Signs of vacancy increasing across Steamboat, county
Census data show more lights off more often
February 27, 2011
Local housing units and vacancies are heating up while lodging community "pillows" are cooling off, indicating real estate trends that could be troubling for Steamboat Springs' resort industry.
Local economic prognosticators said 2010 census data, released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau through Colorado's State Demography Office, also could indicate increasing affluence among part-time residents across Routt County.
"It is definitely a sign of increasing what I would call second homes," Scott Ford, director of the Routt County Economic Development Cooperative, said about the numbers. "I would say that's not way uncommon in a community such as ours. (But) I don't really like the term second-home owners. … To me, they're more part-time residents."
Fewer of those part-time residents appear to be renting their units when they're not around, Ford said, meaning more lights could be turned off more often in areas such as the base of Steamboat Ski Area, where vibrancy is highly valued.
"We're seeing an increasing share that don't rent them. … They're treating them more as a family retreat," Ford said. "We've seen an expansion of these units, but we haven't seen an expansion of what we'd call, in the lodging community, 'pillows.'"
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Lodging industry leaders say the term "pillows" is a better indicator of total guest spots available than rooms or rental units, which can hold different numbers of people.
Sandy Evans Hall, executive vice president of the Steamboat Springs Chamber Resort Association, agreed with Ford.
"I do think that's part of the case," Evans Hall said about greater affluence. "I'm not sure that a lot of the new units that are coming on line are being bought with the idea that it'll be a return on investment."
The number of housing units in Routt County grew by 5,086 from 2000 to 2010. The 45 percent increase well outpaced the county's population growth, which was 19 percent. The increase in housing units is, by percent, one of the largest such increases in Colorado in the past decade. Housing units in the city of Steamboat Springs increased from 6,373 in 2000 to 9,966 in 2010, a 56 percent increase. Steamboat's population grew from 9,815 to 12,088 during the decade, a 23 percent increase.
Vacancies are increasing, as well.
The I-News Network, a Colorado-based, nonprofit investigative news collaborative, provided initial comparisons of 2000 and 2010 census data showing that 2000 census data classified about 36 percent of Steamboat's housing units as vacant. That percentage increased to nearly 48 percent in 2010. Steamboat's number of vacant housing units grew from 2,289 in 2000 to 4,765 in 2010.
In Hayden, vacancies increased from 40 units to 69 during the decade, increasing from 6.1 to 8.6 percent of total units. Oak Creek saw vacancies increase from 75 units to 117, rising from 17 percent in 2000 to nearly 23 percent in 2010. In Yampa, vacancies increased from 24 to 39, an increase from 11.4 to 18.2 percent.
Hayden and Oak Creek saw increases in total housing units and population, along with increases in vacant units. Yampa saw a net population decrease during the decade but an increase of three housing units.
State demographer Elizabeth Garner said census questionnaires were somewhat subjective on their classification of vacancy.
"The question asks for the number of people living at the place 'most of the time,'" Garner wrote in an e-mail last week. "So a place would be classified as vacant if it was empty at the time, like a home for sale or for rent that no one was living in. Or if (it's) a unit that is used as a vacation home that is not lived in 'most of the time,' then it would also be vacant."
Ford noted that census data is a snapshot of constantly changing markets and populations, but history can provide some insight for new forecasts.
He said recessions often act as "catalytic events" that cause people to reassess values and make decisions — such as moving to Steamboat — that they might have pondered for some time.
"If this recession runs like our previous recessions have run — and I'm looking at 1990-91 and 2000-03 — on the recovery side of those recessions, we grow in population and we also grow more affluent," Ford said.
Hot beds, cold beds
Evans Hall said Steamboat's "pillow counts" have been decreasing since a peak in about 2002-03. During that winter, Evans Hall said, Steamboat offered about 19,150 pillows in its nightly rental pool, compared with 17,325 today.
She said that although much of that decrease can be attributed to the demolition of Thunderhead Lodge and restructuring of the Sheraton Steamboat Resort, the expectation could have been that pillow counts would "balance out" with base area developments such as One Steamboat Place and Edgemont.
But that hasn't been the case, she said.
Many of the new units coming on the market, Evans Hall said, are "being handled in club-ownership fashion," are timeshares or simply are owned and not rented.
"I think that in other resorts, they've looked at this very carefully," Evans Hall said about the dynamic. "When you're developing new pillows, new beds, it would be ideal to make sure that those beds are going to be hot beds, or at least warm beds — that they're going to be occupied at some times of the year."
The flipside can create "cold, dark areas" at some resorts, she said.
"When you have a lot of cold beds out there, it certainly doesn't add to the vitality of the base area or the vitality of the community," she said.
Evans Hall added that "condo-tels are really not a popular thing anymore," because current bank financing doesn't favor nightly rental models.
"It's a delicate balance between development and financing an outcome — and we need to manage that balance," she said. "I think we have to think about it very carefully when that development time comes back."
— To reach Mike Lawrence, call 970-871-4233 or e-mail mlawrence@SteamboatToday.com
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