Second-homers make mark
Eagle County could be Colorado's newest metropolitan area by 2010
By Kirk Johnson
The New York Times
 

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

In January, 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.

They will find a fly-fishing instructor, wash the sheets or do the shopping. If the business takes off, 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, second-home owners have their own lobbyist, and 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 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 Link and 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, the study said.

"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 that specializes 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 might decide to retire full time 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.

The state demographer, Jim Westkott, said he thought those numbers might underestimate the growth. If thousands of second-home owners coalesce around Vail, he said, Colorado's newest metro 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," Westkott said. "Somewhere around 2010, when the (first) 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.

"The new people don't want   it difficult; they want it easy," said Greg Johnson, 52, who came here 31 years ago from Washington, D.C., and now makes his living as a carpenter.

"There was no shopping: If you wanted Denver stuff you went to Denver, and people liked it that way," he said. "Now they're turning this place to what we all left behind."