During Tuesday night’s Mountain Village Town Council candidate forum, the seven residents vying for the three vacant seats were asked whether or not there was a local staffing shortage, especially since the lack of affordable housing is seemingly compounding the problem, and how that can be addressed.
“Many local businesses in the region are struggling with staffing this summer, and in general, and some of those businesses have pointed to housing as a major barrier for keeping their employees. Do you believe there is a tipping point, where the region cannot stay economically or culturally viable because we don’t have the housing we need, and what are out-of-the-box ideas that you all have for keeping the region from getting to that tipping point?” KOTO News Director Julia Caufield, who moderated the event, asked.
Affordable housing availability, or lack thereof, and staffing shortages, particularly in the service industry, have created a catch-22 of sorts in Colorado mountain towns within the past year.
Candidate Heather Knox, a longtime local who has worked at several Mountain Village businesses and has two teenage daughters in the workforce, was first to answer the prepared question.
“I do believe there can be a tipping point, and we’ve seen it in some of the other communities around us. I know Ouray is struggling with finding help and (businesses) have to close restaurants early or not open on certain days. I would hate to have that be an issue in Mountain Village because we have so many visitors we want to be able to provide good services and be able to give them the experience of fine dining and eating in our restaurants,” she said.
A Ouray Brewery social media post has been shared locally recently, as the popular business announced it must reduce its hours due to “staffing issues” caused by a shortage of housing options.
“Patrons, due to the proliferation of second home ownership and VRBOs in the City of Ouray and directly related extreme shortage of any long term rental properties available for employee housing, the Ouray Brewery will be closing every evening from May 1 to November 1 at 7:30 p.m. due to staffing issues. Thank you for your understanding,” the post read.
Knox suggested the town host a job fair for local students who would be old enough to work.
“Some out-of-the-box ideas, and maybe this is kind of crazy, but just seeing my daughters, I would say try to reach out to the high school students, setup a job fair and have Mountain Village talk about different positions so students can understand,” she said.
Candidate Dustin Clements, who has extensive service industry background and is currently the head of production for Telluride Distilling Company, has first-hand experience of the current staffing challenges.
“I do think there’s a tipping point, and I think it’s closer than any of us would like to admit. So far this summer, I know at least five restaurants will not be opening seven days a week, as well as reducing hours, because they just don't’ have the employees,” he said, though he did not name any specific businesses. “Being a world-class ski area we need to keep that going to attract our guests. I think it’s going to come to a head this summer and it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens.”
He added, “a lot of that does have to do with employee housing” and suggested continued expansion of public transit options, including into areas as far as Montrose and Cortez, may help alleviate some staffing shortages.
Incumbents Jack Gilbride and Patrick Berry both mentioned council’s recent housing programs, including the creation of a new town housing department, as ways to generate more housing for local workers.
“There is no magic wand, where all of a sudden there are more units available, but what we are doing on council is we created a new department of community housing, and we’re hiring a director whose job is to expand our community housing,” Gilbride said.
He added that the previously approved expansion of Village Court Apartments (VCA) isn’t the be-all-end-all solution to the housing and staffing issues, but it’s a positive step in the right direction.
Berry spoke to several other factors that may delay construction of more employee housing.
“From an economic standpoint, if demand outstrips supply you’re automatically going to see prices rising. That is exactly what we are seeing right now. It’s certainly a cap on growth. We’re hitting it right now. As Dustin just mentioned, there are restaurants that are five days a week that would have been seven days a week because they can’t staff them,” he said. “ … The other piece that’s out there is inflation. Lumber has gone to three or four times the price of what it has been, so that’s going to delay inventory going online and exasperate the problems. What you’re going to see is higher prices here and that’s going to control demand to some degree. How does inflation play into that? That’s a real concern to me.”
Gilbride, Berry and candidate Douglas Tooley also mentioned creating workforce housing in surrounding areas, including San Bernardo and Ilium, a place that current council members have already discussed.
“Wages will have to go up to some degree, but I don’t know how we manage that right now. I feel like there are going to be effective measures toward getting more inventory online,” Berry said. “We need anything and everything right now, so being open minded, finding land perhaps outside of Mountain Village is something we should continue to pursue.”
Tooley, a current VCA resident, suggested plans for the new regional wastewater treatment plant need to be altered to explore options Down Valley.
“Who knows what’s going to happen. The entire economy can collapse. I think Patrick’s economic analysis is spot on. We do need to go out of the box,” he said. “Part of that solution, I think, is we need to pursue a Down Valley sewage plant. That would free up more space at that Society Turn parcel, and it might be cheaper to build something with the capacity that we need to grow.”
Candidate Yvette Rauff, a retiree living in Mountain Village, suggested some “wild ideas” and explained wages can’t be raised “fast enough” at this point.
“Can you put a tax on houses that sit vacant for most of the year? Do we limit new construction? Do we put a limit on short-term rentals?” she said. “The immediate shortage of staffing, as a wild idea sitting here as a retired person, there are a lot of retired people in this area and would they be willing to step up and help out the businesses short term? I would, and a lot of retired people here wouldn’t need to be paid, so we could help the businesses that way, too.”
A tax on vacant vacation homes is not as wild of an idea as one might think. In a recent Colorado Sun story by journalist Jason Blevins, he explained how Crested Butte council member Will Dujardin supports a tax on residences that are left unoccupied a majority of the time, a revenue stream that may be able to help locals there afford a place to live. The piece, titled “Here are some of the radical ideas to help alleviate Colorado’s high-country housing crisis,” also mentioned Dujardin’s efforts to create a short-term rental tax that goes toward more affordable housing.
The most radical idea mentioned in the piece was that of a workers strike, according to Eric Rankin, co-owner of Butte Bagels. Blevins wrote in the May 25 story that it’s “one idea being kicked around,” though there were no definitive plans for said strike at the time of publication.
The Mountain Village candidates didn’t mention anything that extreme Tuesday night.
Candidate Harvey Mogenson, whose background includes positions with Morgan Stanley and the U.S. Treasury Department, was the last to answer the question and agreed with everyone’s assessment.
“Anecdotally, it is my understanding that we are at or near a tipping point. I think it’s interesting to think about why that is. Perhaps units have come offline this year. Maybe that’s part of the issue. Or maybe there’s just more jobs. I would be interested in understanding better where that gap is to more directly address where we should focus our efforts,” he said. “But I agree with the comments that this is a reinforcing cycle in the sense that if we don’t have employees, then we don’t have businesses, then we don’t have visitors, and then we’ll have fewer employees and fewer visitors.”
Ballots were mailed to all registered voters this month. Completed ballots can be returned to Mountain Village Town Hall above the Village Market or dropped off at the polls on Election Day between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
While Gilbride and Berry are seeking re-election, current council member Natalie Binder has chosen not to.