Newsmaker 2015: The Future of Jackson Hole

By on December 29, 2015

Will unchecked growth, climate change transform the valley into a place we don’t recognize?

151230CoverFeatJackson, WY – Something changed this past summer. We all felt it. It could be measured in part with quantifiable data, but much of it was a visceral reaction to what we knew was happening but would not admit to. We might have pushed it too far.

Somewhere in the 45-minute West Bank-to-town trip that should have taken 15 minutes, we lost our community character and small town charm. We raced each other to stoplights and flipped off the world in frustration. We started locking our cars and houses. We talked in earnest about a workforce internment camp – peon pup tents where the valley’s serfs could rest until called upon to wash dishes and fold sheets.

Yes, the summer of 2015 was different. It was the hour of our decision; an awakening from the anesthetizing nature of growth in the name of prosperity that numbs a community headed for big city headaches. The visit from the Ghost of Jackson Hole Yet to Come was most terrifying. It is a newsmaker.

Visitation records for Yellowstone were trashed in 2015. More than four million vacationers crammed themselves into the nation’s oldest national park, shattering the record by nearly a half million. Traffic in the Hole was historic. Summer roadway use was up an estimated 10 to 15 percent. County dispatch recorded 40 crashes in the first nine days of August, more than that entire month last year. U.S. Census data shows 20 percent of Teton County households (the national average is 12 percent) experienced severe housing problems. Half the jobs in Teton County are in retail or hospitality, while nearly half the homes (43 percent) sit empty.

Valley forged

A Jackson Hole known only to its pioneers from the early 1900s. (Photo: Jackson Hole Historical Society)

A Jackson Hole known only to its pioneers from the early 1900s. (Photo: Jackson Hole Historical Society)

Was the summer of 2015 a “tipping point?” Was it a glimpse at the new norm for the valley: out-of-control growth hurtling toward a Vail and fail?

Local politicians and the citizens who elected them took notice and took action. Emergency summits were convened including a two-day housing summit opened by joint planner Alex Norton with the declaration that, “Skepticism will not be tolerated here.” The statement may have been prompted by doom-and-gloom forecasts from the likes of local economist Jonathan Schechter who lamented in his Jackson Hole News&Guide column, “Jackson Hole’s housing problems will never be solved,” as demand for the last 50 years, he explained, has outrstipped supply.

Added to a visionary document already three-and-a-half years old and balked at implementation for LDR revisions, were two more plans: an Integrated Transit Plan (ITP) and Housing Action Plan (HAP). The ITP passed on September 14 after eight joint meetings, two public workshops and nearly two years in the making. Among some of its eye-popping numbers were an estimated $8 million annual START budget by 2024 and a targeted quadrupling of ridership by 2035 – something outgoing director Michael Wackerly admitted would be “an extreme challenge.”

The HAP identified a need to revamp the Housing Authority after a perceived lack of oversight caused some county commissioners to be surprised at budget figures associated with The Grove. Most importantly, guidelines in the HAP suggested raising $20 to $30 million for the building of subsidized workforce housing. A tax strategy for generating revenue for a Community Priorities Fund is still being debated at year’s end.

Pushback and public displays of rejection seemed to have an effect on elected officials. The Planet story, “Silently Opposed,” by editor Robyn Vincent (July 7), explained how the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance’s planned “protest” – that beckoned 50 concerned citizens to a town council meeting in July – was poo-poo’d at the time by town planning commissioner John Stennis as “activist tactics … that have no place in our community.” Signs reading, “Housing not Hotels,” “Middle Class not Marriotts,” and “Community not Resorts,” did not immediately change the minds of town councilors. However, officials recently approved LDR revisions that completely nixed any additional commercial zoning in District 2 – Jackson’s core downtown area outside the lodging zone.

Concerned citizens filled Jackson Town Council chambers this past summer to display their disapproval for more commercial development. (Photo: josh metten/jh Conservation alliance)

Concerned citizens filled Jackson Town Council chambers this past summer to display their disapproval for more commercial development. (Photo: Josh Metten/JH Conservation Alliance)

Growth node concepts were abandoned in the county. Suddenly, out of the pedal-to-the-metal recession recovery experienced in Jackson Hole, nearly everyone was ready to pump the brakes. BCC chair Barb Allen called the summer, “emotionally draining” at one meeting. Town councilman Jim Stanford lamented the increased traffic on numerous occasions.

