Since announcing plans last summer to buy almost 15 acres off the Teton Village Road for a dense housing development, Jamie Mackay has been catapulted from the owner of a landscaping company to a developer making the valley's major headlines.
The 29-year-old landscaper is a Wilson native who began his career unknowingly in middle school when he started mowing lawns for neighbors. Today, he has title to about about $25 million in property on the West Bank and in East Jackson totaling almost 90 acres, runs a successful landscaping company with 30 employees, and builds homes.
In a community where billionaire developers hide behind their Limited Liability Companies and are represented at planning commission meetings by a phalanx of shiney-shoed lawyers, Mackay stands out. It's not just because of his 6-foot-tall stature, but because he's homegrown.
The son of a well-known Scottish immigrant builder, alpinist and retired ski patroller, he was educated in the valley's public schools, learned to ski on the area's terrain and was known in his youth as a mischievous - yet popular - prankster and partier.
Because of his seemingly sudden ascendency, Mackay faces accusations that he's the front man for some of those billionaire developers and questions about who's paying for all his land deals.
"Listen, I understand there are questions," Mackay said. "I know. I used to jump-start my truck from my riding lawn mower. I lived in a tipi outside my parents' house."
He says his success is nothing other than the product of hard work.
Approval of his development plans for the 14.97-acre West Bank property, the KOA Campground, may not come easy either. Planning staff recommends denial of the application because a portion of what's proposed for development sits in the natural resources overlay. If he wins approval, Mackay plans to redevelop the campground into an 88-lot subdivision that mixes free-market and affordable homes, which he is calling Osprey Creek.
On the other property, a 75-acre parcel near Cache Creek, Mackay has not yet unveiled his plans but swore last week he's "99.9 percent sure" it will be preserved, not developed. Mackay is working with the Jackson Hole Land Trust and a few conservation buyers to sell the property, he said.
Mackay's foray into land development from landscaping has been met with support, resistance and surprise.
Some valley residents and businesses say Mackay is offering much-needed affordable homes as housing costs continue to soar (the median price of a single-family home just surpassed $1 million). Other residents have sharply criticized the redevelopment of the KOA, calling it too dense.
At the same time Mackay faces challenges with redeveloping the KOA, residents of the Cache Creek neighborhood are mobilizing. They've held meetings to discuss ways to preserve that chunk of mostly undeveloped land. Cache Creek flows through the property, which provides habitat for wildlife on the edge of town. Mackay also is being investigated by the county planning department for removal of about 20 trees from the property without a permit. The issue had not been resolved as of press time.
Active Wilson childhood
Mackay, the son of Callum and Maureen Mackay, grew up in Magpie Acres off Wenzel Lane in Wilson. His stepmother is Thekla Von Hagke.
Callum Mackay, born and raised in Glasgow, Scotland, has built log homes here for more than 30 years. Maureen, from Cheyenne, is a microbiologist at St. John's Medical Center.
For Jamie, following after his parents was never one of his interests as a child. In between playing pranks like starting fires and shooting BB's at neighbor's animals, he cultivated his interests in landscaping.
"I used to plant little saplings in the yard that I would bring back from the forest as a little kid," he said. "I love planting things."
By middle school, Mackay began mowing neighbors' yards instead of building homes with his father.
When he was 17, he received his first riding lawnmower from the former owner of Jackson Hole Cycle and Saw. The man gave Mackay the mower in exchange for lawn service that summer.
During his high school years, Mackay competed on the alpine ski team and was often seen riding around town on a motorcycle wearing flip-flops and a T-shirt. He still races in the Town Downhill every year.
Childhood friend Dan Carson described him as a natural leader to whom people "flocked."
"I think he's a lot like his dad in that Callum is a very forceful guy and is very impressive in a lot of ways, whether that's genetic or otherwise" Carson said. "They both have a very strong entrepreneurial spirit."
By the time Mackay graduated high school in 1996, he had 30 yard-service accounts on the West Bank and left the colorful period of rebellion behind. In 1998, someone offered to buy those accounts. The money was just enough for a down payment on a backhoe and trailer. Jackson State Bank & Trust lent Mackay the rest.
"It's every boy's dream to have a big backhoe or excavator," he said. "Digging something up is like playing in a large sandbox."
He used the equipment to start a small landscaping company, called Teton Heritage Landscaping. Mackay commuted on weekends for a year from business school at Montana State University to plant trees.
