In 2008, a consulting firm out of Texas was brought into Blaine County to analyze the state of the region’s economy and develop a strategy for reducing the vulnerabilities that had, at that point in time, been so thoroughly exposed. As the entire country was moving toward the depths of the recession, the Sun Valley area had yet to recover from a more localized crisis, the Castle Rock Fire, which burned for 20 days and blackened nearly 50,000 acres the previous summer.
While emergency crews were able to keep the flames off of Baldy’s ski runs and out of Ketchum, the smoke choked and emptied the commercial core during what is normally one of the busiest months of the year.
The combination of these two events rocked the entire region back onto its heels, as construction slowed to a crawl, jobs dried up and, with that, a number of the unemployed were forced to move elsewhere to find work. The report the consultants created highlighted the inherent threats and weakness faced by an economy based on tourism and second-home ownership.
According to the report, two of the top drivers of the economy between 2001 and 2006 were real estate and construction, both of which played a much more significant role proportionally than elsewhere in the nation. Thus, when the fire hammered retail receipts in 2007 and the housing crisis decimated the real estate market in 2008 onward, Blaine County took more than its fair share of the hit.
While the real estate market rebounded, another natural incident, this time the Beaver Creek Fire in the summer of 2013, once again demonstrated the lack of control the residents have over their economic health.
No one would say that these events were any benefit to the community, but they did serve the purpose of initiating efforts around the broad goal of resiliency. Although the definition, when it comes to communities, can be difficult to pin down, there’s no question that Blaine County can take steps to better insulate itself from future events by being better prepared.
“Most people think of resiliency as the capacity of a system to absorb a disturbance, often around disaster and unpredictability,” said Aimée Christensen, the executive director of the Sun Valley Institute, which she founded in early 2015.
“Although what’s needed in our county might be different from other parts of Idaho, the good thing is that we can always find common objectives even if we’re coming from different perspectives.”
Christensen, who also runs a global consulting firm centered on energy and environmental strategies, noted that this is both a cross-political and cross-cultural issue. “Better water and air, conservation, land easements—these can work in line with what a farmer wants to achieve in increasing income and with what a Ketchum resident is looking for. Someone might care about jobs, the environment, infrastructure, but we can all have the same goals.”
Christensen said that the conversations that began in the wake of the Beaver Creek Fire have now moved into the planning stage, with the Sun Valley Institute taking a central role in helping the diverse pieces and interests come together. This gets to the core mission of the Institute, which is, “Ensuring the prosperity and sustainability of the Wood River Valley to serve as a resource for communities everywhere.”
To start, Christensen and her colleagues have set their sights high, targeting fire, energy and food as the three issues that need to be tackled immediately. As an example, they helped implement Solarize Blaine, an initiative to bring discounted solar energy through collective demand to homes, businesses and nonprofit organizations throughout the Valley.
On another front, Christensen noted that Blaine County is the fifth most expensive county in the U.S. for food costs, creating an opportunity to not only incentivize changes in local land use and food production, but also to create more jobs while reducing costs for Wood River Valley residents.
“Food is a chronic risk because we spend too much money (on it) and are missing opportunities with land,” Christensen said. “Our response has been to prioritize food, in part because of the internal expertise that has helped get more resources to take on these challenges.”
This has meant working with the Local Food Alliance, a nonprofit looking to increase locally grown food by collaborating with farmers, businesses and organizations, all in order to boost the resiliency of the food system, which, in turn, benefits the economy and environment.
The concerns and efforts don’t stop there, however.
Sun Valley Community Development Director Jae Hill, also a member of the Advisory Board of the Sun Valley Institute, has been worried about the lack of workforce and affordable housing in the county since 2011 when it was a core focus of his master’s thesis in Urban and Regional Planning.
As the Sun Valley area has responded, in part, to climate change by becoming a four-season resort—as opposed to simply a ski destination—the demands of a tourism-based economy have taken their toll on the housing market, pushing up demand and prices while reducing opportunities for full-time employees to live in the same community in which they work.
“If we want to solve this, the entire community needs to make this effort and a collective statement that we are committed to it,” Hill said of the need to find solutions to providing more housing for full-time residents and employees, many of whom work in the service, retail or construction industries. “This is our critical resource right now.”
This issue is by no means unique to the Sun Valley area. Since at least the 1970s, ski resorts across the Mountain West have been battling the push and pull between the free-market economic benefits of second-home ownership and the desire to remain “authentic,” a significant part of which is having people living and working in the towns year-round.
The lack of an obvious solution is just as common, however. Pitkin County, the home of Aspen, benefits from state law that allows 1 percent of all real estate sales to go toward affordable housing. In a 2007 Fifth District Court ruling, this kind of revenue source in the City of Sun Valley was deemed an illegal tax, thus further limiting the resources available to Idaho cities in tackling affordable housing shortages. Hill said that legalizing such a transfer tax could be fought for at the state level, but would take all of the Idaho resort communities forming a coalition to get real weight behind it.
“Every community that has solved housing has done it through inventory,” Hill said. “If we don’t, we could end up shutting down, as not enough people will be willing to drive from Twin Falls or Shoshone for minimum wage jobs, which are critical to a service-based economy.”
Between Christensen, Hill and the significant number of government officials, volunteers and activists supporting these efforts, it’s clear that not only are these issues very real and reaching critical points, but also that the will to work together and find solutions is growing to meet that challenge. Given the complexity, number and size of these issues, no one believes that resiliency can be “solved” quickly or easily, but that there is no time to waste in addressing them.
As Christensen notes, to be truly successful, the community needs to move from reacting to crisis situations and put themselves a step ahead.
“People need to see that it’s about prevention and planning, not just a mindset where we’re simply responding as necessary.
Sun Valley Forum
July 5-8, 2017
The major event of the Sun Valley Institute, the annual Sun Valley Forum, gathers approximately 200 innovators from investment, policy, business, nonprofits, and academia, as well as local leaders, visitors, and residents, to share strategies, broaden thinking, and spark new partnerships. With combined coverage of local and global topics, the Forum showcases cutting-edge, scalable solutions, in plenary addresses as well as interactive breakout sessions, to help build relationships for ongoing support and collaboration.