Now we know what Telluride will be when it grows up.

Because we have arrived: We are a haven for the very rich, supported by a small cohort of professionals living in deed-restricted housing and service workers crowded into insufficient affordable rental housing. In addition, there is a large population of workers who commute long distances.

The outlines of this future were clearly visible 30 years ago. As of the last several years, it was close to fully fledged. But as is true of wider societal trends, like inequality and political polarization, the COVID-19 pandemic accelerated Telluride’s rush to a destiny clearly foreseen.

A real estate update emailed last week by broker George Harvey tells the tale. The 2020 San Miguel real estate market crushed the records set in 2007, with over $1,161,696,436 in sales and 814 transactions. That’s up from a mere $756.6 million and 631 transactions in 2007, the last record-setting year.

We were blown away by the numbers 13 years ago, and then we were crushed by the market’s collapse the following year. This is not to suggest that the current boom will similarly bust, because the underlying conditions are so different.

This boom is fueled by the ability and desire of wealthy Americans to flee crowded cities. And who can blame them? Everyone who lives in Telluride chose to live here for its splendid isolation and the sense of refuge that offers.

Thirty years ago, when my wife and I moved here, we were the arrivistes from a city, helping to drive up housing costs by paying too much for a lot. A generation earlier, in the 1970s, it was the counterculture generation that came to a dying mining town, similarly in search of their remote but spectacular refuge from mainstream America.

By and large, these two earlier waves of urban refugees understood that they — that we, I should admit — were the problem. We knew that spiraling real estate costs, fueled by our own purchases, would eventually price most of us out. As they have, because that’s how gentrification works. Thirty years after I arrived here, with most of the mining generation long gone and few of the ’70s generation still around, I’m a Telluride old-timer. I see more familiar faces when I visit Ridgway than I see in Telluride.

Looking back on all of this, I’m impressed not at all by our prescience. To predict 30 years ago that Telluride had the makings of “the next Aspen or Jackson Hole” didn’t take any great insight.

I’m much more struck when I think back by our belief then that we could do something about it. That we could grow up into something different, something better.

We imagined a “sustainable community” that included essential workers; a healthy mix of working locals, second homeowners and businesses not entirely dependent on visitation.

We imagined we would accomplish all of this by tending to the three foundational requirements of a sustainable resort community: protecting our natural beauty and historic character, since these were the very attributes that attracted us, and were, furthermore, the basis of the economy; tending to and diversifying that economy so that it could provide jobs that locals could actually live on; and ensuring that there would be enough affordable housing to accommodate as many of those local employees as possible, and to reduce, if not eliminate, the negative impacts of commuting.

While most of us back then agreed on these broad objectives, we argued bitterly about how to achieve them, especially with a doomsday clock ticking in the form of inexorably rising real estate costs. Since it was a tall order to build the sustainable community, and we couldn’t do it all at once, what took priority? 

Of the three urgent matters before us, saving the last open spaces, especially the Valley Floor, and protecting historic Telluride’s small-town character, came first. This was largely because most locals at the time felt that if those things were lost, essentially all would be lost, rendering the other priorities moot. Ironically, and we were well-aware of this fact, the preservation efforts, which were largely successful, put more pressure on real estate prices both by reducing the supply of developable land and by making Telluride an increasingly precious refuge.

Meanwhile, as the ’70s and ’90s generations were priced out and aged out of Telluride, new residents who replaced them were wealthier, and did not need to work locally, decreasing the political incentives behind support for a robust tourist economy.

But worst of all, we ran out of locations for the amount of affordable housing we’d really need for a sustainable community.

So here we are.

Telluride remains a wonderful place to live … for those who can afford it.

You could conclude that we were naïve to imagine it could ever be otherwise, to imagine we could somehow defeat market forces, or at least mitigate their negative impacts to a substantial degree. 

Of course, older people should never be defeatist. New generations are born to tackle the challenges of their moment with new resolve, finding solutions we older generations might never have envisioned. So it is with housing Telluride’s workforce. We can’t give up on that, even at this late date.

The die is cast on a sustainable community with the breadth we once envisioned. It was not to be.

But I, for one, don’t regret for a minute that we tried. It was a beautiful dream. I hope it lives on, in some form or fashion.