Neo-Company Towns

Resort communities are destinations and escapes that people flock to for the experience and lifestyle they provide. Whether it be a ski vacation, a beach week, a hiking excursion or the like, visitors expect a certain experience based upon a specific image, whether real or perceived. Workers who are full-time residents are also drawn to the place for the same reason, but must often learn to survive on limited means in an expensive environment. When growth issues are successfully addressed head-on, these small towns are able to provide significant amounts of affordable housing, viable and productive public transportation networks, and public functions such as parks, schools, police, and fire, despite limited financial and physical resources. Resort towns face growth-related issues not usually associated with such perceived idyllic settings. In fact, many of resort communities’ issues are at the heart of the anti-sprawl agenda. And, much like other urbanized areas, the local social, political, and regulatory environment has nearly as much consequence for urban design as formal and spatial considerations. As such, solutions are especially complex and multi-faceted.

Today, however, in the wake of the financial fallout that has affected both primary and second homes, there is an opportunity to address a quiver of issues. Resort communities are still hard pressed to provide adequate housing stock for their workers, despite vacancies and stalled projects throughout their respective regions. Most stalled or dead projects, however, are or were geared to higher-end buyers searching for second, or third or fourth, homes. As the lenders and creditors seize these assets, and are then forced to write down their values after taking heavy losses, perhaps a repositioning is in order to solve both worker housing demand and over supply of second homes. After all, with attractive communities originally intended as second homes sitting empty, a conversion and repositioning in to workforce housing will be beneficial. These places can become profitable, post-write downs, including through the conversion of costly amenities, like golf courses, in to less capital and maintenance intensive community amenities, such as walking trails or greenbelts. (Note, however, that many of these communities can be relatively remote, so that assessing transportation systems for workers will be necessary. This, too, can become an opportunity, as concentrated and growing communities provide growth centers for transportation systems. This is an exhaustive topic in its own right, so will not be fully addressed here.)

There is an added bonus to such an approach, often overlooked by competing sides of an environmental and sustainability battle that weighs ever more heavily in regions whose economy is built on the natural environment. The pro-environmental lobby, who likely opposed such communities from the onset, are perhaps too emotionally charged to realize that conversion to workforce housing is in their best interest. These developments are already built, to some extent, and already exist. Populating such areas with local workers will prompt evolution in to true communities, with neighbors and stakeholders likely to take up the cause, at some level, of protecting the natural environment in their community and promoting the expansion of transportation alternatives. So, the “green” movement gains by putting existing buildings to better use and by growing their constituency. This should be a win-win (except, maybe for the original developer).

While the original intent and focus has been on mountain resort communities – characterized by the presence of a large ski resort, but having evolved in to multi-season and, in some cases year-round, destinations, there are similar types of places where the thought process and applicability of second home conversions can take root. These places are amenity-based, but not in the same sense that a golf community uses the golf course as a sales and marketing pawn. Instead, such communities are akin to the company towns of the industrial era, with the difference being that a single, centralized corporation is not the hub of the wheel.

A series of public and private institutions, unique to that particular place and not replicable, are the anchors. The nature of the “company” has changed – resorts, universities, ports – but the relative job stability and availability of cultural attractions due to concentrations of people has not changed. These central “amenities” then provide the need for spin-off businesses and services, and economic development is borne. Further, especially with the tourists at resorts and the students and visiting faculty at universities, the changing cast of characters combined with the stability of an ensconced community creates a dynamism that is attractive to residents, tourists, visitors and workers across income levels and household types.

So, what exactly is the market for real estate sales in these communities? College towns, resort towns, port towns and others have been the subjects of analysis on many different levels. By collectively understanding the underlying premise driving the desirability of such areas – diversity of activities, cultural attractions, range of housing types, and educational and recreational amenities – it becomes easier to pinpoint target markets.

Before discussing the people, keep in mind a critically important component – access. Ability to physically connect with other locales will, in large part, be a differentiating factor. Through technology – internet, cell phones, laptops, etc. – connections can be fostered and maintained. There is no substitute still for face-to-face contact, though. Interstate highway proximity is not enough. Instead, the ability to reach far away places will enable markets to attract the quality-of-life-seekers who nonetheless want and need to feel as if they can get where they need to go. Thus, these “neo-company” towns need airport access and the ability to easily and quickly connect to large international airports. For example, the mountain communities of the west need air connections to Salt Lake City or Denver. The physical connectedness complements the technological connectedness so that pure isolation is not perceived.

Those seeking lifestyle-driven locales are the same demographic groups marketers, merchandisers and trendwatchers point to as the major trendsetters – Generation Y, or the millennials, and the Baby Boomers. The millennials are getting in to their 30s and want a better environment than the suburbs for themselves and their kids, but they still want the quality schools and range of housing types. This generation, which grew up on the internet and is comfortable in the digital world, view housing prices in hotbeds like New York or Los Angeles as out of reach, or, at least, providing much less bang for the buck. As a result, they are looking elsewhere and triggering what Joel Kotkin terms a “desire for dispersion.”

On the other end of the age spectrum are the Baby Boomers, a huge cohort that has been re-writing demographic trends as they age. The Baby Boomers are working in large numbers beyond the traditional retirement age. They are, however, slowing down and cutting back on those work hours, focusing increasingly on their own lifestyle. Educated, motivated, active and relatively worldly, the Baby Boomers are attracted to the amenities and activities in resort communities and, as such, are establishing primary residences.

Lastly, combining both the millennials and the Baby Boomers, there is a growing trend of dispersion among the general population with concentration among family units. For example, as the millennials make location choices based on lifestyle, and choose to live outside of the major metropolitan areas, their parents are increasingly likely to follow, so that they are not isolated from their children and grandchildren. It works the other way, too. As aging parents make lifestyle choices and relocate, their children are increasingly following, concerned about their care and also taking advantage of grandparents able and willing to facilitate dual income households by acting as daycare for young grandchildren.

Lifestyle-driven locational decisions by two enormous demographic cohorts has the potential to profoundly shape the built environment. Slightly altering the oft-used phrase of ‘flight to quality’ applies to future real estate trends – flight to quality-of-life. While the geographical recipients of this migration are relatively small towns, they nonetheless are confronted with the same growth issues of even the largest cities – availability of affordable housing and mix of housing types; necessity for interconnected transportation systems, including public transit options; preservation of open space, including for protection of viewsheds, preserving character and providing amenities; and the need for economic development, to expand the economic base beyond that of a condition akin to industrial-era company towns. Using abandoned, foreclosed, slow-selling or otherwise underutilized developments originally intended as second homes can address all of these issues.