Hello, and happy May!
Isn’t spring grand!
Over the last several weeks, the natural world has been blooming in front of my eyes. For example, two mornings ago I awoke to be greeted by the leaf in the picture below – it hadn’t been there when the sun went down the night before.
Spring is also bringing a bumper crop of issues into my life. Some are town council-related; others are simply the warp and woof of my professional and personal life.
Add it all together and you get this newsletter, a mash-up of some new ideas, some new data, and some fresh takes on subjects I’ve written about in past newsletters.
As I noted in my most recent newsletter, this coming Wednesday, May 12, from 8:00 am to noon, I am hosting the latest in my on-going series of “22 in 21” conferences. The focus of the event will be tourism, with the theme: “Undertourism. Overtourism. Ideal Tourism. What Is It, and How Do We Know?”
There is no charge, but donations are encouraged.
- Reflections On a Cup of Coffee;
- The Coming Employment Shortage; and
- What Hath the Pandemic Wrought?
As always, thank you for your interest, feedback, and support.
Stay healthy, and all the best!
(Relatively) Quick Hits
Reflections On a Cup of Coffee
A few days ago, I was interviewed by the US correspondent for Verdens Gang, Norway’s biggest newspaper. He was in town researching a story about America’s wealthiest county, and asked me to explain Jackson Hole’s dynamics.
We met at a coffee shop, and at one point he asked what local government was doing to help address the fact that, along with having America’s highest per-capita income, Teton County also has America’s greatest income inequality. I explained that our options were rather limited on that score, because while Jackson Hole’s economy is firmly planted in the 21st century, Wyoming’s mechanisms for funding state and local government haven’t changed much since they were developed in the late 1960s.
For example, of the $3.80 billion Teton County residents reported in Adjusted Gross Income in 2018 (the most recent year available), exactly none of it was taxed. To put that $3.8 billion in perspective, sales taxes are the biggest single source of income for local government, and in 2018 Teton County’s merchants sold a total of $1.54 billion in taxable goods – just 40% of residents’ combined incomes.
The more powerful example was this.
I asked the reporter how much he paid for his cup of coffee. He replied: “$2.00.” In response, I observed that the 12 cents in sales tax he paid for that coffee put infinitely more into local government coffers than the $0.00 in taxes paid on Teton County’s $1.8 billion in 2020 real estate sales.
He had a hard time fathoming that. I do too.
I also have a hard time fathoming how any local real estate agent can claim, with anything approaching a straight face, that implementing a real estate transfer tax might slow down or otherwise harm the local real estate market.
The current market is hallmarked by offers – sometimes higher than the asking price – being made on homes the potential buyer has never seen. When money is being splashed around in that fashion, it’s simply not credible to claim that the extra cost of a real estate transfer tax will make any difference to anyone.
Put another way, those arguing against a real estate transfer tax are making an ideological argument, not one based on economics or an actual understanding of Jackson Hole’s real estate market.
The Coming Employment Shortage
Each page in the Jackson Hole News&Guide is 16 inches high. In the classified ads section, there are 7 columns of ads. Multiply those 7″ by 16″ of height, and each full page has 112 column inches of ads.
As I write this, the most recent edition of the News&Guide was its May 5, 2021. Going back to 2018, the table below shows the column inches of Help Wanted and Rental Housing ads in each year’s first issue of May, as well as the cumulative column inches for the 52 weeks ending with that issue.
The thing to note, of course, is how little Rental Housing is being advertised. The May 5, 2021 issue had 72% fewer inches of Rental Housing ads than its counterpart the year before. Looking at the longer-term trend, the most recent 52 week running total is 61% down.
As Graph 1 shows, Rental Housing ads started to decline in July, 2020, about the time that Jackson Hole’s real estate market kicked into overdrive last year (in the first half of 2020, local real estate sales totaled around $600 million; during the second half, the figure was twice that: $1.2 billion).
While it’s not proof-positive, the timing of the decline lends weight to the argument that the surge in real estate sales is displacing a growing number of folks from their long-time rentals.
What’s also striking is that the ads suggest employers are getting increasingly anxious about their summer 2021 staffing situations.
Seasonal employment – particularly in summer – is the foundation of Jackson Hole’s tourism economy. (Looking to the future, it’s not clear to me whether local employers will be able to continue relying on seasonal employees. That, however, is an issue to explore in a future newsletter.) As Graph 2 suggests, this year more employers have started advertising earlier in the season, with every newspaper since mid-February having more Help Wanted ads than its counterpart in 2019.
Even more striking is this. Over the most recent 13 weeks, the total column inches of Help Wanted ads is 26% higher than the same period in 2019. Not the pandemic-influenced 2020, but the strong-economy 2019. Also comparing 2021 to 2019, the total column inches of Rental Housing ads is down 79%.
While there are no definitive estimates of how many people might visit Jackson Hole this summer, the few extant data suggest we will not only see more people, but that they will start arriving sooner in the spring and staying longer into the fall. If that’s the case, our systems will be taxed – perhaps at record levels – in at least three different ways:
- Our roads, hotel capacity, and other components of physical infrastructure will likely be pushed to their limits;
- Our businesses and, by extension, community at large will be pushed to their limits by too-few employees being available to handle likely-record numbers of tourists; and, of course,
- As was the case in the summer of 2020, our ecosystem will be stressed by large numbers of people looking to recreate, camp (short- and long-term), and otherwise escape a year’s worth of COVID-related confinement.
How we will deal with these challenges is not at all clear.
