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October 20, 2014
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After the Boom

For those who value a rewarding lifestyle and healthy, livable communities—and want to invest in property here—the Tetons may be a better bet now than ever.

When Wall Street began its nosedive in autumn 2008, the decline of property values in Jackson and Teton Valley was already underway. As the financial crisis spread, the local real estate market went into free fall. More than three years later, communities on both sides of Teton Pass have entered a new economic reality.

How bad is it? There’s good news and bad news.

First, the bad news: High unemployment, a glut of undeveloped properties and vacation homes, and a recent tsunami of foreclosures. The statistics are sobering. (See “A Tale of Two Valleys,” page 43.) Prospective buyers can be forgiven for asking whether buying a home or living in the Tetons makes sense.

The good news: Yes, it still does make sense. Residents, retirees, and vacationers who consider purchasing property in the Tetons may find there is no time like the present to do so.

Photo: Sandy Mason

HOW DID WE GET HERE?

Some of the damage was certainly self-induced, especially in Teton Valley. Elected officials, reluctant to tread on local landowners’ private-property rights, rarely rejected development proposals during the speculative feeding frenzy. The worst of the damage was done after a loophole-filled Planned Unit Development (PUD) ordinance was adopted by Teton County, Idaho, in 2004, when more than 3,000 new lots were created in just two years. A seemingly endless number of new properties were carved from agricultural land. Prices continued to climb until early 2008. As demand ebbed, soon plummeting as financial panic set in, new construction virtually ceased. This scenario has left many “distressed” or “zombie” subdivisions—developments that are largely deserted. This massive oversupply undoubtedly exacerbated the scale of the collapse.

The land-use geography of Jackson Hole is nearly the opposite of Teton Valley’s, with relatively little land available for private ownership. Community-supported planning during the 1990s restricted residential development and rural densities, adding fuel to the fire beneath an already overheated real-estate market.

Speculation and limited supply drove prices to surreal levels, forcing many service and construction workers—as well as professionals and second-home buyers—to seek cheaper property in neighboring towns, including across the state line.

Though the supply-and-demand equation differed from that in Idaho, the bubble burst just the same. As values dropped and speculative building crashed, employment in Jackson also took a dive.

The downturn hurt not just building tradesmen, but a variety of professional service providers including landscapers, architects, Realtors, and financial planning firms, according to Jackson Mayor Mark Barron. Some 2,000 people lost their jobs, creating economic hardship throughout the area.

“It affected us across the board,” he says. “Those people were making good money and investing it in our community.”

Contrasting Geography, Shared Pain: A Tale of Two Valleys

TETON COUNTY, WYOMING

Land in private ownership: 76,800 acres (only 3% of total county area)
Undeveloped private lands (residential): < 10,000 acres
Drop in construction jobs from 2009 to 2010: 25%
Town & county building permits, 2000: > 600
Building permits in 2010: < 200 (< 100 were residential, lowest level in decades)
Unemployment in 2007: 2.2%
Unemployment in 2010: 8.2%
Source: Jackson Hole Compass (2011), State of Wyoming
2007 median home sales price: $1.8 million
Property value drop from 2007 peak: about 30% (losses vary from 15 to 50%)
Residential sales in 2007 under $300,000: 0
Residential sales in 2011 under $300,000: 45
Increased volume of sales 2010-2011: 26%
Sources: The Hole Report, Teton Realty Today, Jackson Hole Real Estate

TETON COUNTY, IDAHO

Land in private ownership: 190,000 acres (66% of total county area)
New lots recorded 2000–2010:     > 6,000
Lots in subdivisions: about 10,000, of which roughly 7,800 are unimproved
County building permits issued in 2006: 390
County building permits issued in 2011: 50 (just 7 of which were for single-family homes)
Unemployment in 2007: 1.6%
Unemployment in 2010: 7.9%
Source: Teton County GIS, Planning and Building Department
Foreclosures, 2009–2010:     > $250,000,000
Source: Valley Advocates for Responsible Development (VARD)
Median home price: Peaked at > $350,000 in 2008, is now < $200,000
Median lot price: Peaked in 2008 at $200,000; in 2010 it was $50,000; prices re-bounded slightly in 2011
Increased volume of sales 2010–2011: 21%
Source: Sage Realty in Driggs, MLS

WHAT NOW?

If one can look beyond the immediate pain, there’s a silver lining to be found in the post-boom Tetons. In Jackson, where the notion of affordable housing a few years back seemed an oxymoron, Barron believes the drop in housing prices may be the most positive outcome of this difficult time. Hopefully, such a reduction will slow the exodus of the working class and help preserve the fabric of the town’s culture.

 “We are seeing people come back from Teton Valley and Alpine [Wyoming]. Housing costs are approaching the cost of [subsidized] deed-restricted housing,” the mayor says. Another bright spot for prospective homeowners on either side of the Tetons is historically low borrowing costs (see sidebar, above).

