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.
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.