Summer is a bittersweet time for proprietors in Jackson Hole: sales spike, leaving us little time to enjoy the sparkling sun – a sacrifice we willingly make knowing the off-season affords us the breathing room to enjoy this special place we call home.
After the blur of last summer – opening the café found us working 24/7 – we hoped to enter this summer with a better handle on things, with a well-oiled business model, a strong menu, a clear sense of customer needs, and a solid staff – all essential ingredients in making the summer run smoothly.
Only weeks into our busiest season, we have lost close to half of our small staff. While we pride ourselves on paying our employees well, we cannot keep pace with the high cost of housing, ever skyrocketing due to the dearth of rentals. Last week, we lost two more employees in our café kitchen and commercial bakery, vacuums we fear we won’t be able to fill. We are scrambling to find vacant rooms for our current employees who find themselves in precarious housing situations due to rising rents.
We take heart in knowing we are not alone in this struggle: every time we run into a fellow restaurateur, we commiserate about the worst-ever staffing situation. Last week, valley economist Jonathan Schechter shed statistical light on the dire dynamic in his June 11 column in the Jackson Hole News&Guide (when, in his lede, he wrote that “some restaurant owners are washing dishes because they can’t find employees,” we thought he had seen our wrinkled hands!)
For his biweekly Corpus Callosum column, Schechter analyzed 10 years of classifieds, comparing the column inches of help wanted and rental housing ads. He found that classified ads for rental housing have reached an all-time low, approaching an essentially non-existent state: the last two weeks of May found only nine inches of rental ads, the first time this figure has ever reached single digits, 75 percent below the previous one-week low of 2008. He charted the massive imbalance between the scant availability of rental housing and the spike in jobs available. Before this year, there were only two weeks when the ratio of help wanted to rental housing ads exceeded 20:1, even including the boom of Summer 2007 when the volume of help wanted ads peaked. This spring, as housing and staffing demands steamed up, the lid began quivering, with the ratio rising to 22:1 and 23:1 in the last two weeks of April. In May, the lid blew off, with consecutive ratios of 32:1, 47:1, 76:1 and 75:1.
“Just like the Budge Drive slide, this record-setting imbalance between jobs and available housing casts a harsh spotlight on the fundamental tensions underlying Teton County’s economy,” Schechter writes. “The foundation of this tension is that, from an economic perspective, Teton County’s only real asset is our environment: the landscape, flora and fauna. Screw this up, and we’ve screwed up the essential element of what attracts residents and visitors alike….
“But what if there’s conflict between a healthy environment and a healthy economy?… What the data makes clear is that we have too much economic activity for our housing stock. If employers can’t hire because employees have nowhere to live, and if quality of service declines accordingly, that isn’t a healthy economy. Nor a healthy community. Yet if the only places where worker housing can be built are environmentally inappropriate areas such as unstable hillsides or critical wetlands, what does that do to the long-term health of the environment?”
Ultimately, Schechter issues a clarion call for valley elected officials, challenging them to ask and answer: “Can we truly have all three components of a healthy environment, community and economy? If so, how are we going to do that? If not, which will we prioritize?”
We sincerely appreciate Schechter’s analysis of the conundrum we are facing, and we encourage the conversation to continue, with the hope of finding solutions to our dire staffing problem in Jackson Hole. To read more of Schechter’s research on Jackson Hole and other mountain towns, visit his think tank Charture Institute at www.Charture.org.