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Survey seeks to determine whether COVID-19 migration to ski towns is here to stay

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — As Americans working in big cities saw their jobs transition to remote work when COVID-19 hit, many decided to leave crowded cities for quieter lives in mountain towns.

Now, researchers, funded by the Colorado Department of Local Affairs, Colorado Association of Ski Towns and Northwest Colorado Council of Governments, want to take those anecdotal experiences and answer two main questions: To what extent is this happening, and what can local governments do with this information?

The three groups have teamed up to conduct a survey of part-time residents in Routt, Pitkin, Grand, Summit, Eagle and San Miguel counties who have moved to their former second home full-time or those who bought real estate in a mountain community during COVID-19.

“We’ve seen a lot of people come to the mountains last year, and what we’re trying to figure out (is) if that’s long term or if they’ll go back to pre-COVID life,” said Kathi Meyer, a Steamboat Springs City Council member who represents the city in the Colorado Association of Ski Towns.

While the research primarily focuses on surveying new residents, researchers will also hold focus groups involving cities, chambers, nonprofits, businesses and Realtors.

“This is going to take us from anecdotal assumptions to real information on the issue,” said Colorado Association of Ski Towns Executive Director Margaret Bowes. “If it’s going to continue, our community leaders need to know how this will impact the housing market, nonprofits and businesses.”

Steamboat City Manager Gary Suiter said throughout his time working in various Colorado mountain communities, he has seen waves of people going from part-time visitors to full-time residents, though COVID-19 attracted a larger group than he has ever seen.

“It’s not a new thing, but COVID definitely accelerated it,” Suiter said.

Suiter and Meyer both said the escape from a larger city to a smaller community is particularly appealing when larger city residents are given the opportunity to work anywhere and may want to seek a quieter life.

“People want to get out of big cities,” Meyer said. “If you could live anywhere, it makes sense that you’d live here, because we’ve got a great school system, and you have all the amenities on top of the recreational aspect.”

While more residents can grow a community’s economy, providing more support for nonprofits and spurring more diversity, Suiter and Routt County Commissioner Tim Redmond said there can be downsides to areas that grow too rapidly. These issues include inflated real estate prices, more traffic on unprepared infrastructure and overcrowding of resources not equipped to handle large groups of people.

“If we don’t work to protect the county we live in, it won’t always be that little gem we all love,” Redmond said.

Redmond, the former Hayden mayor, said more people moving to Steamboat will continue to force local residents out of their living spaces as real estate prices increase, causing Steamboat residents to push further out into the county or leave Routt County altogether.

“What I’m now starting to hear from longtime Hayden residents is that they’re getting priced out of the Hayden market.” Redmond said. “That’s a sad thing for me, because 20 years ago, when I moved down here, we moved here because it was a realistic place to have a home.”

Redmond and Bowes also said more expensive housing could prove to be a problem for service workers, who tend to make up a large portion of mountain community residents.

“We’re heading into that point and time where we’re going to have to seriously think about how we keep our workforce intact in this county,” Redmond said. “They’re getting priced out, but if they’re not there to load you on a chairlift or work in a restaurant, this economy is in trouble.”

Bowes said as more former part-time residents transition to living full time in their second homes, service workers who formerly rented such condos could lose their housing.

“Another potential con is that perhaps a second-home owner would rent out their condo to someone for the winter, but if they’ve decided to stay in it, that could mean a service worker no longer has housing,” Bowes said.

The survey, which can be taken at polco.us/n/res/vote/north-west-colorado-council/community-survey, will conclude March 31. From there, data experts will analyze results and present them to local leadership.

“The million-dollar question from a public policy standpoint is, is this a trend that’s going to stick around after the social distancing protocols let off,” said Jon Stavney, executive director of Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. “These are the reasons we exist as a regional organization — to take information and share it back out so policymakers can make something of it.”