Second Homes Remake the West's Resorts

Published: May 8, 2005

VAIL, Colo., May 4 - Like many a ski bum before her, Jodi Link waits on tables to make ends meet. But her dreams go far beyond the next epiphany of perfect snow or a perfect run.

Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

Jodi Link, left , and Brooke Burgee started Lights On, a two-woman company in Vail, Colo., that looks after second homes for absentee owners.

Kevin Moloney for The New York Times

Carpenters work on the roof of a luxury home in Vail, Colo.

In January, Ms. Link and a friend, Brooke Burgee, founded a two-woman company called Lights On that offers hotel-style concierge services to absentee second-home owners and part-time vacation renters here in the high country of central Colorado. They will find a fly-fishing instructor, wash the sheets or do the shopping. If the business takes off, Ms. Link, 27, vows that she has waitressed her last.

So enter two more competitors into the multibillion-dollar second-home industry, which has increasingly dominated - some critics say swallowed - the economic and social life of Vail and other resorts.

Tourism and real estate have always been harnessed together in vacation spots: people come for a visit and end up scanning the classified advertisements in search of "2brs, fplc and vu." But more and more, housing and the jobs it creates are the economic engine. Here in Eagle County, where about half the housing stock is owned by people who live somewhere else, the world famous ski slopes have become just another amenity that homeowners demand, along with golf and shopping.

Some longtime residents bemoan the change. They say that a culture of real-estate calculation, and the sprawling swirl of stores and services catering to the needs of outside owners, are strangling the soul of an area that once prided itself on its distance from the madding crowd.

Others, like Ms. Link and Ms. Burgee, a 26-year-old Vermont native who discovered Vail's business charms last year on vacation, mostly see benefits.

Work in the second-home industry, they say, tames the up-and-down seasonal cycles of tourism. The jobs generally pay much better than restaurant or hotel work, and the work never ends. Structures made of wood need constant upkeep at an elevation of 8,500 feet, and new owners are prone to renovate.

Of the 33,530 jobs in Eagle County in 2002, 45 percent were tied to the second-home industry, according to a study by the Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, a municipal planning and research group. Only 27 percent were generated by winter and summer tourism. The money fueling the local economy was almost as lopsided, with an estimated 38 percent derived from spending by second-home owners, compared with 31 percent from tourism.

Tourism experts say many other resort communities are probably moving along the same track as Vail, although few have been studied as thoroughly. The pattern, they say, has become well established in the Rockies, from Aspen to Whistler Blackcomb in Canada: visitors become owners, and owners remake resorts in their image.

"Invariably, there's some kind of point where, because of investment in the community, people start to say, 'We want this place changed to meet our needs,' " said Prof. Peter W. Williams, the director of the Center for Tourism Policy and Research at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver, British Columbia. "It's subtle at first, but then the new entrants become the power brokers."

State officials say that the second-home wave came late to Colorado compared with the oceanfront areas on the East and West coasts. But the lag meant that second-home building coincided with a national surge in wealth in the 1990's. Flying to a second home in the mountains was suddenly within the reach of more people, who could pour more money into bigger and more opulent getaways.

"Housing has come to mean much more than just sleeping quarters for skiing," said Elizabeth W. Slifer, the president of Slifer Designs, an interior design firm specializing in Eagle County's second-home market. "Now it's more about estate planning and retirement and social status."

The housing surge also created a kind of demographic time bomb as more owners - the average age is around 55 - approach retirement. No one knows how many may decide to retire to Eagle County, where the population has doubled since 1990 and is expected to double again in the next 20 years, to about 80,000.

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The state demographer, Jim Westkott, said he thought even those numbers might underestimate the growth. If the individual choices of thousands of second-home owners coalesce around Vail, he said, Colorado's newest metropolitan area, defined as any population center of 100,000 people or more, could emerge here almost overnight.

"The more full-time residents you have, the more full-time workers you need, and that means more schools, more malls and more traffic," Mr. Westkott said. "Somewhere around 2010, when the baby-boomers turn 65, or sometime thereafter, is when it's all going to start."

Some resort industry experts and local residents say image itself could become a problem, if a gray-haired, relaxed-fit style starts to supplant the scruffy mystique of footloose outdoor adventure that resorts like Vail depend on.

"The new people don't want it difficult, they want it easy," said Greg Johnson, 52, who came here 31 years ago from Washington, and now makes his living as a carpenter, working mostly on high-end second homes. "There was no shopping: if you wanted Denver stuff you went to Denver, and people liked it that way. Now they're turning this place to what we all left behind."

Officials at Vail Resorts, and in the town government, scoff at the notion that aging owners of second homes are a threat. Older people might have their names on the deed, they say, but extended families are often the biggest users, and that means a constant injection of new blood and new exposure to the area.

"The 55-year-old wants to have Vail speak to their grandchildren," said Suzanne Silverthorne, who as an information officer for the town of Vail often communicates by e-mail with far-flung second-home owners about town business.

Ms. Silverthorne's list includes many people in the Denver area, about 90 minutes away by car, but the numbers of owners in New York, Chicago, Dallas and Los Angeles are not far behind.

In many ways, urban planners say, the second-home phenomenon is creating a social experiment, with three classes thrust together in one place: the owners, the year-round local service workers who supply and cater to the owners, and the seasonal resort workers who are increasingly being drawn from foreign countries.

Colorado ranked second in the nation last year, after Texas, in the number of temporary work visas, many of them for work in the ski resorts. Eagle County planning officials say that 36,000 people could be commuting into the county every day by 2025 from elsewhere in Colorado.

"How do you integrate these three separate groups into a sense of community as we have traditionally thought of it?" said Prof. Patrick T. Long, who teaches tourism planning and sustainable tourism at the business school at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I don't think we know the answer yet."

At Lights On, ambition and hope are the driving forces. As Ms. Link and Ms. Burgee folded towels, hung a picture and checked on a hot tub at one of their houses on a recent afternoon, their talk was full of buzz about networking and business leads.

Eventually, they say, they will need to start hiring people themselves and have already given some thought to what kinds of employees they want and do not want. Punctuality is essential, which eliminates, they say, the stereotypical ski bum.

"The typical transient worker in Vail is a snowboarder by day who has trouble showing up for work in the morning," Ms. Link said. "That's the kind of person we're trying to eliminate from our lists."