When the pandemic shuttered parts of the U.S. last March, many companies discovered workers didn’t need to be in one place. And many workers discovered if you can work anywhere, then you can live anywhere. Some left urban areas for the suburbs—some relocated to the open spaces of Western ski resorts. According to MLS reports, sales and rentals are booming in mountain towns particularly. As Ben Fisher, a Park City broker, told the Wall Street Journal, “This was the busiest summer selling season ever.”
For young professionals leaving a major city, the main reason for relocation is the high cost of living, according to a Quicken survey. It shows 34% of millennials are now working remotely, a number which is expected to increase. Some experts predict tech workers will never return to an office: Microsoft announced that it would offer the option to work from home permanently, just as Facebook and Twitter did.
There’s an old saying about newcomers to ski resorts: “I came for the skiing, I stayed for the summer.” In these pandemic times, it’s morphed into “I came to escape a pandemic, and I stayed for the lifestyle.”
After graduating from Middlebury, Nicole Roos, 26, moved to San Francisco to work as a recruiter for an executive search firm. A Sun Valley native, she always planned to return home—someday. The pandemic accelerated that decision. “We spend so much time doing our jobs, so it’s amazing to be able to do work I love, and also take a ski run for lunch,” she says. “And I love the cultural scene.” Sun Valley offers a prime example of how Western ski towns, from Aspen to Truckee, have become more accessible, year-round mini-cities, with quality arts and culinary offerings. “Ultimately I now have a balance in my life,” Roos says.
A dream job at Facebook drew Bronwen Raff, 29, to the Bay Area. As a program manager, she works with international partners to advance gender equality. When Facebook said stay home, she and her partner, who works remotely for a sports media company, immediately questioned their location. “Before the pandemic, we planned to quit our jobs and travel the world,” she says. “Now we can do that with jobs.” They’re staying in Airbnbs as they explore the American West, while looking for what she sweetly calls a “forever place” to live. Now they’re in Bozeman, with great snow sports and Bridger Bowl ski area nearby. “The pandemic allowed us to create the life we wanted on an earlier trajectory than we anticipated.” Every mountain town they spend time in, they donate to a local charity and frequent the nearby shops. Up next? Colorado (she’s looking at Breckenridge and Carbondale).
Consuelo Pierrepont Spitler, 39, an interior designer and mom of three, was about to move from Austin back to San Francisco when the Coronavirus struck. She and her husband, who works in cyber security, were in the middle of a two-year renovation of their home on the Presidio. Then the lockdowns and wildfires happened. “One day he said to me: ‘Let’s not be in a city’,” Pierrepont Spitler says. They put everything in storage, bought a sprinter van and Airstream, and went road tripping this summer. “I didn’t expect to be a gypsy at my age,” she laughs. They headed to a place they both loved, Jackson Hole, which cinched a decision for them. They put their San Francisco home they never moved into on the market. The transplants purchased land right outside Jackson, where they’ll build a new home and life. “We knew this was right for us.”
In early March, New York-based writer and literary agent Campbell Schnebly, 28, visited Big Sky, Montana for a ski vacation. It changed her life. When New York locked down, she and her fiancé, who had skied there with his family for years, remained, taking a wait-it-out attitude. She never fell out of love with the City; the couple was even looking to buy an apartment. As they both own their businesses, their mindset changed to let’s try working remotely while stranded. “Neither of us wanted to be in a small town just for the sake of it, but we wanted a new adventure—to be part of a growing community.” An image of an open field, a childhood memory from riding horses, also resurfaced. They returned to Manhattan, packed their bags, and never looked back. They’re starting a lounge and events space in town called True West, which will also showcase natural products, such as zero sugar electrolyte mixes from her fiancé’s company, LMNT. That open field? They just purchased a home on 65 acres.
Many locals view the recent pandemic stampede as a mixed blessing. The lack of affordable housing and cost of living in ski towns are major concerns. There’s anxiety that newcomers, making higher wages than resort workers, are contributing to surging real estate prices, forcing locals further away to commuter towns. Some fear their small towns could become another playground for the rich. Others wonder whether new residents will shop Amazon or support local seasonal shops who traditionally struggle through the wind-down shoulder season. Could this new generation even buy and revitalize the beloved businesses—all ski towns have them—of aging owners?
I’ve long loved the town of Ketchum, Idaho—where Sun Valley is located. It officially lists a full-time population of 4,095. When I spoke with Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw about this new population wave, he admits the influx will be challenging for the town’s infrastructure—healthcare, housing, and school systems. “But we’re up for that challenge,” he says, “We welcome people who can contribute to our year-round economy, but we also want them to embrace the values of small-town mountain living.”
Once upon a time, back in the ’40s on, American ski resorts were settled and popularized by immigrants, many from Austria, Switzerland, or Norway, like Olympic legend Stein Erickson. The identity of our ski resorts came from the melding of European culture and style with American. The Zimbabwe-born Mayor Bradshaw quipped that his crystal ball says that when the pandemic is over, some migrants will stay, and some missing the amenities of city life will leave. It remains to be seen what this new legacy will be.