FEC Index Spotlight: Talking Housing Affordability and Tourism with Vail Valley Partnership

Fourth Economy Community Index #6 Midsized Community Eagle County, CO

We talked with Chris Romer, President and CEO of Vail Valley Partnership, when Eagle County, CO came up as the #6 mid-sized community on the Fourth Economy Community Index this year. At that time, Romer largely agreed with what we reported seeing in the data, but he had one bone to pick with our metrics. Yes, Romer could see how Eagle County received high scores in Talent, Investment, and Place, and he shared how environmental sustainability was crucial given the local economy’s reliance on outdoor recreation (you can read more on this here). But he couldn’t see how Eagle County could land on a list that takes housing affordability into account given how serious an issue it had become in the area.

Like our home city of Pittsburgh, Vail Valley appears to be “affordable” in terms of housing and transportation costs when viewed at a macro level compared with median household incomes. But also like Pittsburgh, data taken at a macro level can be deceiving. Back in July, Romer shared with us that housing affordability was front-of-mind for his organizations and partners in the area. Since then, we have noticed that even during the busy tourist season, the Eagle County Housing Task Force remains active in engaging the community to find solutions.

We caught up with Chris Romer in December to learn more about the Task Force and get his take on the connection between housing affordability and a strong local economy. Romer shared that his organization is supportive of initiatives driven by the community at large and by business owners, and lends a hand whenever possible to help advance efforts like the Housing Task Force.

“As a resort-oriented community,” he said, “Our challenge is that we have international demand for our real estate.” He went on to share that Vail Valley is unique because when someone goes to buy or sell a house in a place like Cincinnati, OH, where Romer grew up, most people are moving for a job or moving from somewhere nearby. By contrast, much of the residential real estate market in Eagle County, CO is made up of second homes or vacation homes. “That is exasperated by the fact that we are surrounded by public land, so we have 15% on which we can build.” Because of the recreational assets and the investment opportunity, this means a lot of competition for housing, says Romer.

When asked what he thought about the need for housing that is attainable for people working in the local tourism sector, Romer reported that tourism makes up about 48% of the local economy and that while local jobs in tourism, recreation, and hospitality pay about 60% above average for the state in those sectors, they are still lower paying jobs in many regards. Therefore, Romer said, “It does exasperate the challenge in terms of affordability.”

We wrapped up our conversation with Romer by asking what, in addition to the Housing Task Force, he would share with other economic developers on the topic. “We are very actively engaged with advocacy and working with elected officials to reduce regulatory burdens,” he said. “And we are working to educate the community on ways that we can impact and incentivize developers to include attainable and affordable housing.”

At Fourth Economy, we’ll be anxious to see what comes next for Eagle County in terms of housing affordability, and we want to hear your thoughts on Vail Valley’s approach. Strategies like this one, that pair smart economic development decisions with a long-term point of view, are what build the strong communities and economies that the Fourth Economy Community Index seeks to capture. You can subscribe to Vail Valley Partnership’s newsletter and follow them on social media by visiting www.vailvalleypartnership.com.