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Eagle County rolls out welcome mat, says “summer of the part-time resident” will aid coronavirus recovery

As Colorado resort counties wrangle with pandemic-ruined summer plans, some are focused on locals and a trickle of out-of-towners. The Vail Valley is asking second-home owners to come home again.

Golfers on the links at the Vail Golf Club on Sunday, May 31. The Vail Valley tapped second-home owners to help float the tourist economy this summer. (Jason Blevins, The Colorado Sun)
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GYPSUM — Carlos Gomez stepped off the jet and took a breath while admiring the view of snow-capped peaks in the distance. The Miami resident was only a short drive from his vacation home in Pitkin County.

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“It’s good to be back home,” he said on Memorial Day, minutes after arriving on an American Airlines jet from Dallas. 

Gomez has been watching the public health orders coming out of Colorado’s mountain towns since the early days of the pandemic that warned nonresident owners they could face fines — or worse — if they visited. As counties started to relax regulations preventing visitors, he hopped on a flight. 

“If this stretch had been any longer, I might have been upset. I pay property taxes and there wasn’t any delay on our part in paying those taxes,” he said. “They were still able to send that bill though. I’m glad to be here and I’m ready to help carry the local economy again.”

Vacation-home owners have long fueled resort economies in Colorado. But in the pandemic, resort communities have urged those owners from afar to avoid their getaways in the hills. That’s changing, starting with Eagle County. 

With the absence of events luring throngs of tourists this summer and surveys showing travelers reluctant to stay in hotels, Eagle County communities from Vail to Gypsum are leaning on part-time residents, like Gomez, to help keep a limping tourism economy alive this summer.

West Vail resident John McManus and his dog Kingston walk through Vail Village on Friday, April 3, 2020. Business in the village has nearly halted due to the coronavirus and subsequent closure of Vail Resort. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“For us it’s almost a no-brainer — the idea of inviting our second-home owners to help stabilize our local economy because they already are emotionally and financially invested in our community,” said Chris Romer, the president of the Vail Valley Partnership, who recently launched a “Welcome Home” campaign driven by locals. 

The idea is to get locals — like ski instructors, Realtors, nonprofit directors, home builders and others — who know the owners of vacation homes to reach out and invite the owners to come fill those empty castles and be a local. 

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It’s not an ad campaign. There isn’t a big push on social media. Local health officials have vetted and approved the plan. The first-of-its-kind effort includes a tool kit for locals to craft emails, phone calls and postcards to nonresident home owners with the tagline “Come here, live here, stay here.” 

The tool-kit doesn’t mention quarantining or fines or masks. That will happen when the new residents arrive and see everyone else following the rules to prevent the spread of contagion, Romer said. (It does however mention that the area’s hospitals are well equipped and capable for any and all health care needs.)

“We think this is going to be a lot more powerful than a traditional campaign,” said Romer, who also serves on the governor’s tourism recovery task force.

Eagle County is on a lonely path. Other vacation destinations are continuing to eschew nonresident visitors. Locals in the Hamptons are bemoaning the crush of New York City residents flocking to the beach for summer. Mammoth Lakes in southern California is begging its nonresident property owners not to visit. 

In Colorado, Chaffee County is asking second-home owners to quarantine for two weeks after they arrive in the county. San Miguel County medical officer Dr. Sharon Grundy penned an open letter to second homeowners on May 20 that “strongly encouraged” them to not visit their properties in Telluride and Mountain Village. Citing few intensive care units and ventilators in the region, Grundy advised property owners who “decide against the urging of public health officials” to stay home for 14 days if they visit.

“Not even a trip to the post office is permitted,” Grundy wrote. 

Michael Martelon, the head of Visit Telluride, calls messaging that deters people from visiting their properties in the county “inappropriate.” Without any of Telluride’s trademark festivals drawing tens of thousands of visitors every week, he sees second-home owners as critical to the survival of the valley’s economy this summer. 

A trail in Telluride, Colorado. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

“This summer will be the summer of the part-time resident,” Martelon said. “They really are our best hope.”

But he’s not changing his marketing to cater to a smaller audience. Telluride has streamlined its brand advertising in the last year with a focus on a letter. The valley’s pickaxe “T” ads use the Telluride ski area’s brand to highlight the box canyon’s character, unique landscapes and upscale amenities using single words like “Revelation,” “Sanctuary” and “Elation.”  

Just before the pandemic hit, the campaign’s word was “Outsider,” emphasizing the valley’s off-the-beaten-track appeal and outdoor playgrounds. That fits the new paradigm, said Martelon, But he is scaling back the ad campaign and closely watching arrival numbers, including daily scrutiny of influent volumes at the valley’s wastewater treatment plants. He can slow and amplify messaging as visitors ebb and flow, he said.  

“We will be adjusting everything in two- to three-week increments and making calls on whether we need to step forward, step back or stand still,” he said. “I do believe there is going to be a tremendous amount of pent-up demand. So it’s going to be about how you estimate the alchemy between the flow of your audience and guests and what the community can handle.”

But once visitors arrive, Martelon wants them to see locals in masks, signs about hand washing and warnings about staying apart from strangers. 

