How Jackson Hole Became a Model of Successful Growth

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NLC’s James Brooks visits the outdoor mecca of Jackson Hole, Wyo., and uncovers the risks and promise of successful place making.

The streets of Jackson, Wyo., with ski slopes in the background. (WitGorski/Getty Images)

Jackson, Wyo., is an excellent example of successful place making. Blessed with supreme natural beauty, the town of Jackson and surrounding Teton County have married an iconic western culture with sports and leisure opportunities such as skiing and hiking and easy access to Grand Teton National Park, the Snake River, and a national elk refuge.

The downtown commercial district, surrounding a much-visited town square, is chock-a-block with western outfitters, native craft shops, restaurants, art galleries, hotels, adventure tour operators, and real estate agencies. From the classic old west architecture to the elk antler arches flanking the square, Jackson boasts a heritage and cachet that draws four million visitors each year.

But what happens when a community is too successful? What is the downside when the owners of Snow King Mountain Resort invest in the most advanced snow making equipment available in order to extend the skiing season by two or three months? What is the risk in having multiple major air carriers arrive at Jackson airport from a dozen hub cities and a second home market incentivized by state tax breaks? The risk, according to year-round residents, is that today Jackson populated by two kinds of people: those with two jobs and those with two houses.

The municipality of Jackson (pop. 10,000) and Teton County (pop. 23,000) don’t have much land available for development, hemmed in as they are by park land and wildlife sanctuaries. The last new road was built in the town in 1985. The airport actually sits inside the National Park. New residents to this mountain paradise have embraced a “slow growth or no growth” mentality which has pushed the cost of housing out of the reach of the middle class residents who work in the hotels, restaurants, ski lifts and shops, protect the ski slopes, and lead the wildlife treks and raft trips. As it turns out, paradise is an expensive place to live. Even the U.S. Forest Service is making things worse by proposing to sell 10 acres of land in downtown Jackson, zoned for dense workforce housing, to developers for large-lot homes that could price for nearly $1 million per acre. (As of this writing, the immediate danger is past — but not gone entirely.)

It’s an unfortunate situation for a city and county that have taken solid steps to work together on a common sense agenda. The two governments share a planning director and collaboratively managed a five year process to rewrite a comprehensive land use plan. There are joint departments for animal control, parks and recreation, START (the regional transportation network), fire and EMS as well as 911 emergency dispatch for town police and county sheriff. The operational model is “one vision, one valley, one voice.”

Both the municipality and the county are primed for growth. Water is plentiful and a high-grade (tertiary) regional sewer system is not anywhere near capacity. Demand for the amenities of the Jackson Hole valley remain strong. Yet, as each new home parcel increases in price, the pressures to keep unspoiled vistas and free-standing homes grows stronger. Building a desirable place has been transformed into protecting individual slices of paradise at the expense of the small business owner and long-term residents that created the value proposition in the first place.

Finding the right balance has been the challenge for the municipal and county leaders. Jackson does not have a property tax. State coffers have funded transfer payments of various kinds thanks to the revenues from coal. However, those revenues are projected to decline over time as renewable energy sources come on stream nationwide. Local leaders, who do get sales tax revenues, have been pushing for a real estate transfer tax with a high exemption floor to protect small, moderately priced homes.

Private sector partners have found ways to construct new middle class housing. The master plan for Jackson Hole Mountain Resort and Teton Village produced new workforce housing both in Teton Village and in Jackson. Nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity also brought new low income home construction to the area. This public, private and nonprofit partnership has produced some success — but more still needs to be done.

The Jackson Hole valley is as desirable a place to live as anywhere on the planet. The community weaves a rich tapestry of natural landscapes, abundant recreational options, historic and cultural distinctiveness, ease of access, and high quality of life. This success has triggered the natural reaction to pull up the draw bridge and keep “others” from spoiling what brought recent residents to the area.

Longtime residents, particularly those holding elected or appointed offices in local and county government, are more sanguine. They continue to envision a community that is not restricted by income and that frames reasonable growth within the scope of a thoughtful comprehensive plan. This seems to be the harder work of place making — ensuring that this unique destination remains a haven for a pool of residents that are as diverse as the shades of pink and red reflecting off the Teton peaks at sunrise.

Brooks, J.A. 2010About the Author: James Brooks is NLC’s Director for City Solutions. He specializes in local practice areas related to housing, neighborhoods, infrastructure, and community development and engagement. Follow Jim on Twitter @JamesABrooks.