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As Mountain West towns risk being ‘loved to death,’ a new report offers solutions

An aerial view of downtown Bozeman, Montana, backdropped by mountains.
Adobe Stock
Mountain West cities like Bozeman, Montana (pictured here), are attracting an influx of visitors and new residents, which is putting strains on housing and public infrastructure.

More and more people are visiting and moving to cities and towns around the Mountain West, drawn by access to public lands and other natural amenities. That brings economic growth – and also growing pains. A new report aims to help communities address the challenges.

The biggest issue is often housing, from a lack of supply to skyrocketing costs, according to Montana-based Headwaters Economics new report “The Amenity Trap: How high-amenity communities can avoid being loved to death.”

But some communities in the Mountain West are developing promising solutions to deal with their housing crunch. For example, programs in McCall, Idaho; Vail, Colo.; Breckenridge, Colo.; and Big Sky, Mont., offer incentives for property owners to sell to local residents instead of investors or second homeowners. Other communities have placed a limit on how much housing can be on the short-term rental market. Durango, Colo., for instance, capped its short-term rentals at between 2% and 3% of a neighborhood’s housing stock.

“What we're hearing more and more was, ‘Where are teachers gonna live?’” said Megan Lawson, an economist at Headwaters Economics and lead author of the study. "And how do we build roads that can handle all the people coming in? How do we fund our local government?’”

Lawson also urges local governments to create tax structures allowing them to use revenue from visitors to subsidize education, healthcare, and water supplies. She said the costs to maintain and improve those systems, among others, often disproportionately burden local residents.

To illustrate how a community could lift that burden, Lawson pointed to Bozeman, Mont., which hosts an estimated 1.4 million overnight visitors a year. She said if Gallatin County, where Bozeman is located, implemented a 3% sales tax on nonessential goods, including lodging, it would raise roughly $30 million in revenue, which could be used to offset the costs of maintaining and upgrading public infrastructure.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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