Tuesday, December 10, 2019

Reactions to “Poor Little Rich Town”

So now the Crested Butte mid-timers who came here in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s for the small-town mountain village and ski-town vibe know what the Crested Butte old-timers felt like when they moved here. Was that a big change or a normal evolution?

To say last week’s “Poor Little Rich Town” story (great title, by the way) struck a deep chord with some people would be an understatement, as the online views climb toward the 10,000 mark. Locals who’ve been here a bit are sad to see more expensive gentrification in Crested Butte while some of their friends are leaving. Some second homeowners feel like their financial security is being used against them when all they want is to be able to participate and contribute to a cool mountain community. The local landlords feel targeted when businesspeople who are struggling generally used the term “rent” to collectively describe the increasing costs and difficulty of making a living in the valley. While I wish I could directly relate to the wealth conundrum, I empathize with all of the feelings expressed. That is the purpose of Dawne’s series—to put in words some of the angst people are feeling as the place they know changes.

Let’s start with the landlord anxiety. In my 30-plus years here I have been a tenant of both commercial and residential property and, on a relatively small scale, a landlord of both commercial and residential property. It is far easier being the one paying rent as opposed to a mortgage, but the landlord always feels like a target is on his or her back. 

Frankly, being a landlord means you’ve taken a risk with the hope of making money during and at the end of the deal. Given property value direction these days, it might be hard to remember that prices don’t always go up. That’s where the risk comes in. Maybe I’m the only one in Crested Butte to have ever taken a bath and lost my ass on commercial property in town, but I doubt it. When people insinuate that landlords are simply being greedy for charging more rent today than 10 years ago, they are wrong. Landlords deal with the clogged toilet, the snow on the sidewalk and the light that won’t work at midnight. Landlords have to pay the mortgage and the property taxes even if their tenant is late with their rent or sends an email saying they do not intend to pay the rent at all because they don’t have the money. Every landlord wants a buffer in the bank for such cases because those cases are not that rare. On the residential side, there are good renters and bad renters. So when a landlord asks for or writes in the lease the need to cover expenses like insurance, maintenance and taxes, I get it. It is simplistic to point the finger at the landlords, who are struggling like the business owners who rent space. 

Which ties into the next element. The mid-timers got here in a time when life was more mellow and it was a lot cheaper to set up shop or just live here. Residential rents in mining shacks with little insulation were maybe $200 per month instead of the current $1,600 per month for renovated, warm condos and homes. Because there are so few old mining shacks that can be turned into ski bum rentals these days, they are being replaced by deed-restricted affordable housing. The problem now is that for those ski bums who ultimately choose to make this their home, there are fewer options to move up on the housing ladder. Relatively cheap fixer-uppers, old condos at the ski area, cheap land in Crested Butte South or an affordable free-market house in Gunnison used to be plentiful. Now, those lower rungs of the ladder are disappearing or already missing.

Business rents in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s were easy and cheap. You could start a business in town on hope and a line of credit that the local banker would outline on a bar napkin over a beer. And while starting any business depends more on a dream and the ability to work hard, the costs for everyone these days in Crested Butte make it more difficult. Local owners remark all the time about the high fees charged by town for building and running a business, on top of the increasing property taxes and a limited tourist period to make bank. This is no longer the place you can zip in and set up an inexpensive mushroom smoothie shop and make a buck. 

The positive thing is that some existing businesses are adapting to the situation and finding new outlets to help their businesses stay viable and young people are still exploring ways to work for themselves here. That is exciting and keeps the place dynamic.

As for the wealthy second homeowners and newcomers to town, most were attracted by the ambiance that comes from Crested Butte. They may have never tried a mushroom smoothie or gotten a loan from the banker on a bar napkin but they enjoy the sort of outlaw feel that remains under the radar in Crested Butte. Those mid-timers who arrived in the ‘70s and ‘80s loved that the roads weren’t paved, lift tickets were $30, dogs roamed free and there was no high school, movie theater or, frankly, many rules. The newbies these days instead went into the “real world” and made their money and can now afford to live in the place they dreamed about. 

Or they have jobs that allow them to live here but work online. They don’t need to wait tables. But they want this small-town lifestyle with resort amenities. They appreciate the outdoors and the small town. They like riding their bikes to the post office and appreciate the education their kids receive. 

For me, the reasons one comes to this place are the most important, not the bottom line of a bank statement. Now of course, like all of us, the new arrivals might want to understand that it’s not always what they expected, so trying to change the place to be like the place they left will always cause friction. It can snow a lot here and it’s sometimes hard being in a small mountain town. It’s difficult to get places and having a cow poop on the trail is not bad but worth its weight in gold because it means the ranching industry is alive and well in the valley. Maybe people should live here a few years before getting too enthusiastic about how it can be better.

Which ties into another rough element: Watching friends and long-time businesspeople who make up the fabric of the community leave. When Lian or Rich or Chris close up shop and leave the valley, that means we don’t see familiar faces on the softball diamond, at the coffee shop or on an Elk Avenue bench. That leaves an empty feeling in the overall community and it exemplifies the change we all feel when Lian from Rendezvous is replaced by Stacy from Boulder. 

This series is intended to lay out there what is happening, as opposed to simply ignoring it or just complaining about the angst some are feeling. Looking at social media this week the story is certainly an avenue to talk about ways people are dealing. The changes are not always easy and for some the line has long been crossed. But almost without exception when people move away from here, so many wish they hadn’t because the relationships formed and the connections made in this small town do not come easily in other places, even other small resort communities. 

Everyone has their version of the good ol’ days and there are, I’m sure, other good places hidden out there. But I can think of no better place to live and raise a family. It’s a place where the pissed off landlords can easily find me to raise their issues, where you can go into an establishment and share a drink and stories with friends and acquaintances 12 months a year. New faces on Elk mean new ideas and new opportunities to meet new people. Crested Butte is still a place where you can walk out the door to incredible beauty and be in the midst of it within minutes. It is still a place where neighbors care about one another and a walk to get your mail can take an hour as you catch up with friends. Yeah, it is more expensive now than it was then, it is bigger than yesterday and there is too much Crestitude by the newer “locals,” but it is a pretty wonderful place. 

The early mid-timers changed CB but have tried to honor the mining and ranching culture of the community as they pushed for resort amenities. Now many of them are feeling pushed out. Change is always inevitable and we are in a big wave—but how we evolve is ultimately up to us. 

—Mark Reaman

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