In 2000, he left college permanently.
"I loved school," he said. "But I realized that I was making way more money, and I had the ability to make more money doing what I loved."
Once he returned to the valley, Mackay began running his landscaping and snow-removal business full time. Then, Pierson Land Works asked him to bid on a couple of "big jobs."
Those big jobs meant that Mackay began specializing in more than just planting trees. He started doing extensive landscaping work, from installing water features to building berms.
He then realized that with his background in home construction, he could develop a piece of property by himself.
His first project under his construction group, Mackay Development, was to build a home on a 1.3-acre lot he bought in Stilson Ranches in 2003.
"I've always been a very ambitious person," he said. "If I wanted something, I would go after it, and I kind of don't stop until I get it."
Mackay lived in the home for two years before selling it in 2006.
Meantime, he bought an attainable home in Wilson Meadows from the Teton County Housing Authority where he lived for two years. Yet in 2003, the county took legal action against him for providing "false or misleading" information during the application process for that home.
Mackay bought the home while owning property, the Stilson lot, which is against county regulations.
He said last week he misunderstood the application and had no malicious intent. He sold the house, paid a fine and lost money to attorneys fees.
He holds no ill-will, either.
"I do commend the affordable housing system," Mackay said. "That was my stepping stone. It helped me get to where I'm at today. The system does work if you are willing to work hard and get after it in life."
Being forced to move out may have been a blessing.
The home in Stilson increased so much that it allowed Mackay to sell it in spring 2006 for the KOA property, which he is still running as a campground to pay the bills. The mortgage document listed with the county clerk states "the total principal amount secure by this assignment and any one time will not exceed $8.87 million."
Then, several months later, he had enough equity to purchase the Cache Creek property. Documents for this property state "the lien of this mortgage shall not exceed at any one time $8.72 million."
Mackay admits there's "a tiny amount" of family money in the deal, more for investment purposes than for need. He swears that he has funded the rest of the land deals himself.
"There's no need for [other people's money,]" he said.
Bad news lately
This week, while most of his friends spent the off-season surfing in Mexico, Mackay was riding waves here.
On Monday, he received news that planners, along with their investigation of the Cache Creek tree removal, won't support the sketch plan application for Osprey Creek.
His proposal seeks to rezone a parcel zoned neighborhood-conservation-single family, rural and business conservation into a planned unit development for affordable housing. It also seeks to rezone a parcel in the natural resources overlay to remove it from the district.
Senior planner Hillary Taylor said she couldn't support it because the Wyoming Game and Fish department said the property should not be removed from the NRO. It contains habitat for bald eagles and moose, according to her staff report.
Further, she said, the land development regulations prohibit an affordable housing development in the NRO to protect wildlife crucial winter range and migration corridors.
"The NRO is central to the application," she said.
But Smith also said the application raises questions she is not authorized to answer, calling it complicated.
"The application directly challenges two core elements of the community vision: affordable housing and natural resource protection," she wrote in her staff report. "The application does seek 'to support and promote a diverse social and economic population that includes a resident work force'; however, it can be argued that the application does not 'set aside, for generations to come, scenic vistas and wildlife habitat.'"
Smith said she can only comment on the application as it stands now and can't talk about whether her recommendation would change if the NRO is not impacted.
Mackay said Tuesday he "respectfully" disagrees with her findings.
"Unfortunately, the inflated real estate market has caused the demand for affordable housing to continue to grow and, when you look around the valley, there are few appropriate locations for affordable housing, such as the former KOA Campground," he said.
"I, of course, believe that the valley's cherished natural resources should be protected," he said. "However, having operated nearly 170 campsites and experienced tens of thousands of seasonal visitors annually for the past 20 years, the environmental conditions on the KOA property have been heavily impacted by RV's, campfires and campsite trash."
Instead of building 44 affordable homes, on which he says he will lose several million dollars, Mackay said he could decrease density and increase prices with another high-end development such as the neighboring Tucker Ranch.
But that would not keep people like his former self here.
"Tons of my friends have moved away because they can't afford Jackson," he said. "Losing locals, I think, disintegrates the core and the real value of Jackson."
Quoting the county's comprehensive plan, Mackay said Jackson is a community first and a resort second. If locals are replaced with millionaires and billionaires, the town will fall apart, he said.
"I am doing what no other developer in town has done," he said.