Selling San Juan: Part 3

An essay on New West gentrification and the feasibility of preserving community self-determination in San Juan County after the designation of Bears Ears National Monument.

Part 3: The Ghost of Christmas Future

The needle to watch is in-migration, which is sure to change not just the demographics but also the politics in southern Utah. The new residents weren’t around when the counties were dominated by ranching and timber, so they don’t feel their absence the way county commissioners down there do.

If one year’s data turns out to be a trend, the next surprise could come at election time.

— Outsiders fueling southern Utah growth also will drive change. Salt Lake Tribune Editorial.

The phenomenon of New West gentrification is well documented by both academics and journalists, and primary data is readily available for independent analysis.  In this part of the essay, I will use a variety of these sources to review some of the key features of amenity migration generally, then explore the relevance of the experience of two counties adjacent to San Juan County in forecasting San Juan’s post-Bears Ears future.

The Brazilification of the West

Gentrification has been concisely defined as the spatial expression of economic inequality and, in its most extreme form, this aspect of the gentrification of small western towns shocks the conscience: average home prices of $700,000 or higher, with half or more of these extravagant residences sitting vacant except for a few weeks each year while all but the most affluent workers in the community struggle with serious housing insecurity or brutal daily commutes from relatively affordable locations “down valley.”  It is a social arrangement that is hard to top for its decadence and sheer wastefulness.

While a dysfunctional housing market is the principal sign of rural gentrification, there are other reliable indicators, including high tourism-related service employment as a percentage of the total workforce and high non-wage income levels.  The former metric is a decent measure of the density of wage serfs in a given place, and the latter is usually a general indication of the relative sociopolitical balance between capital and labor.

These defining elements of rural gentrification help explain why New West towns have very low cost-of-living adjusted wages and underpin the observation that such places are more theme park than town.  A growing number of formerly blue-collar western towns have come to embody the cliché: the postcard-perfect Main Street with the predictable array of restaurants, outfitters, and souvenir shops; the Colter- or Underwood-inspired residences perched on every scenic promontory; the fit, suntanned baristas and tour guides straight from central casting; the predominance of people of color in back-of-the-house occupations.  By design, the impression is of a place brimming with well-adjusted wealth and dynamism, but the underlying reality is far more ambiguous.

Along with the local economy, local politics are also, predictably and explicitly, shaped by the arrival of amenity in-migrants.  As a bloc, New West settlers typically see their new home in quite different terms from long-time locals and it is naive to expect such newcomers to have a light political footprint or otherwise show an interest in gradually integrating themselves into the established culture.  To the contrary, with few exceptions they fully intend to remake their new hometown in their own post-industrial image using all available means.

Note, however, that political change made manifest at the voting booth is really a trailing indicator.  In rough terms, amenity migration represents a shift from an economy based on agriculture and resource extraction to one based on real estate development in all its forms.  As such, local land use decisions, and the subdivision process in particular, are far more important than the ballot box for rapidly and decisively changing local character and the terms of economic and political engagement.  In this arena, communities who have never had to navigate the many pitfalls of the planning and zoning process in the context of serious growth pressure are at a tremendous disadvantage.

Garfield, Grand or Something In-Between

[T]he changes that are taking place in southern Utah — both social and economic — are not caused by monuments and won’t be reversed by rescinding them.

Nor should they.  While the old guard in Garfield and Kane counties have chafed for decades over their scapegoat, new families have moved in to embrace visitors who want to see what our nation considers monumental. How long before Garfield, like Moab’s Grand, flips to recognizing the brand power of national recognition?

—  Utah’s national monuments have already justified themselves. Salt Lake Tribune Editorial.

It is almost certainly true that reversing monument designations would not reverse amenity migration to southern Utah, but I’m not persuaded that the data support the Tribune’s apparent sentiment that the problem with Garfield County is that its traditional industries just aren’t dying fast enough or that the county’s economy just isn’t sufficiently linked to tourism or that “new families” is an accurate description of the majority of recent in-migrants.  After all, employment in tourism comprises over half of all employment in the county (the second highest share in Utah); quarterly employment data shows tourism’s familiar seasonal spikiness; and the decline in school enrollment concurrent with Garfield’s post-GSENM evolution is well documented.

No, for all the fuss over the Antiquities Act, I suspect Garfield County’s inability to live up to its New West potential has less to do with a lack of enthusiasm for GSENM on the part of the “old guard” and more to do with the fact that the county is so remote and sparsely populated that fairly brisk peak seasonal tourism is not readily convertible by entrepreneurs into the more endless kind.  Climatic differences between Garfield and Grand, and the sprawling nature of GSENM itself, also likely contribute to the monument’s muted, diffuse impact on Garfield’s gateway communities.

Given some of these similarities between Garfield-GSENM and San Juan-BENM, maybe San Juan will see an uptick in peak seasonal tourism due to monument designation, but a more tempered impact to its economy and overall character than Grand County has experienced.

Witness the “brand power of national recognition.”
Photo: Deseret News

Still, the probability is well above zero that San Juan could be headed for a future that looks more like Grand County than Garfield.  After all, there is potentially more for amenity migrants to work with in San Juan’s gateway towns than there is in Garfield’s even now: basic services like healthcare, telecommunications and transportation are on much firmer footing; there are arguably more spots within BENM than GSENM that hit the casual tourist’s sweet spot of (relatively) easy access and wow factor; and there is the fact of San Juan’s relative proximity to other prominent islands in the New West archipelago (think Durango, Telluride, and Moab itself).  Southbound New West creep from Moab into San Juan County is already manifest in areas like south Spanish Valley and Flat Iron Mesa, and of course there are already New West pioneers in Monticello, Blanding, and Bluff.  So it would be naive to assume that a version of Grand County has no chance of being reproduced in San Juan.

Boiled down, I personally think San Juan is likely to avoid the Grand County scenario.  Its geographic isolation and the untamed pitilessness of its backcountry — and it is nearly all backcountry — are likely to continue to keep at bay the largest droves of casual tourists and amenity migrants.  I can imagine no easy way to serve up Bears Ears on an Arches-like silver platter.  Also, while real estate in San Juan is relatively affordable, prices are not nearly as depressed as they were in Grand County when Moab was “discovered” in the 80s.  In other words, the barriers to new entry for amenity migrants are actually relatively high in San Juan County.

Still, even assuming San Juan’s future looks more like Garfield County than Grand, this would still represent a significant change from today, both for the communities of San Juan County and for the territory now called Bears Ears NM.  Visitation data for non NPS-administered monuments makes direct comparisons somewhat imperfect, but the best information I’m aware of indicates GSENM now gets 900,000 or so visitors a year.  By contrast, visitation of Natural Bridges NM, which represents a decent proxy for Cedar Mesa tourist traffic, peaked at about 150,000 during the economic boom years of the 90s and has rarely exceeded 100,000 annual visitors since then.

Tale of the Tape

[table id=1 /]

Table footnotes:
– Typical income and home price are median figures for, respectively, Escalante, Moab, Monticello [source].
– L&H = leisure & hospitality
– T-R = travel-related
– ADR = average daily rate
Utah State Tourism data by the Kem C. Gardner Institute at the University of Utah.


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