Even some retailers and lodging owners admitted to a law of diminishing returns when it comes to jamming too many people into a finite space. Sherrie Jern told the News&Guide her guests at the Wildflower Inn had had it with the crowds in Jackson. TripAdvisor reviews for almost anything Jackson related lost their stars. Visitors were perturbed – about lines, rudeness, traffic jams, prices – some vowing never to return.

Over and over again, reviews for Jackson eateries, hotels, and attractions said the same thing: “Too crowded,” “Too rude,” “overpriced.”

One Tripadvisor reviewer from Austin, Texas, wrote about an August visit: “[The help] comes from Europe. Another one from Europe was working the front desk when we checked in. She said she knew nothing about the area parks because she was from Europe. Great personality for a summer tourist spot. Can’t they get any one from the U.S. to work in a summer tourist area?”

The Planet columnist Andrew Munz collected a summer’s worth of disses (“Jackson Hole Grievances,” September 8) from Jackson Hole tourists who vowed: “We will never return,” “Never coming back here,” “Take your family elsewhere.” Munz found families packed into 14-person rafts despite booking more intimate trips, restaurant diners served lousy food by surly waiters, and dirty log cabins at exorbitant prices. All indications of a tourist locale that has overextended itself.

Glitterati, greed and gapers

How fitting for the year to begin with an episode of HGTV’s “House Hunters,” featuring “NCIS: LA” star Eric Christian Olsen and his wife, “Marry Me” star Sarah Wright. The celebrity couple were followed by cameras as they property shopped in Jackson Hole for an episode that aired on January 28.

“I remember falling in love with the town,” Olsen said to the camera, recalling family trips he’d taken to Jackson when he was a kid. “I just knew that I wanted to come back here.”

‘NCIS: LA’ star Eric Christian Olsen and his wife, ‘Marry Me’ star Sarah Wright hunt for homes in Jackson Hole.

‘NCIS: LA’ star Eric Christian Olsen and his wife, ‘Marry Me’ star Sarah Wright hunt for homes in Jackson Hole.

And come back they do. Not every tourist, of course, but with 290 new worldwide billionaires added last year to a record 1,826, already, according to Forbes; and millions of millionaires (anywhere from 14.6M to 35M, depending on who is doing the estimate), is it any wonder why the high-end real estate market in Jackson Hole is bustling?

When Wall Street is bullish, renters, for one, get gored. Trickledown economics never seems to reach bottom feeders on the valley floor. The rising tide in Jackson floats all yachts but drowns the rest.

Jonathan Thompson’s piece for High Country News entitled, “When living where you work is out of reach,” just about summed it up for the Hole, blaming our problems on a abnormally skewed percentage of income that is derived from investments rather than labor. We simply don’t know what it means to work for a living. “According to Headwaters Economics research, nearly half of the total personal income in Teton County … comes from investment-related sources,” Thompson wrote.

Blair Place denizens Matt Grabowski and Renee Knutson faced a 40 percent rent increase this summer. (Photo: robyn vincent)

Blair Place denizens Matt Grabowski and Renee Knutson faced a 44 percent rent increase this summer. (Photo: Robyn Vincent)

The housing crunch squeezed the community in its suffocating grip by spring. Some elected officials called it the worst they’d ever seen. Still, the crisis didn’t have a face. Until July. “The Faces of Blair” series in The Planet introduced readers to the personality of the problem. A 44 percent rental increase at the 294-unit apartment complex became the poster child and whipping boy for Jackson Hole’s housing shortage.

Law enforcement officers, teachers, nurses, river guides, UPS drivers, volunteers, and small business owners were among the shafted when Blair Place Apartment owners jacked the rent on a two-bedroom apartment from $1,250 to $1,800 a month.

“I always felt like this town was going to chase me out,” Matt Grabowski told The Planet’s Robyn Vincent. “It feels more and more like working class people are not welcome here anymore.”

Blair resident Sgt. Matt Carr is one of the last Teton County Sheriff deputies to actually live in the county he works in. Until he was faced with the prospect of leaving the valley he had invested in for 22 years. “For my colleagues who don’t live where they work, the county is saying, ‘We want you to work here, but we don’t want your kids to go to school here or recreate here or be a part of the community here,’” Carr said. “My colleagues don’t have the sense of community enjoyed by people who live here.”

