Economies among ski towns compared at summit

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— The median income in Routt County lags more than $10,000 behind Summit County, Utah, home of Park City. Yet, the annual payroll per employee in Summit County is lower than it is in Routt County.

How can that be? Simple. It's a tale of two ski towns.

Park City chamber executive Bill Malone pointed out that a majority of the residents of Park City commute to nearby Salt Lake City for high-paying jobs. Employees in the service sector commute in the opposite direction, driving 40 miles up Interstate 80 from Salt Lake to work jobs in the resort town of Park City.

Steamboat doesn't have access to the high-paying university and technology jobs Malone's neighbors in Park City commute to. Nor does it have the urban labor pool Salt Lake provides.

Malone was participating in a panel at Economic Summit 2002, organized by the class of Leadership Steamboat. He and his fellow panelists discussed statistical comparisons of mountain resort towns.

The panelists included Wade Gebhardt and Amy Horne. Gebhardt, with Wells Fargo Bank in Steamboat, prepared the statistical analysis relying primarily on 2000 U.S. Census data and figures from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Horne is the research director of the Sierra Business Council in California.

Malone is well qualified to contrast mountain towns he left his post at the helm of the Steamboat chamber to take a similar position in Jackson, Wyo., before moving on to Park City.

Although Gebhardt's focus was on ski towns, the most reliable data he could obtain was for the counties where they are located.

Routt County had a median income of about $43,000 in 2000 and that of Summit County, Utah, was more than $55,000. Yet, in Park City the annual payroll per employee was less than $20,000. In Steamboat, payroll was close to $25,000.

The disparity in the numbers points out that statistics about demographics and income are only meaningful when they are analyzed in combination, Horne said. She frequently consults similar data sets in her work with diverse towns in a 12-county mountainous region of California.

"Statistics in isolation can be very dangerous," Horne said. "You need to try to put these indicators together and tell a story. What is really important is how a community comes together."

One of Horne's favorite examples is the small town of Sandpoint in Bonner County, Idaho.

Sandpoint had slightly more than 15 percent of its population living below the federal poverty level in 2000. That was second only to Taos County, N.M., among 15 counties in Gebhardt's survey that are home to ski towns.

Yet, Horne said, Sandpoint had one of the highest rankings in the survey for owner-occupied housing. And Sandpoint has achieved the most balanced economy in terms of the distribution of personal earnings traced to different sectors of the economy. For example, Sandpoint can count significantly more earnings from manufacturing than can Steamboat, Breckenridge or Park City.

Steamboat, on the other hand, can attribute 22.5 percent of its personal earnings to construction, easily the highest among all 15 ski counties in the survey, Gebhardt said.

Gebhardt observed Steamboat's job growth relative to population growth was also stronger than in many of the 15 communities surveyed.

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