Comparing ski towns: South Shore seems to lag
March 13, 2006
For two weeks this winter, I traveled the American West and visited three ski towns. I started my trip in Park City, Utah, headed north to Jackson Hole, Wyo., then ended with a stop in Telluride, Colo.
On the surface, the trip sounds like a golden opportunity to shred freshies on the Tribune’s dime. However, it was much deeper than that.
The bosses financed the trip because they wanted me to profile these towns and explore their school districts and affordable housing programs. Our civic leaders have invested significant time discussing roundabouts and convention centers and tourism, but not nearly enough on declining school enrollment and affordable housing.
Regardless of what our leaders have chosen to focus on, these are South Shore’s two biggest issues. They are fundamental problems that are unraveling our community. Without a viable, long-term plan to combat them, we will continue to decay.
Since 2000, more than 1,000 students have left California’s Lake Tahoe Unified School District. Percentage-wise, lake enrollment in Nevada’s Douglas County School District has experienced similar drops. In the last six years, at least 50 teachers have lost their jobs on both sides of the state line.
If not for the tremendous effort by Support South Tahoe Athletic Teams (STAT), athletics would’ve been eliminated during the 2004-05 school year. If declining enrollment continues, which analysts suggest, athletics will likely have to be cut in the future.
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Moreover, the median home price on South Shore has increased from $168,000 to $475,000 since 1998. While rents haven’t increased at the same level, they are rising faster than wages. Soon, the bulk of our workers won’t be able to buy or rent here.
These dramatic increases in real estate values have prompted many locals to cash out on their homes, while their children – the veins of any community – are leaving with their parents. Replacing them are second-home owners, creating a situation where 70 percent of our homes are now owned by people who don’t live here.
It’s not breaking news that second-home owners drive up real estate prices, but it is newsworthy that there hasn’t been a real effort by any South Shore agency to establish an affordable housing program that benefits both our full-time residents and our seasonal employees.
Affordable housing programs that offer home ownership opportunities allow residents to become permanent members of our community. A portion of these people will have children who will then enroll in our school districts.
Most second-home owners treat our community like a commodity in their portfolio, an essence of capitalism we cannot control. What we can control is learning what other ski towns have done to make homes more affordable and duplicating their efforts.
This first step is an important one because, as evidenced the past six years, South Shore continues to lose full-time residents at an alarming rate and continues to not address ways of replacing them. So, in effect, we are strangling ourselves.
This is not a fairy tale. This is not an illusion. This is our reality.
For an elected official to acknowledge this reality and not work toward creating a strategy to reverse it is both irresponsible and embarrassing. Ducking the issues is cowardly and ignoring them only encourages our decay.
Sure, we can blame the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency for strict building regulations that have denied growth. But we should also commend the TRPA because South Shore doesn’t have widespread suburban-style residential and commercial developments found in other ski towns.
We can also blame El Dorado County and Douglas County and the city of South Lake Tahoe, but pointing fingers doesn’t alter history and it doesn’t correct our problems. We correct our problems by making decisions that attempt to fix them in the future.
Apathy, defeatist attitudes and blind eyes only accelerate our community’s deterioration. Our leaders need to understand that, because what I discovered in Park City, Jackson Hole and Telluride is that these issues must eventually be dealt with. It’s just a matter of when leaders start making decisions.
Over the next three days, the Tribune will publish a ski town series that should provide ideas for our leaders and perhaps offer hope to our citizens.
Profiling one town each day, the series will include one story about the town – told by longtime locals and ski bums – one story about school districts and one about affordable housing. Accompanying the stories will be a sidebar highlighting specific ideas South Shore should consider.
Through my reporting, I think it becomes obvious that declining enrollment and affordable housing aren’t mutually exclusive issues. I also think it becomes obvious that, despite these towns having median home prices two to three times that of ours, they are much further along than us in dealing with them.
Let us know what you think. After all, it’s your town we’re fighting for.
– Jeremy Evans is a Tahoe Daily Tribune sportswriter. He can be reached at 530-542-8008 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Town: Park City, Utah
Population: Town (7,900)/Summit County (30,000)
Average median income: $45,164
Average median home price: $800,000
Average median age: 32.7
Ski resorts nearby: Park City Mountain Resort, The Canyons, Deer Valley
Did you know? Deer Valley is one of four resorts in the nation that bans snowboarding. Alta, located about an hour away, is another one.