Another Blair denizen, Renee Knutson, nailed the sentiment of a crumbling community. “This area still has a small-town feel,” she said, “because there is that sense that we are in it together. But if we take the ‘together’ part away, what is left?”

The Jackson 5

Conservationist and filmmaker Charlie Craighead is focusing on this area’s most cherished resource. (Photo: lisa rullman)

Conservationist and filmmaker Charlie Craighead is focusing on this area’s most cherished resource. (Photo: Lisa Rullman)

How did we get here? If we truly did turn a corner last summer, is there a path back to the road we used to be on? Has our “precious” turned on us? During their rise to corporate success, Toyota executives employed an iterative interrogative technique called the 5 Whys, designed to get to the root cause of any problem.

Let’s try it. Problem: Jackson Hole is losing its luster.

Why 1? It has big city problems already. Housing issues, traffic jams, cost escalation, and a rising crime rate (22 percent higher overall than the state average, and 204 percent higher violent crime rate than the state average).

Why 2? It’s growing too fast into a soulless, fractured community.

Why 3? Too often, we’ve let greed trump need.

Why 4? Money talks, blue collar walks … or commutes.

Why 5? Our priorities and values are ill defined or out of sync with a formula for a sustainable future.

Climate trumps all

If we don’t love our valley to death, Mother Nature may do that for us. A seminal study released this year by the Charture Institute and the Teton Research Institute of Teton Science Schools, “The Coming Climate,” predicts a serious ecological and economic impact on the county should global warming continue at its current pace.

Annual average minimum temperature has risen 1.3 degrees since 1948, and is predicted to increase another 3.5 degrees by 2100. The frost-free season at Philip’s Bench weather station on Teton Pass is about 20 days longer than it was in 1980.

All this spells major trouble in a place dependent on its long, cold winters. First, we’ll lose our iconic cutthroat trout. Reliant on cold water, these fragile fish have already taken population hits throughout the region. Next, winter ski seasons will be shortened, if not impossible to maintain in Jackson Hole.

In fact, in Kendall Brunette’s Planet feature story May 6,  “Climate Change Casualty,” professional skier Bode Miller said he had so little faith in the future of skiing due to climate change that he wouldn’t even think about investing in the industry. The United Nations Environment Programme identified the ski industry as one of the most vulnerable industries to climate change, worldwide.

Water will become a scarce resource, even in Wyoming, according to conservation experts such as Charlie Craighead, who was interviewed by Jeannette Boner in The Planet’s September 1 issue (“Craighead’s Water World”).

“No matter what we do, things are going to change,” Craighead said. “My personal belief, based on [information from] people I have interviewed, is that we have started the ball rolling and now it’s a question of whether we can correct it or get out of the system ourselves to let it go back to where it should be. My fear is that it is not just a question of weather patterns, but [the climate] has gone beyond the point where there won’t be ‘normal’ for a long time. But then that normal will be very difficult and very different from what we know it as today.”

Whatever is left, “The Coming Climate” asserts, will be consumed by wildfires. Major fires, akin to the calamitous Yellowstone Fires of 1988, are a grave concern of the future. Study co-author Dr. Corinna Riginos explained to Robyn Vincent in a July Planet piece: “The potential for much more frequent large fires would radically alter the ecosystem as we know it. We are not just talking about a few species going locally extinct or needing to shift to higher elevations; we are talking about fires so frequent that they could wipe out forests in most parts of the region.”

A study released this year warns that the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 may not be a thing of the past for very long. (Photo: wikipedia)

A study released this year warns that the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 may not be a thing of the past for very long. (Photo: wikipedia)

“The Coming Climate” also pointed out that more frequent fires will threaten summer visitation rates. However, a silver lining to climate change might be found by realtors selling homes to people looking to beat the heat in the relatively cooler environment of Jackson Hole. But the added demand on a finite market would likely further dwindle the valley’s housing inventory and burden natural resources.

But the new Jackson Hole won’t be all bad. It has stuff we want, right? Opportunity and choices. Why have just a handful of restaurants when you can have dozens and dozens of options? The question is, will we need more centers for art or recreation, grocery stores, banks, golf courses, five-star hotels, and four-lane highways to get there?

Exclusive, gated communities can wall themselves in, protected from the suffering masses. College kids and foreign workers will always be available for the valley’s labor needs. And look how we are growing, developing, and raising sales tax revenue during a decline in state mineral extraction returns.

