More than ever, Jackson Hole needs to decide if we will be a community or simply a retirement and tourism destination. The News&Guide has decided to take on this issue with a special report starting in today’s paper. This summer, tourism visits are breaking records almost every day.
The threats of a boomtown economy to our community are more apparent than ever. Housing prices are skyrocketing, making it impossible for all but the wealthiest to move here. Rentals are being sold out from under the workers who keep our community running. Property taxes are rising to levels where longtime residents feel they cannot continue to be here. Grand Teton National Park cannot manage its visitor load.
First responders, teachers and many health care professionals can no longer afford to work or live here. Only two of our 18 Teton County sheriff’s deputies live in Teton County. Sixty-four percent of St. John’s Health staff left hospital employment in the past four years. Most new recruits cannot afford to live here. Home prices in Star Valley and in Teton Valley, Idaho, are climbing into ranges where they are no longer much of an alternative for many. How do we have a community without these civil service professionals?
Our Comprehensive Plan’s vision statement describes our desired future.
Preserve and protect the area’s ecosystem in order to ensure a healthy environment, community and economy for current and future generations. Clearly, we are failing to live up to this goal.
We passed our first comprehensive plan in 1978. Since then we have spent thousands of hours of conversation by various planning commissions, town councils and county commissions and millions of dollars on planning reports and analyses. By and large, feel-good planning has not led to action. By every measure we are losing ground.
Our housing policy is almost a total failure. The Housing Department does the best it can with limited staffing, but its efforts are outpaced by increasing demands for housing driven by ever more hotels, luxury homes and condos and short-term rentals.
As with transportation and water quality issues, our leaders have refused to hire a housing supply specialist. Instead they are approving development projects without adequate housing mitigation, which makes our situation worse. As a result, workforce housing is not nearly keeping up with demand.
When I first moved here just 15 years ago, most of the hotels in town were small family-owned affairs. Most of the revenue from these enterprises stayed here. Now we have a plethora of high-end hotels and rental condos owned by people who do not live here. Their profits leave our community, forever. How many more big hotels do we need, or want?
While solutions are hard to come by, we know of some things we should do. We need a real estate transfer tax. Jackson Hole Realtors sold around $2.5 billion in the last year, without any revenue from those sales going into public coffers to help pay for the impacts of these sales on our community.
Unfortunately, the state of Wyoming cares little for local control and will not allow us to tax in this way. At 2% our lodging tax is among the lowest in the nation. The state forces us to spend a majority of this paltry fund on tourism promotion, worsening the problem. Purchasing permanent deed restrictions on existing homes could be helpful but is a drop in the bucket at current funding levels.
Tourism is a great industry, but unrestrained tourism is ruining Jackson Hole. The fundamental question we need to answer, and to act on, is: How much growth is too much?
We need to decide what types and how much growth is appropriate, starting with a moratorium on new hotel construction until we figure out the type of future we want.
For years we have seen this crisis coming. Continuing to do little to nothing should no longer be an option.