SubscribeCurrent Magazine Cover
Downtown Ouray
Crowds spill out onto the sidewalks of downtown Ouray, Colorado. Photo courtesy of Erin Eddy
News

For Colorado Mountain Towns, the Workforce May Never Be the Same

Hours cut. Services limited. How the housing crunch is affecting businesses in Ouray and other Colorado mountain communities.

Earlier this month, Erin Eddy rented out his fifth house in Ouray—none of which are for himself. Co-founder of Ouray Brewing Company, Eddy has been leasing properties in order to subsidize housing for his employees. After struggling to staff up, especially in the kitchen, he felt prompted to scramble for solutions; especially since three more full-time employees had been priced-out of housing in the Colorado mountain town over the previous weeks. Understaffed, he’s begun closing at 7 p.m. instead of 9 p.m., and opening to lines of waiting customers. On a recent Wednesday, Ouray Brewing’s waitlist was 100 people deep all day.

Simply put: The brewery is slammed.

“Staff will call and say, ‘What do you want me to do? It’s 6:30 p.m. and I’ve got 100 people on the waitlist,’” Eddy says. He instructs them to close. “I’m trying to not kill the few kitchen people I have left.”

Mountain towns throughout Colorado are facing a similar pinch. They’re bustling more than ever. Since the pandemic, as more companies allow employees to work remotely, people have been relocating without forfeiting high-end salaries, and second homeowners have started extending their stays. That increased demand is driving up housing prices, which jumped 20 to 40 percent just last year, according to research commissioned by the Colorado Association of Ski Towns and Northwest Colorado Council of Governments. The “Mountain Migration” report found that an ongoing concern around affordable housing in these towns is tipping over to a crisis. Housing was already a significant cost burden for many locals, and now even more are finding themselves priced out of town. Workforces for restaurants, bus lines, and shops are dwindling.

“What’s really at stake with all of this is: If folks can’t live in the community where they work, do you have a community?” asks Margaret Bowes, executive director of the Colorado Association of Ski Towns. Bowes reports seeing services reduced throughout various mountain towns, whether that’s a local transit system that can’t run every route because of too few drivers, or long waits, abbreviated menus, and seating sections closed at restaurants. The situation is brutal for residents trying to eke out a living, but visitors are also annoyed, whether it’s the long lines to dine or unavailability of rental bicycles due to the lack of shop mechanics.

“We’re starting to see signs [posted] at some businesses that say ‘Help wanted, and please be patient, we’re short-staffed,’” says Bowes, who lives in Dillon.

The housing shortage isn’t a new problem, Bowes explains. Summit County Combined Housing Authority once hired a housing authority director—someone tasked with mitigating a housing crunch. They ended up resigning because (go figure) they couldn’t find a house. Now, for job applicants at many businesses, the first question is whether or not they have housing. When businesses do that, Bowes says, the number of applications drops to zero.

(Read More: Colorado Mountain Towns Have an Affordable Housing Problem. Wildfires Will Make It Worse)

“Now that bars are allowed to operate, we’re seeing more calls late in the evening, and we just don’t have enough drivers to have someone available through that closing-of-the-bar shift,” says Edward Lerner, a driver with Jake’s Mountain Shuttle, which runs out of Frisco. The shuttle company is down drivers this summer by about half, which can mean longer waits for people needing a last-minute ride. The few drivers who are on the schedule are playing musical chairs to get the job, he says. “Typically, we would have had other people wanting to hustle and make money on those busy nights.”

Lerner was fortunate enough to find housing through a family relative. But the prospects for others are bleek. “It’s getting harder and harder to put down roots as a young person up here.”

At Ouray Brewing, Eddy expects the situation to get worse in August, when students he’s hired return to school. “I won’t be surprised if by Labor Day I’m closing several days a week,” Eddy says. “Now, I’m raising wages, closing earlier, absorbing more and more housing costs, and ultimately, it’s like, why am I doing this?” he reflects. “What’s left at the end?”

Editors' Picks

Sign Up For Our Newsletters

All things Colorado delivered straight to your inbox.

Sign Up