working remotely.

Drum, with Tahoe Prosperity Center, said that's a problem because Tahoe currently lacks the infrastructure. During visitor peaks like the Fourth of July, the number of people strains the network.

"It's hard to have a business based on the Internet if you have reduced coverage," Drum said.

Tahoe Prosperity Center has been working on projects to identify gaps and ways to lobby for increased service with its Connected Tahoe project. Another project would be advocating for co-location cell towers that increase signals for major carriers.

A lack of affordable housing remains a central debate, according to Palacio.

"Anyone who has tried to rent or buy house has found it very challenging," Palacio said.

While it's cheaper than Silicon Valley, or even Sacramento, space is still at a premium.

"This is an issue that affects everyone," Palacio said.

She added a lot of the homes and office spaces in the area are antiquated and in poor shape.

Palacio said community plans like the recently approved Tahoe Valley Area Plan, which outlines future development in South Lake Tahoe's west end, could address that possibility through redevelopment.

"I see the plan as a good opportunity to ask if it is creating a better way of life and asks the hard questions," Palacio said.

Drum said redevelopment makes sense.

"Our position would be walkable, concentrated development is an absolute positive for the community and economy," Drum said. "Progress takes time but those policies should be something our governments should encourage."