“Let’s embrace it as a community so when our visitors arrive, they will be more apt to embrace it. That’s the important messaging we want to share,” Martelon said. “We need to change behavior now because in the winter, it will be a different story. In the summer, we can spread out outside but in the winter, not so much. It’s going to be really, really important we don’t have an outbreak heading into winter.”

Highway signs near the city of Gunnison warn tourists that Gunnison County is basically closed for business. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Gunnison County health officials drew the attention of the Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton when they ordered nonresident homeowners to leave and stay away in late March. Paxton sent the county a letter saying the order preventing Texans from their properties “is a blatant violation of our Constitution.” (A later Associated Press investigation found that several Texans who had given Paxton money for his election campaign owned property around Crested Butte.)

John Norton, the executive director of Gunnison County’s Tourism Association Prosperity Partnership, said the county’s messaging to second-home owners understandably angered some property owners. 

“But I think most felt the communication was poorly worded, not that there is no local appreciation of the contributions second-home owners make to the valley’s vibrancy,” said Norton, who is part of a team leading the Gunnison Valley’s economic recovery, which includes a video released this week inviting “friends, family and visitors” to return with the tagline “It hasn’t been the same here without you.”

The marketing effort also included postcards to second-home owners around Crested Butte apologizing for any slight in the initial public health orders. 

The push to invite visitors to return to Gunnison County is not wholly embraced. 

“There’s the same divided opinion locally as there is nationally. Some say we are getting too loose too fast although we have done a great job of suppressing new cases. Others are saying we haven’t been fast enough,” Norton said. “One thing is quite clear to me: It’s impossible to satisfy everyone in this health crisis. But people are worried about their families and finances and the county gets that in spades. We are trying to bring people back in limited numbers as quickly as we can.”

Aspen’s city council in May agreed to loan the local chamber $500,000 for a new marketing strategy that includes education about the city’s safety measures and encourages visitors to spend in local businesses with gift cards. The Aspen Chamber Resort Association added $500,000 from its reserve for a summer campaign that starts with an eye on getting locals out of their homes and then expands to downvalley residents and second-home owners before reaching out to drive-up vacationers. 

The city of Aspen as seen from a road above town. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Early surveys show the owners of roughly 4,200 second homes in Pitkin County are planning extended visits this summer, chamber president Debbie Braun said. 

The chamber lost about $1.4 million in revenue from lodging tax collections since mid-March, said the association’s president Debbie Braun. The new marketing plan includes regular drive-in movies in partnership with Aspen Film and the Aspen Institute. It also delivers education around hand-washing, social distancing and masks for helping to control the spread of COVID-19. 

The chamber is directing $150,000 toward $100 gift cards for visitors in area hotels to use at Aspen businesses. The city also is waiving parking fees at the multi-level garage and in residential zones. Hotels and restaurants in Pitkin County and Aspen opened last week at 50% capacity after securing a variance from the state’s public health department allowing it to begin its second phase of opening. 

Even with the variance and marketing push, Braun fears 20% to 40% of Aspen’s tourist-reliant businesses might not survive the pandemic summer season.

“And with that is a whole new set of challenges in the fall. I don’t want all of Aspen to get shut down again,” Braun said. “Slowly and cautiously, with real intent, we want to be educators walking the walk and talking the talk. We want to be known in Pitkin County as a safe community and that only works if we all work together, Aspen, Snowmass, up valley and downvalley, locals and second-home owners alike. It’s going to be that kind of collaboration that serves us best.”

Campbell Letch hopes that the embrace of visiting property owners continues in Aspen. 

“I’m cautiously optimistic we’ll be welcomed,” Letch said as he arrived from Dallas at the Aspen airport earlier this week with family for a visit at his brother’s vacation home. “We are ready for social distancing and taking the proper steps. It’s about to rain for 10 days in Dallas so we thought we’d come up for a break.”

(The Northwest Colorado Council of Governments in 2004 studied the impacts of second homes in resort communities and concluded that second-home construction and spending by vacation-home owners accounted for 34% of outside dollars pouring into Eagle, Grand, Pitkin and Summit counties. That eclipsed the impact of skiers in a region that accounts for the highest density of skier visits in the country. The council asked its members last year if it should update the second-home study and they declined.)

Jeremy Rietmann, the town manager of Gypsum, fostered the idea of embracing nonresident homeowners using marketing dollars from the canceled Gypsum Days events. He called his plan “bold and boring.”

“It’s bold because no one else is doing it … and some of our Colorado neighbors are taking a different approach that is arguably not legal,” he said of the orders banning non-residents from visiting their property. “It’s also super boring because all we are doing is reminding people they have property rights, just like any local owner, and they are already vested in the community.” 

Eagle County has a population density of about 35 people per square mile. That’s up to 99.5% less density than the top markets for out-of-town homeowners in Eagle County — places like Denver, Dallas, Houston, New York City and Chicago.

“Not all communities have such a unique opportunity and good communities leverage both opportunities and assets,” Rietmann said. “We have really high quality health care with great capacity and way better amenities than most rural communities. That’s a pretty rare mix.”  


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