By Heather Hansman, Ski Magazine, Spring 2016
In the lineup on a midweek powder morning, it’s increasingly likely that the person next to you on the lift works remotely for Google or another top technology firm. Or he might be in the midst of launching his own startup, or her firm might have been lured into relocating to snow country by generous tax breaks. The result is that the ski-town locals who can sneak out for a weekday first chair are no longer just restaurant rats, kids on an extended lark after college graduation, or adults deliberately avoiding the traditional career grind in suburbia.
With the improving ease and efficiency of doing real commerce anywhere a company chooses, many businesses—established and startup—are choosing mountain communities. Not surprisingly, this freeflowing corporate dynamic is quickly changing the face of ski-town employment. Towns like Bend, Ore., and Ketchum, Idaho, are becoming hotbeds for tech startups and havens for people who can digi-commute and want to live where they can ski tour out their back door.
It’s bringing an influx of capital to towns that used to depend solely on the ski hill—startups in Bend raised $16 million in investments over the past year alone, according to Economic Development of Central Oregon—and diversifying their economies. But it’s also crowding already crammed real estate, potentially pricing out long-term locals and changing the soul of ski towns.
“You don’t have the depth of capital you do in a place like Boulder, but there’s enough money and resources here that it’s really starting to play out in some of the mountain towns,” says David Currier, the former general manager of Smith Optics, who is now running a software startup called Solu in Ketchum. Solu, which Currier launched in October of 2015 with help from an Idaho Department of Commerce tax credit, now has seven employees, including several who moved from Las Vegas. “The towns are putting things in place to compete and attract that kind of business.”
The push is coming from both sides. It’s increasingly easy for office workers to work remotely, especially in the tech world. If you’re writing code, it doesn’t matter if you’re in Brooklyn or Bozeman. “I moved with my husband, who has a software startup, in 2013 and even in the two years since I moved here there’s been a concerted effort to show that this is a place where you can start companies,” says Kelly Kearsley, who writes for StartupBend.com.
And mountain towns looking to add high-paying, year-round jobs outside of the tourism industry are actively courting tech companies, building innovation districts, and trying to create a sense of community around economic development.
In Ketchum, the Community Development Council—a city-funded nonprofit—hosts pitch nights for startups, and it created the Ketchum Innovation Center—an incubator for new companies— in a building constructed by an ex-husband of Raquel Welch. The CDC is trying to bring new businesses to Ketchum, which has recently lost large outdoor companies, like Smith and Scott. It’s working.
Jon Duval, who ran the CDC before founding the Innovation Center, says 80 small companies registered for the pitch program.
He says the organization tries hard to leverage the smallness of the town and to “matchmake” for companies, investors, and mentors. “We’ve been lucky to have community members who are stepping up: venture capitalists, former CEOs,” Duval says. “There are people who say the city should not be helping private enterprise, but I think that’s ridiculous.”
Ski towns tend to be in low-population mountainous states that have statefunded business incentives. There are tax and resource advantages to moving your business from, say, expensive oversaturated San Francisco to Reno, Nev., where there’s no corporate income or inventory tax. Tax incentives were one of the big reasons why Tesla decided to build its Gigafactory there. Nevada also has a state Catalyst Fund, started in 2011, “which incentivizes the expansion or relocation of businesses that will quickly result in the creation of high-quality, primary jobs.” Nevada is asking people to come. Wyoming has a similar program, as do Utah and Montana. In Bend, you can get funding from local VC firms like Seven Peaks Ventures or Cascade Angels, which offers investments ranging from $50,000 to $200,000 to local startups.
There’s also the community. Ski towns tend to have a higher than average number of wealthy residents and part-time residents, and Duval says he’s found them willing to support the business sector: to mentor startups or provide angel investing. “People used to say you had to be in Silicon Valley because that’s where the capital is. I don’t think that’s true anymore,” Duval says. “The reality is a lot of those people have second homes here, or have friends here, and when they come here in that vacation frame of mind, they’re much more receptive to talking to us, or giving us much bigger chunks of time.”
But it’s not all buddy-buddy VC funding and tax breaks, especially for long-term residents who find their towns changing quickly and for those employed in tourism, who might not be getting the same highrolling salary as a full-stack developer.
According to the EDCO, information jobs are the highest paying in central Oregon, with an average salary of $58,089. Retail, on the other hand, averages $26,911.
“Growth is definitely an issue here and it comes with positives and negatives,” Kearsley says. “We’re excited about the potential for more jobs and economic opportunity, but at the same time the price of housing is going up. There’s more traffic and pressure on the town’s resources.”
Space is always limited, and ski towns have to grow sustainably to make sure the skids can still afford coffee and rent. “A lot of people in mountain towns are antigrowth,” Currier says, “but I think we can have growth and still maintain that quality of life, which is why people moved here.