By Todd Wilkinson EBS COLUMNIST
About 15 years ago, as the Jackson Hole economy continued its transformational shift into overdrive with no turning back, the Sonoran Institute held a conference in the Tetons. Invited were commissioners from a number of rural counties in the “New West.”
In reflection, the issues that were confronted—ag lands being converted to development, rising fiscal challenges, gaps opening between haves and have nots, living wages, affordable housing, impacts on wildlife—seemed almost quaint. At least at the time compared to where those same issues are today.
Commissioners from non-booming counties in the Northern Rockies got to see, firsthand, what consultant and former Jackson Hole Chamber of Commerce executive director Suzanne Young called the “upside of the downside of growth.”
Young didn’t speak at the event but earlier coined the term in an interview I had with her while writing a story for Jackson Hole Magazine about the chamber’s “Power of Place” marketing slogan.
Every commissioner who came to Jackson Hole was looking for the same thing: the secret formula that allows a community to achieve sustainable economic prosperity without sacrificing the often-intangible elements that make their place special. And no one wanted to become Jackson Hole or Bozeman.
Ironies, paradoxes and hypocrisies can be found everywhere, though the challenges of inward population growth are now being manifested in every town that has become a magnet for pilgrims fleeing cities for the perceived Holy Grail of a better life.
Meanwhile, many of the downhome icons of our Western river valleys—ranchers and farmers—are selling off their cows and some, by personal choice, are getting into the far more lucrative real estate business, an act once considered heresy.
Working-class locals, who are credited with emanating community charm to wealthier outsiders eying new places to settle, are sent packing because they and their kids can’t afford to own property.
In scurrying over the mountain passes to other less expensive bedroom communities, refugees cause police and fire departments, schools and road maintenance crews to become overwhelmed as their swelling numbers outstrip the ability of government to deliver essential services.
Growth happens, and dominoes of what towns used to be begin to fall. Economies seem to be roaring along swimmingly, but in hindsight, as citizens ponder the tradeoffs of what was gained and what was given up, the feeling of lament toward “new prosperity” is like the old Peggy Lee song: “Is That All There Is?”