We claim to care about wildlife and open space, but only right after we pass this one little thing. And sprawl is something that happens to those other cities. But as long as we have those magnificent Tetons in the background we will never become Anytown, USA, right? Indeed, the valley stands to see dramatic changes as more and more people throughout the country, and the world, look to Jackson Hole to plant new roots. PJH

What’s Next?

Some folks are taking action right now as they focus on the future of Jackson Hole across myriad spheres. An upcoming event slated for real talk on this issue happens Jan. 14, when The Charture Institute hosts “22 in 21: The State of Our Community.” The daylong event will explore some of this area’s key challenges and opportunities. Leaders of the Teton region’s major public entities from park officials to town and county elected officials, will take the mic. For more info visit

Headlines of Tomorrow

February 18, 2040

City leaders unveiled the new high-speed monorail system yesterday. The Teton Tube will allow commuters to make the trip to downtown Jackson from Drictor in less than seven minutes via the Teton Pass tunnel. Old Pass Road may soon go the way of Old Old Pass Road as authorities worry Google-Apple driverless cars will never be able to navigate the treacherous pass safely during winter.

Both Autonom and RoboRide vehicles were involved in separate slide-offs earlier this year. County officials are considering reinstating START Bus. The mass transit system was disbanded in 2037 after budget overruns and the popularity of autonomous vehicles spelled the end for START.

START would revive runs on the Moose-Wilson Expressway from Teton Village to the airport, and south to Alpine City via the 8-lane highway expansion completed in the fall of last year.

April 4, 2040

Park geologists believe they have uncovered the reason Old Faithful stopped erupting last summer. Groundwater levels have been reduced to all-time lows after 21 years of drought. Real estate values in the Old Faithful Villa and surrounding residences in Yellowstone plummeted after the famous geyser gave up the ghost.

In related news, there may be some call for optimism regarding a reopening of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort for next season – just in time to celebrate the resort’s 100th anniversary. Tourism took a huge hit when JHMR cut skiing from its winter sports recreation package in 2033. Daytime highs since have averaged 46 degrees with less than 10 days from December to February registering below freezing for overnight lows. But a new synthetic “snow” developed by scientists in South Japan has promise, and may be employed on a trial basis next season.

July 4, 2040

The Chamber of Commerce is predicting a banner year for Jackson this summer. Lodging capacity numbers are already soaring thanks to promotional packages offered by many area hotels including the Wilson Wyndham, Hog Island Hilton and Four Seasons Kelly. Area retailers are cautiously optimistic about this summer’s tourist season. A spokesperson for the Super Walmart in downtown Hoback said sales in June had already set a record for the month.

Executives representing Walgreens announced they were considering opening up a store in Jackson. Some residents may recall the first attempt at a Jackson brick-and-mortar ended prematurely back in 2015, when Walgreens announced it was pulling out after a landslide damaged their new building.

September 22, 2040

Game and Fish managers confirmed today that it was indeed an elk spotted in the Gros Ventre suburbs of Elk Refuge Village. The refuge was sold to California developers in 2027 after CWD devastated local herds to near extinction. An elk in the wild has not been spotted for more than a decade in Wyoming.

Wildlife biologists hope to capture the wayward wapiti and add him to the Aspens Zoo. The facility, renowned for its collection of grizzly bears and wolves, has been without an elk for nearly four years.

A few Jackson Hole old-timers recalled days when numerous species of wild animals roamed former park and forest zones in the decades before the Great Land Auction of 2022.

December 26, 2040

Jacksonites celebrated Santa Day in true western fashion yesterday. Surviving members of the Shootout Gang (1955-2019) were on hand to reenact their historical gun battle. The Jackson Hole Shootout was the longest running event of its kind when it was discontinued in 2030 after the ban of civilian firearms in Wyoming. The Equality State was the last to comply with the federal abolishment of guns in 2028.

Real estate sales have been brisk headed into the new year when legislation capping property sales takes effect. Beginning in 2041, the maximum price a 12-bedroom, 16-bath home can be listed at will be $585 million. Five-bedroom condos will be capped at $175 million. A shrinking affordable housing pool has worried civic leaders. Rising costs of housing and transportation in the bedroom communities of Dubois, Blackfoot and Big Sky are fueling the current workforce shortage.

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