The Pandemic Is Forcing Ski Towns to Rethink Tourism
When once crowded mountain communities like Breckenridge, Colorado, saw visitors vanish this spring, locals scrambled to mitigate the economic damage and plot a return, while keeping their towns' character intact
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Jeffrey Bergeron’s phone started ringing at all hours the third week of March, soon after his adopted hometown of Breckenridge, Colorado, shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A native of Brockton, Massachusetts, on Boston’s gritty South Shore, Bergeron moved to Breckenridge in 1975 when he was 20. He’s represented the town’s 5,000 residents as a councilman for more than a decade. Known by his nom de plume, Biff America, the 66-year-old media personality describes himself as “kind of a freak,” which makes him a man of the ski-town people in a way that most elected officials are not.
Breckenridge was founded as a mining town in 1859. It existed for more than a century before a tiny ski resort opened there in 1961 on 12,998-foot Peak 8. Now Breckenridge Ski Resort is among the biggest and busiest in the country, routinely notching more than 1.6 million skier visits as one of the most popular destinations on Vail Resorts’ vaunted Epic Pass. Last year the town recorded $658 million in taxable sales by local businesses. Multimillion-dollar homes are in vogue the way two-room cabins once were. Bergeron has accepted the growth like ski bums accept summer—begrudgingly—while always striving to defend the easygoing vibe he fell in love with 45 years ago, when he and a friend puttered down Main Street in their 1962 VW Squareback.
So this March, when nearly a dozen longtime residents called Bergeron, on the verge of sobbing, unsure what they were going to do or if they would be able to stay, the pandemic hit home in a way that no bottom line could. “In many cases, these were dudes in their forties who I ski with or lift weights with, and they were fighting to maintain their composure,” Bergeron told me. “They thought they were taking the next step to their future—they finally had a business and property. Then, within five days, everything was tenuous.”
Anyone living in a ski town like Breckenridge, the place I have called home for 18 years, knows how drastic this economic and lifestyle crash has been. Take Downstairs at Eric’s, a popular family restaurant on Main Street owned by the town mayor, Eric Mamula. Eric’s had set revenue records for seven straight years entering 2020. It appeared primed to do that again, with unprecedented sales in January and February and a booming start to March, typically the richest month of the year for Breckenridge’s local businesses. Just up Ski Hill Road, at the base of Peak 8, Breckenridge Grand Vacations (BGV), which sells luxury time-shares and manages nearly 900 lodging units, was on pace to notch the highest sales total in its 32-year history.
Then the ski resort closed on Saturday, March 14. Two days later, the town shut down its restaurants and bars, and all tourists were asked to leave by the end of the week. Their departure left much of the community out of work. BGV, the largest year-round employer in Summit County, furloughed more than 500 staff, or 85 percent of its workforce. Vail Resorts laid off or furloughed almost all of its local employees for up to six months. It was as if an ice age had arrived while everyone was sleeping, and we woke up to a place frozen in time. Retail shops that had been short-staffed all winter replaced their “Help Wanted” signs with COVID-19 closure notices. I walked down the double yellow line on Main Street for blocks without seeing a car—or a person.
Breckenridge has endured its share of local and global calamities, from rampant mine closures to 9/11 to the Great Recession. But the last real threat to the town’s identity was the 1980–81 winter, when the resort only opened for brief stretches and closed for the season in March, after recording just 86 inches of snow (an average season sees around 350 inches). The population exodus was so dramatic that someone posted a sign on Main Street that read “Last One to Leave, Turn Out the Lights.” Twentieth Century Fox, which owned the resort at the time, made sure that never happened again, investing in snowmaking and installing the world’s first high-speed quad chairlift the following year. “That event was not even in the same galaxy as this pandemic, as far as fostering insecurity about the future of our town,” Bergeron says.
Over the past two months, mountain towns around the world have adjusted to an uncomfortable, indefinite standstill. March and April are typically economic windfalls, and some resorts stay open through May, including Breckenridge. After the pandemic hit, businesses small and large, as well as nonprofits and municipal governments, slashed their budgets, anticipating annual revenue losses of 40 to 50 percent. Locals hunkered down like marmots in a blizzard. The Summit Daily News (where I worked before starting a freelance career) published 12-page newspapers when they’d normally be four times as thick, and it solicited donations from readers. The only companies hiring in the classifieds were Waste Management, the hospital, and Wendy’s.
According to an Oxford Economics survey released on March 24, we can expect to see a $400 billion decrease in U.S. travel spending this year, including $350 billion in domestic travel, which is Breckenridge’s bread and butter. “This is seven times the impact of 9/11,” the report stated. Local property manager Toby Babich, who serves as president of the international Vacation Rental Management Association, told me that bookings from May through August were down 80 percent from the previous year in traditionally powerhouse destinations like Florida and the Gulf Coast, and down 40 to 60 percent in mountain towns. Bergeron says he wouldn’t be surprised if Breckenridge loses 15 percent of its population. (In addition to the 5,000 year-round residents, there are also hundreds of seasonal winter workers.) Aside from those who move back in with their parents to escape the area’s high cost of living, it’s unclear where they would go.
