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After COVID-19 Shutdown, Wood River Valley Sees Busy Summer, Record Demand In Real Estate

Rachel Cohen
Boise State Public Radio
A section of Fourth Street in Ketchum is closed to car traffic to make more room for pedestrians, cyclists and outdoor diners.

Blaine County, which once had the highest rate of COVID-19 per-capita in the country, was the first of Idaho’s counties to go under a stay-at-home order. The streets went quiet as skiers left and businesses shut off their lights. 


The city of Ketchum planned for a big reduction in tourism-based revenue. At the cusp of summer, it was unclear just how many tourists would come to town, and whether people were comfortable traveling, said Harry Griffith, the executive director of Sun Valley Economic Development. Big events that brought thousands to hotels and restaurants in previous years were canceled.

The Sun Valley Music Festival, he estimated, brought in $10 or $11 million to the local economy. 

But by mid-June, and with coronavirus case numbers consistently low, Ketchum was surprisingly busy, as families escaped their urban dwellings and headed to the mountains. Places like Jackson and Aspen — which also, at one point, had some of the highest per-capita rates of COVID-19 in the country — boomed with tourists, too, who came looking for open space and opportunities to recreate away from crowds of people.   

Visitors spent money differently than in the past, as they stayed at friends’ houses or just stopped through town to go camping in the Sawtooth Mountains. 

“From the economic impact standpoint, there's been winners and losers,” Griffth said.

Local option tax receipts from mid-summer showed retail sales were up, but restaurants and bars didn’t do as well, Griffith said. He’s aware of four or five small businesses closing their doors.


Credit Rachel Cohen/Boise State Public Radio
Boise State Public Radio
Ketchum did not hold a big Wagon Days parade this year.

As the end of summer rolled around, some visitors and part-time residents never left. Many had connections to the valley — they’d come to Sun Valley to ski or they’d been dreaming of living there one day, and the pandemic was what it took to make it a reality. 

That’s the case for Christine Brozowski and her husband, who live in the Bay Area and have owned a house in Ketchum for 15 years. The family decided to stay through the school year.

“It just seemed like a safer situation for my family versus the Bay Area has just such a high population density. I mean, everyone's just right next door to you," Brozowski said. 

Into September, interest in the valley isn’t waning.  

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Heather Johnston, a realtor at Hallmark Idaho Properties in Hailey, who has lived in the valley for 45 years.

“I've had a house this month that was listed and had an offer in three hours, she said. “By the end of that evening [it] had multiple offers. They were all over the asking price.”

According to the Sun Valley Board of Realtors, the median residential sales price in Blaine County jumped by 30% from between August 2019 and August 2020 -- from $520,000 to $677,500. Houses sold and under contract were also way up this summer, while the number of days they were listed on the market was down. 

Johnston said people seem to be buying houses to actually live in. That’s significant for an area that sees a lot of residences empty for most of the year.

For Brozowski, a big factor telling her to stay in Idaho was her kids’ ability to attend school in classrooms. In California, they would’ve done school online.

“They really couldn't do anything. California kind of wants children to be invisible right now and just stay inside their house. And that is just not healthy for kids, physically or mentally," Brozowski said.

Credit Rachel Cohen/Boise State Public Radio
Christine Brozowski split her time between the Bay Area and Ketchum. Her family is staying in Ketchum through this school year due to the pandemic.

Here, they attend elementary school in Ketchum in-person two days a week and play on soccer teams. Brozowski’s daughter was on the waiting list for the public elementary school this summer. 

It is the only school in the Blaine County School District that has seen a slight increase in enrollment; the district as a whole has 178 fewer students compared to last September, according to the district.

More people and families sticking around for the school year could help the valley reduce some of the ‘seasonality’ to its tourism-based economy, Griffith said. But there’s also a question of how long the trends will last — what happens, for example, when companies call their employees back to the office? 

Brozowski, a physician, has had a part-time practice in Ketchum for years, but her husband is working remotely. His company told him he doesn’t have to come into work at least through the end of the year. After the school year, the family will evaluate returning to San Francisco. 

Early on in the pandemic, marketing organization Visit Sun Valley identified the remote working trend as an opportunity for the mountain resort economy, which doesn't boast many locally-based, high-paying jobs to attract people. But as more residents are able to make their income outside the community, it also presents challenges.

“You've got people that are buying homes sight unseen, bidding up prices at the upper end, while at the lower end, you have people that have lost hours, lost part time work, and are, in some cases, having to move out of the community because they can't afford to live here anymore," Griffith said.

The widening gap could be a problem, he said, for an economy driven by the service industry, and for which the upcoming ski season is still a big unknown. 

Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen 

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

I cover environmental issues, outdoor recreation and local news for Boise State Public Radio. Beyond reporting, I contribute to the station’s digital strategy efforts and enjoy thinking about how our work can best reach and serve our audience. The best part of my job is that I get to learn something new almost every day.

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