Encouragingly, real estate now appears poised for a steady recovery. Chad Budge, an associate broker with Jackson Hole Real Estate, says the Jackson realty market “hit bottom in most categories” last year and will start an upward trend in 2012. “We’ll see slow, continued appreciation for the next three to four years,” Budge says.

Interestingly, he notes that more than half of Jackson Hole property and home sales in 2011 were cash transactions. “That tells me that better than half [of buyers] are investors,” Budge says.

On the Idaho side of the border, 2011 figures indicate that home sales have also bottomed out. Buyers have increasingly snatched up excessive inventory resulting from bank foreclosures and short sales.

Ken Dunn, owner and broker with Sage Realty in Driggs, says that buyers he’s seeing are people who “want to be here, or want a place here.”

That’s a good thing compared to the “irrational exuberance” of the boom, Dunn believes. He expects modest but sustained appreciation in home prices, beginning in 2014.

“As people become more comfortable with their economic status, we’ll see more people moving to the valley,” Dunn says. “We live in a great place. That hasn’t changed.”

While the land glut in Teton Valley remains a major concern, there is one consolation to all those undeveloped subdivisions: Imagine a landscape of full ones. Since many have no infrastructure in place, the problem exists more on paper than on the landscape, for the moment. Besides, without broader economic development, the boom’s inefficient, uncontrolled growth was unsustainable.

According to well-documented research by the Sonoran Institute, a non-profit dedicated to rural planning in the western U.S., even well-planned residential development rarely pays for itself. Given development rates at the height of the frenzy, county budget shortfalls were projected to become critical, as community service costs outstripped building and tax revenues.

For years, the beep-beep-beep of heavy equipment, as well as contentious public debate, was ubiquitous. Too much money could potentially be made, and community battles over growth and property rights became openly hostile.

“During the boom years, the valley sort of lost its soul,” says Teton County Idaho Commissioner Kathy Rinaldi, one of an all-Democratic slate of county leaders elected in 2008. “It was like I didn’t recognize the place anymore.”

County planning administrator Angie Rutherford says the current economic lull is essentially “a free-market moratorium” on development, and a great opportunity to “find ways that farmers can hang onto the value of their land without turning the valley into sprawl.”

Developers have been encouraged by county leaders to renegotiate development agreements in order to mitigate impact on the landscape, reduce lot inventory, and increase value. Undeveloped subdivisions may also be vacated altogether on a voluntary basis.

A new comprehensive plan for Teton Valley is in the works, incorporating broad community input and lessons from the bust. Failure to address the flooded land market could undermine efforts to redevelop the valley’s towns and keep land prices depressed for a generation.

Although some landowners remain adamantly opposed to any zoning that restricts development potential, local leaders remain hopeful of consensus, since most citizens consistently cite common values of rural character, beautiful scenery, and thriving towns when asked about their vision for the future.

“We’ve bridged some gaps,” says Rinaldi. “We went through it together and it affected everybody.”

 

Photo: Courtesy of Friends of Pathways

PUMPING UP LOCAL ECONOMIES

Few Teton-area residents think real-estate speculation will, or should, return to levels seen in the mid-2000s boom. But what can take its place? While Jackson’s tight land market and global reputation as a tourist mecca will aid its rebound, tourism income remains a relatively small fraction of the Teton Valley economy. Teton County, Idaho, is working harder to attract businesses (see sidebar, below) and promote its own advantages to visitors.

Some locals have created their own opportunities. Much was made of telecommuting “modem cowboys” in the 1990s; that trend, expected to eventually transform the West, continues. In fact, the Tetons are more wired to the rest of the world than ever. Improving Internet connections will facilitate both regional commerce and online shopping. Those links go both ways, and prospective residents of the Tetons may discover that this place can be office, corporate headquarters, and playground, providing they are smart and creative about it.

Another advantage: thriving community spirit. Our region abounds with people who care about and are involved in all aspects of these communities. Need convincing? Check out Old Bill’s Fun Run or the Tin Cup Challenge, events that have raised millions for a long list of worthy, local nonprofits. Go to a fireman’s ball. Attend a benefit for a neighbor in need. Watch a slideshow of an international expedition that raised money for a good cause. There is no shortage of volunteerism and support for a wider cultural experience, as evidenced by Teton Valley Foundation’s Music on Main and Jackson’s Center for the Arts. And despite recent economic difficulties, Jackson locals remain committed to the valley’s future (see sidebar, below.)

The long Teton winter of 2008–2011 may slowly be giving way to an economic spring. This area took a big hit, but the mountains are still here, the fishing’s still good, the skiing is great, and wildlife and wild country still surround us. Maybe it’s not possible to flip a house after a year and make a fortune. But the soul of the Tetons’ inhabitants remains, and perhaps those of us who have seen through this rough patch are all a little wiser.

Historically low interest rates make buying more attractive

As 2012 began, the average thirty-year fixed mortgage hovered around 4 percent. True, qualifying for a home loan may be tougher than during the boom, but for employed buyers with good credit, such rates represent a golden opportunity. “If you’re a qualified buyer looking for a primary residence and have W-2 income, it’s not that hard,” realtor Ken Dunn of Driggs says. A 4-percent rate on a $250,000, thirty-year fixed-rate mortgage, compared to a 5.75-percent rate (common through the boom), can save nearly $100,000 over the life of the loan. Current homeowners with higher rates would also be wise to investigate refinancing options.