To help locals get by, in late March, the town dipped into its $20 million rainy-day fund and established rent-assistance pools for small businesses and those who work in town. Nearly 210 business owners applied for April aid, receiving an average of $3,000 from a $1 million fund, while 900 residents’ rent handouts were drawn from a pool of $500,000. The point was to spread out the body blows. “Before the town chips in, we’ve been going to landlords and saying, ‘Hey, you’re owed this much, what will you take?’” Bergeron says. If the landlord doesn’t cooperate, neither does the government. Other ski towns, like Truckee, California, have done similar things, while in Jackson, Wyoming, local nonprofits are filling the benefactor role. Still, not every ski bum is protected. In Stowe, Vermont, the only rent assistance available is what people can procure from the feds, says town planning director Tom Jackman.
Everyone has feared a mental-health crisis as part of the pandemic, and for a while, it appeared Breckenridge might avoid that fate. Testing for the virus ramped up in mid-April (as of this writing, 243 people had tested positive in Summit County, with 47 hospitalizations and one death), and talk of reopening began. Then two local teenagers committed suicide eight days apart in late April, sending the community into shock. “I think we can say confidently that the isolation was a factor in the emotional rawness of these kids,” says Jen McAtamney, executive director of Building Hope, a local mental-health nonprofit. “Because they’re supposed to be socializing, and their brains are developing right now, so it’s hard for them to see the other side of this—the future.” Building Hope funds up to 12 therapy sessions for anyone in need, often starting as soon as a person applies. “We’ve been getting as many calls in a day as we usually get in a week,” McAtamney says.
What does the future look like for Breckenridge and other ski towns? Much depends, of course, on how long the pandemic lasts. “I describe it, frankly, as unrolling a snowball,” says Robin Theobald, a fifth-generation Breckenridge resident and prominent local businessman. “A snowball will roll down the hill on its own, but how do you put that back on the hill? You can’t unroll it.” Town manager Rick Holman says he expects to see a $190 million decrease in sales this year, compared with 2019. Already at least one Main Street shop has gone under, with more likely to follow. Many businesses received federal assistance to cover payroll and overhead, but that doesn’t solve the biggest problem: a lack of visitors spending money.
All lodging properties were shut down through May but were allowed to reopen June 1. The Breckenridge Tourism Office was targeting July 4 as its official summer kickoff, then changed course and decided not to stage any major events, to prevent large crowds. Main Street, typically clogged by traffic, is being turned into a pedestrian throughway, giving people more room to avoid each other. BGV plans to have its guests sign a pledge to abide by public-health orders upon their arrival—a provision many locals support, given their wariness of letting outsiders back in without treatment or a vaccine for the virus. The “BGV Promise” requires guests to cover their faces anytime they’re outside their rooms at the resort, unless they’re eating, drinking, or playing in the pool. “We’re trying to avoid conflict among our guests,” says company CEO Mike Dudick. If visitors refuse to wear masks inside a retail shop or a restaurant downtown, as mandated by government officials, the town’s delicate dependence on tourism could come to a head.
“I think there’s going to be a philosophical discussion for locals to have,” Dudick says. “Because those who were in the camp of We have way too many tourists, now they’ve gotten to look squarely down the barrel of what it looks like with zero. So what kind of economy do we really need to live in this community? Where’s the balance point?”
Mayor Mamula, who was reelected in early April, and whose father was the mayor 20 years ago, envisions one potential silver lining that could extend to ski towns everywhere. With many service workers earning between $25,000 and $30,000 a year, homeownership is often out of reach, a major reason why locals leave to raise their families elsewhere. “Maybe some housing goes on the market when we come out of this, and people who have lived here for a long time are actually able to afford it,” Mamula says. “That’s what I’m hoping for: we get a shake-up in the economy, where some of the people who have used this as strictly a place to make money and not a place to live will get replaced by people who want to live here.” It’s an attractive prospect on paper, but April Norton, director of Wyoming’s Teton County Affordable Housing program, says early signs in Jackson Hole leave her worried. “I see it going the other way for us, which is really scary,” she told me.
Ironically, two bases that have been assailed by locals who feel Breckenridge is too busy—day-trippers from the Front Range and time-share occupants—are likely to play a crucial role in kick-starting the economy. But how many destination travelers join them, and when, is the wild card. Breckenridge Tourism Office CEO Lucy Kay told me the organization has spent “very little” of its $1.2 million summer advertising budget, which is used to attract visitors from out of state. “We don’t want to bring in too many people too fast,” she says. “We want to see how much fills organically.” The long-term prognosis remains unpredictable, like the virus. “You could take this out to a worst-case scenario, where we lose part of next winter, and that could be devastating,” says Mamula, whose restaurant employs 48 people, four of whom tested positive for COVID-19 in May. “Then I don’t know what happens. I don’t even want to think about that right now.”
Theobald believes there is too much money invested in Breckenridge by wealthy vacationers for its economy not to recover. Urban residents still pine for mountain escapes, perhaps now more than before. But if you ask Bergeron, the biggest threat is qualitative, not quantitative.
“The people who have called me in a state of panic really reflect what this place is about, and yet they might have to leave,” Bergeron says. “They’d be replaced eventually by people with the same occupation but who don’t have the historical understanding of what our town is. And that could really change what I think is the best part about Breckenridge—the character. It’s forgiving, freewheeling, and a remarkable place to live.”