“We don’t need to copy exactly what another resort area is doing, but we need to be able to compete,” one property manager said at the Economic Vitality workshop that took place at The Inn at Round Barn Farm in Waitsfield on Thursday, August 6.
Last week’s workshop for those in the homeowner services sector was the third in a series of nine that will take place this summer. The Economic Vitality Series is presented by the Mad River Valley Planning District (MRVPD) and the Mad River Valley Chamber of Commerce following an economic study of the region that was completed in 2014. The study, according to MRVPD executive director Joshua Schwartz, was undergone to “understand where we are, so we can have a baseline of where we’re going,” he said on Thursday.
LOCAL REAL ESTATE
The homeowner services sector, which ranges from property managers to lawyers and locksmiths, is “a really large category,” the chamber’s Economic Vitality coordinator Rebecca Baruzzi said at the start of the workshop, but it all relies on local real estate.
“Historically, we have seen twice the population growth in The Valley than in the country and state as a whole,” Schwartz said, explaining that of the houses in the area, 48 percent are primary residences and 47 percent are vacation homes.
Of those homes, 49 percent were built during the “resort era” from 1960 to 1979, Schwartz explained, “when building codes were very different from what they are today,” he said.
Today in The Valley, “There aren’t that many homes being built,” one property manager said, but because of the high percentage of older condominiums in the area “there’s a lot of money being spent on updating,” he said. Most workshop attendees agreed that an even greater effort could be made to bring The Valley’s housing up to compliance.
So far, all of the Economic Vitality workshops have focused on finding solutions to a common challenge: how to attract more visitors—and in this case, potential second-home buyers—to The Valley without compromising its local character and last Thursday’s was no different. “We’re all in this together,” workshop moderator and MRVPD planning district chair Bob Ackland said last Thursday of the overlap in The Valley’s economy.
Like many other sectors, homeowner service businesses have a hard time finding and keeping qualified employees in The Valley. In almost all resort communities, “Staffing is a challenge because the real estate tends to be out of sync with the wage structure,” Ackland said.
One way that Sugarbush Resort has tried to combat this problem is by testing out a new ride-share program, in which the employee that lives farthest away in one direction is given a van and assigned with picking up and dropping off others on his or her way to and from work.
“If we can transport people here, hopefully, we can fill the positions,” one workshop attendee said, while another pointed out that that only works for larger companies with many employees.
Otherwise, the area in which workers live “is too diffuse,” one property manager said.
“We need a draw,” one property manager said of developing attractions in The Valley that will make it more appealing to second-home owners, but they have to be the right kind of attractions. “We are not, so far, willing to sell ourselves out of our lifestyle,” he said.
“We don’t want a water park,” another workshop attendee said, referring to the indoor facility at Jay Peak Resort, and others suggested The Valley could use a teen center, a mountain bike festival, a campground and a brew pub.
Ideally, people who purchase vacation homes in The Valley will have no trouble finding fun things to do when they visit. “We want them to be staying busy so they need us to mow their lawn,” one property manager explained.
One thing property managers could do, one workshop attendee proposed, is ask their clients what attractions they would like to see in The Valley. “We could send them an email with some sort of survey,” he said, explaining that – unlike other sectors – the homeowner services sector is in the favorable position of maintaining direct communication with the people that the local economy relies upon.
At the end of last Thursday’s workshop, Ackland, Schwartz and Baruzzi collected poster-size pieces of paper with all of the ideas that the attendees had discussed, to be incorporated into a final study that they’ll present to the public this fall. They also collected feedback on the format of the workshop itself.
“I’d like to see more people here,” one property manager said. While Baruzzi explained that the workshops were designed to be small so as to encourage active participation, only about 12 people in the very large homeowner services sector attended last Thursday’s workshop, which was designed for 20 people.
The next Economic Vitality workshop in the series is for the professional and technical services sector. It will take place Thursday, August 13, at The Inn at Round Barn Farm from 3 to 5:30 p.m.