Photo: David J Swift

Community Commitment to Jackson Hole

For the past twenty-seven years, Teton County, Wyoming, has invested some $150 million in capital projects via a 1 percent special purpose excise tax (SPET). Voters reconfirmed that longstanding investment in infrastructure in August 2010, approving funding for ten of eleven proposals under a new cycle of SPET collection. By doing so, citizens authorized a wide range of groups to move forward on efforts specifically aimed to address community needs.
The projects, proposed enhancements, and requested funding amounts sought through the SPET were:

• Jackson Hole Community Pathways: building a pedestrian bridge linking town and Grand Teton National Park along the pathway on Highway 89 ($850,000)
• Town of Jackson: building new and repairing existing sidewalks ($1 million)
• Teton County: for improvements to the Wilson bridge area, including the put-in site on the Snake River ($1 million)
• Jackson Hole Fire/Emergency Medical Services: replacing outdated vehicles ($1.03 million)
• Teton County Fairgrounds: improvements and additions ($1.45 million)
• Teton County/Jackson Parks and Recreation: repairing and enlarging the Community Rec Center and pool ($1.46 million)
• START: designing and building a new bus facility ($3.25 million)
• Energy sustainability project: upgrading public buildings ($3.8 million)
• Teton County Library:  renovating and adding on 11,000 square feet ($8.45 million)
• St. John’s Medical Center: for a major hospital expansion ($11.75 million)

County projections indicate it could take until 2014 to fund all ten projects. The SPET tax is collected until voter-approved projects are paid for in full.
Most SPET projects are highly visible, have a long life, and are often paired with grants from outside the area and/or local nonprofit support. For example, the new public-restroom complex (above) at the Home Ranch parking lot (opened in December 2011) was funded, in part, with a 2006 SPET ballot initiative to support pedestrian amenities within the Town of Jackson. Like many local infrastructure efforts, the Home Ranch building also received federal funds via the National Scenic Byway program, and state assistance through the Wyoming Business Council. The building’s exhibit space is set to open this spring.

Other infrastructure improvements have been covered in recent issues of Teton Home and Living, including the $31 million expansion and renovation of the Jackson Hole Airport (“On a Higher Plane,” Fall/Winter 2011-12) and Vertical Harvest, the innovative three-story greenhouse (below) to be located next to Jackson’s public parking garage (“Rising Roots,” Spring/Summer 2010). Visit www.lifeinthetetons.com/Teton-Home-and-Living to find these archived articles.
– Jeanne Anderson

Photo: TYPHOTO

Teton County, Idaho: Building a New Economy

Recent studies by Rexburg’s East Idaho Entrepreneurial Center (E-Center) highlight strategies for promoting Teton Valley. Improved marketing is needed to create greater name recognition; more tourist information, like visitor maps, is also needed. Along those lines, a National Geographic geotourism center, still seeking additional funding, is proposed for Driggs. Teton Valley has already embraced another E-Center suggestion by organizing new special events to attract more visitors year-round, like the Teton Valley Great Snow Fest, the Driggs Digs Plein Air Festival, and the Wydaho Rendezvous Mountain Bike Festival. When it comes to longer-standing events, Grand Targhee Resort hosts the 8th Annual Targhee Fest and the 25th Annual Grand Targhee Bluegrass Festival this summer, and is offering a new All-Access pass.

However, local tourism jobs generally pay lower wages; more lucrative employment will require additional local businesses. What advantages and incentives—beyond outdoor lifestyle—might attract entrepreneurs? A look at one successful Teton Valley company offers some clues.

CityPASS is a Victor firm that markets discount ticket books for tourist attractions in major cities. Co-founder Mike Morey, who came to Jackson twenty-six years ago, cites the low cost of living and a ready supply of highly educated young people as major pluses for doing business in Teton Valley. CityPASS employs twenty-five people, paying competitive salaries and benefits. All but one were hired locally.

An added bonus is the strong work ethic among locals hungry for steady employment. “Every one of them is a rock star,” says Morey. “The bust was maybe a blessing,” he adds, explaining that it may create a “recalculation” of the local economy— away from artificial property demand and toward a more well-rounded business climate.

Although area residents have hoped a major corporate player would relocate to the valley and bring higher-wage jobs, targeting and attracting small white-collar firms like CityPASS may be a more realistic way to diversify the local economy.

Morey believes a broader customer base is required for local business success. The findings of E-Center studies concur, recommending the promotion of niche manufacturing firms that market their wares well beyond the region. Existing business examples support this notion. Consider Driggs-based Twenty-Two Designs, makers of high-performance telemark bindings; Gheek, a manufacturer of goggle protectors in Driggs; and Burgess Custom snowboard clothing of Victor. Sarah Deutsch, Burgess Custom’s owner, hopes to create a production facility for her custom-designed apparel here in the near future.

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