Routt County among wealthiest in state

Gap between affluent residents, full-time employees growing

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— Household income grew dramatically in Routt County over the past decade, but there are signs of a widening gulf between affluent residents and full-time workers here.

Anyone looking at the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau would naturally conclude Routt County is among the wealthiest in the state.

Household income here rose by almost 70.7 percent over the past decade. And per-capita income is $28,792. That's the sixth highest in the state, ranking Routt just ahead of Summit County and right behind Boulder County. Yet, full-time, year-round employees earn less than the state average.

Scott Ford believes national demographic tends dictate that the gap between affluent households and modest income households here will grow larger during the next decade.

"The owners are going to get richer and the workers are going to get poorer," Ford said. He runs the Small Business Development Center for Colorado Mountain College and is a veteran on the Steamboat Chamber Resort Association's Economic Development Council.

Ford says the local economy has turned the corner from an environment where employers were forced to pay higher wages to attract employees to one of wage stagnation. That trend will set in as the Echo Boom Generation floods mountain towns with worker bees, Ford said.

Last week, the Census Bureau released startling figures about the increase in the number of households in Steamboat Springs knocking down six figures. In 1990, the Census showed that there were no households here earning $200,000 or more now there are 144. The greatest increase measured in a single income category in the city over the past decade was among households earning $100,000 to $149,000. The number of those households grew from 80 in 1990 to 523 in 2000, a 554 percent increase. Similarly, the number of households earning $100,000 or more grew from 128 to 738.

"That's an astounding increase in income," Diane Mitsch Bush said. "I think there's something wrong with the data."

Mitsch Bush has a Ph.D. in sociology and teaches at Colorado Mountain College. She isn't implying the Census data is wrong just that it isn't detailed enough to paint a picture of what is really happening in the Yampa Valley.

Although the median income here is among the highest in the state, wage earners in Steamboat Springs and Routt County earn less than the state average. The implication is that a significant number of households here don't rely entirely on salaries for their annual income. It's important to note, too, that the Census doesn't count vacation homeowners.

The median household income in Routt County is now $53,612, well above the state average of $47,203. In 1990, the median income a family in Routt County got by on was $31,409.

The increase in median income here doesn't correlate with wage trends.

Statewide, men earned $38,446 annually and women earned $29,323.

The average salary for men working full time, year-round in Routt County was $36,997 and women made $26,576 under the same circumstances. Interestingly, men in Steamboat made a little less than the county average and women made more (although still less than men). The average salary for men in Steamboat was $35,536 and for women, it was $28,244.

Mitsch Bush believes the discrepancy between household incomes and salaries is probably traceable to a couple of sources people whose income is generated by financial securities and people who engage in some form of telecommuting.

Ford agreed that investors and sole proprietors are the source of the unprecedented jump in household incomes here.

"That's what is driving things out of whack," Ford said. "Steamboat is a place with a lot of jobs and few careers. The word job here stands for 'just over broke.'"

The assumption behind the Census data is that people work where they live, Mitsch Bush said. "That works in a community that isn't a resort town and doesn't have people living off investments or who own a business elsewhere."

The trends that are peculiar to mountain resort towns are obscured by the traditional approach of the Census, Mitsch Bush explained.

Wade Gebhardt, a vice president at Wells Fargo Bank in Steamboat, said he believes the increase in household income here is part of a trend across Colorado.

"The amount of income people earn has grown significantly statewide," Gebhardt said.

He spent the early '90s working in Vail and Durango.

"It used to be that when people made $100,000, they were at the upper echelon of the local economy," Gebhardt recalled. "We shattered $100,000 pretty fast in the mid-'90s. It used to be that a $1 million loan was a really big loan, now, a really big loan is $3 million."

To be accurate, Gebhardt said in the late-'90s, there were probably a lot of Colorado households making $90,000 and the push to six figures wasn't that great. Still, he's seen an increase in the number of customers at his bank who have substantial income, either from investments or from a pass-through entity either a limited liability company or an S-corp.

Making the income trend even more challenging locally is the fact that employees here brought their paychecks home in one of the costliest housing markets in the entire country.

The median home price here more than doubled between 1990 and 2000, jumping from $119,700 to $308,100.

Routt County was a place, in 1990, where no one lived in a home valued at $1 million or more. By 2000, the Census shows, 94 million-dollar homes had appeared on the landscape of Routt County, and 44 of them were in Steamboat Springs.

Those 94 homes don't include vacant million-dollar homes waiting to be sold.

The sudden appearance of million-dollar homes here vaulted the local area into national prominence in terms of one statistic Routt County ranks 24th in the nation in terms of million-dollar homes per capita.

Of course, the typical salaried person isn't in the market for a million-dollar home. But the median home price in Steamboat Springs jumped a remarkable 157 percent.

Ford foresees that wages will continue to stagnate here for another 10 years the biggest bubble in the Echo Boom Generation is just graduating from seventh grade today. As people in their mid-20s continue to come here to take jobs, then grow economically frustrated in their early 30s, Steamboat and Routt County will be faced with a challenge, Ford predicted.

He believes the current leadership of the community has an obligation to prepare the next generation to prosper, not though employment, but by preparing them to seize on entrepreneurial opportunity.

Otherwise, "who will the baby boomers pass the torch of leadership to when they are in their 70s?" Ford asked.

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