What Hath the Pandemic Wrought?
As I see it, the COVID-19 pandemic didn’t fundamentally alter anything happening in Jackson Hole. What it did do, though was pour gasoline on already-burning fires of growth and change. Today, those growth-and-change fires are major conflagrations, ones threatening to fundamentally change not just Jackson Hole’s economy and character, but those of the entire Tetons region.
The aforementioned real estate sales are one obvious indicator. What’s interesting to me, though, is that when real estate agencies report on the market, they focus only on the revenue side of the transactions, not the costs.
By this I mean that local real estate newsletters clearly reflect the agents’ glee over record numbers of sales for record-high prices. What they don’t discuss, however, is how those sales seem to be reducing the number of long-term, lower-cost long-term rentals, and what the implications of those changes might be for the local economy and our community character.
The real estate newsletters also avoid discussing how Jackson Hole’s boom is affecting the surrounding region.
In particular, the huge run-up in Jackson Hole’s real estate prices is spilling over into Wyoming’s Star Valley and Idaho’s Teton Valley. Both have been in the process of evolving from bedroom communities for Jackson Hole to places with their own free-standing economies, and here too the pandemic has hastened that process.
This subject is worthy of a much longer essay. For now, however, I’ll offer two other indicators of the changes sweeping over Jackson Hole.
The Jackson Hole Airport is the only commercial airport in a national park, and one thing that has clearly changed with the pandemic is the mix of planes using the airport.
As it happens, I live about 10 miles south of the airport, right under the flight path of the most common approach for arriving planes. As a result, my gut sense has been that plane traffic has sharply increased in the past year or so.
A feeling which, it turns out, the data confirm. Daily plane traffic counts are available for the past few years, and as Graph 3 shows, between April 2018 and April 2020, the average number of flights per day increased about 13% (private plane traffic by about 5%, and commercial around 25%).
In the past year, however, while the 365 day rolling average number of commercial flights fell about 8%, the number of private jets and propeller flights has increased by nearly 1/3 (jets comprise the vast majority of these flights). Figuring the airport is open 15 hours/day, this means that, in the past year, on the typical day a private plane was flying into the Jackson Hole Airport every 15 minutes. At its peak the frequency was over twice that.
Looking ahead, there’s no reason to think the trend in private planes will change – it may flatten out; it more likely will grow. What will change, however, is the amount of commercial air traffic.
Until the more profitable business travel market rebounds, airlines are focusing on vacation-oriented destinations, and this summer Jackson Hole will be served by seven airlines, an all-time record. Similarly, there will be direct flights from 18 different cities, with at least 21 flights/day (peaking at 31 on Saturdays). All that, too, will be all-time records.
Providing yet another test of the community’s systems for handling crowds.
In the March edition of CoThrive, I suggested the pandemic’s effects on the local economy may be behind us. At least as far as our taxable sales economy, the most recent sales tax data confirm this.
For Jackson Hole, the pandemic formally struck on March 15, 2020, when COVID-19 caused the Jackson Hole Mountain Resort to shut down three weeks early. As a result, what had been on track to be a strong sales month ended up 23% below March 2019’s figure. As a further result, the March 2020 baseline was so low that the just-released March 2021 sales tax figures were a staggering 60% higher than the March 2020 figure.
Which, in turn, pulled the 12 month running total of taxable sales back up to essentially where it was before the pandemic hit.
How did this happen? Again, not because of a fundamental change in the local economy, but because the pandemic accelerated trends that were already occurring.
While Tourism-related sales are at early 2018 levels, over the past year people building, remodeling, and equipping new homes have spent so much money that the Build & Equip category of sales is more-than-offsetting the declines in Tourism-related sales. Throw in the prodigious amount of commercial construction occurring throughout the county, and Build & Equip is now the driver of Teton County’s taxable sales economy. (Graph 4)
As it actually has been for a while. As Graph 5 suggests, the Build & Equip economy has been growing faster than Tourism for several years. COVID-19 accelerated that difference, both because of a sharp increase in Build & Equip sales and a sharp decline in Tourism sales.
People who spend a collective $1.8 billion on local real estate are likely to want to spend even more to build on the lot they purchased, or remodel the older home they acquired, or at a minimum make purchases that will turn their new home into something that reflects their personality and interests. Combine that with rising prices for building materials and anecdotal evidence that everyone in the local building trades is super-busy for the foreseeable future, and it seems certain that the Build & Equip sector of the local economy will remain strong.
Then there’s tourism. If reality turns out to be anything close to the speculation about the coming tourism tsunami, this summer will also see a huge spike in Tourism-related taxable sales.
This line of thought raises so many interesting questions that no single newsletter could do them justice. That noted, I’ll offer one.
Assuming we set all sorts of records for sales tax revenues, what will be the cost? To the people doing the work? To the human and physical infrastructure? To ecosystem health?
Because we measure real estate sales, that industry can giddily report record sales figures. Similarly, because we measure taxable sales, we have a good sense of those figures, which in turn gives us a good sense of local government revenues.
But to state the obvious, there are costs associated with those revenues. And the simple reality is that we have no good tools – heck, we don’t even have any bad tools – for assessing the costs to the community of our taxable sales successes.
That’s not an issue we can address at the moment, but with luck events like my 22 in 21: Tourism will allow us to start contemplating these questions. Which, as I see it, is vital, for if we can’t successfully ask and answer such questions, the future of the community will be shaped by economic forces alone. And to understate the case, the future those forces will produce may not be the future desired by the community as a whole.