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'A Marathon, Not a Sprint': Pitkin County's Road To Economic Recovery

Jul 24, 2020

Pitkin County's tourism-dependent economy was hit hard when attractions and hotels were closed. An expert on the region's economy says the road to recovery will be "a matter of several years."
Credit Alex Hager / Aspen Public Radio

When ski lifts in Aspen and Snowmass stopped spinning in March, so did the area’s economy. Pitkin County businesses went into an early offseason and have experienced a staggered reopening under new restrictions.

Jessica Valand, Northwest Colorado workforce area director for the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, spoke with Aspen Public Radio on the future of Pitkin County’s economy.

 What’s the state of the economy in Pitkin County?

Obviously we've had a tremendous amount of folks be displaced from work over the course of the last couple of months. When we look at the Roaring Fork Valley, that was worst for Pitkin County. Not great in Eagle County, a little bit better looking in Garfield County. What I would attribute that to overall is greater industry diversification in Garfield County. So more of a mix in terms of what industries are there and what occupations people hold.

Pitkin County certainly, and also Eagle County, are to a large extent dominated by tourism. So any place that we have a really high concentration of leisure and hospitality occupations, and jobs – because of the nature of COVID-19 – that's where we've seen the greatest number of layoffs statewide. Having a higher concentration of those in a community just means that your layoff concentration is higher.

What does the path back look like? How long is it going to take and what will it take to get back to a pre-pandemic economy?

To be candid with you, I think the best estimates that I've seen is that it's going to take several years. In the mountain resort communities in Colorado, we just reached pre-recession peak employment just about a year ago. So knowing that that recession, really the harshest effects of 2008 and 2009, it took almost a full decade to get back to our pre-recession peak employment. So I anticipate that the effects of this will linger for quite some time.

Of course, what happens with the virus itself and how safe people feel traveling, whatever restrictions are imposed via public health order or businesses choosing to limit their capacity is going to have really big implications on just how quickly the economy recovers. But I think we know that this is a marathon and not a sprint. We're not talking about a matter of a few months here, but probably in all likelihood a matter of several years.

"This is a marathon and not a sprint. We're not talking about a matter of a few months here, but probably in all likelihood a matter of several years."

Can you compare this recession to 2008 to help give some context?

I can attempt to, but it's a little bit difficult because the nature of the 2008 recession was so heavily driven by housing. And this is different. Pandemic effects are felt very universally. So it's a little apples to oranges, I think, to try and compare what happened, economically in 2008 to what we're experiencing now.

What we do know at least in terms of national data is that we've seen a rapid decrease in spending among the very affluent. Pitkin County, I believe, has the fourth highest per capita income of any county in the United States. So seeing a reduction in spending amongst the very top income thresholds is going to have certain impacts in terms of what then ripples out into the rest of the local economy, what type of spending is or isn't taking place. That's going to be a little bit different than what we saw economically during the Great Recession.

"Pandemic effects are felt very universally. So it's a little apples to oranges, I think, to try and compare what happened, economically in 2008 to what we're experiencing now."

There’s a fall offseason on the horizon. Will that be a hurdle as local businesses try to get back on the right track?

It's interesting because when we went into a stay-at-home order, it was in the middle of the busiest ski month of the year, towards the end of March. But that said, April and May are historically kind of down times in the ski economy anyway. And then the same thing, of course, in September, October and early November, before resorts start staffing back up again.

So, kind of the silver lining here is that our communities are a little bit used to this dynamic anyway. I think that employers had some more capacity in terms of understanding unemployment and talking to their employees through unemployment, because that's a normal part of doing business in our resort economies. Obviously, though, the scale of this is just so much larger than anything that we have dealt with previously in terms of the number and volume of people who were being unemployed.

"The scale of this is just so much larger than anything that we have dealt with previously in terms of the number and volume of people who were being unemployed."

What about the workforce? Are there any new challengers for employers?

One of the things to be mindful of is that there are currently some calls for a significant curtailing of any type of foreign labor. A lot of jobs are filled through J-1 and H-1B visa holders in resort economies. The Trump administration has indicated that they are not going to be bringing in foreign labor and filling those visa positions.

That's something else that's going to have some serious impacts on resort communities – the inability to rely upon foreign labor. Because a lot of times the jobs that are available, if you think about living in employee housing and it's only four months, might be very attractive to a student from Argentina, but arguably much less attractive to a parent living in Carbondale, for example. 

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