By Julie Tate Libby
Since the opening of the North Cascades Highway in 1972 and the creation of the North Cascades National Park and neighboring wilderness areas, the Methow Valley has been quietly restructuring from a sleepy, resource-dependent community at the end of the road, to a thriving bedroom community for Seattleite second homeowners and outdoor recreationists. While the ratio of full-time to part-time residents has remained remarkably consistent, (roughly 59% full-time residents and 41% part-time since 2005), new data on population trends, the number of homes built, and COVID-19 in-migration suggests that the Methow is in a state of flux.
In November last year, TwispWorks began compiling data on the Methow Valley as part of a comprehensive economic study that would show how much tourism and second-home ownership contributed to the economy. The study sought to understand the economic drivers of our community that made the Methow different than the rest of Okanogan County, upon which most of the employment and industry data was based. Central questions to the study included: How much does tourism contribute to our economy? What about second homeowners and remote workers? How much are the building and real estate industries worth? How do residents make it in a recreational economy based on tourism and second-home ownership?
To answer some of the questions, we began with a Small Business Survey, which launched the week before Gov. Inslee’s shelter-in-place order. Within weeks, we pivoted the survey to include information on COVID-19 and made it part of the application for the Small Business Emergency Grant. Questions in the survey had to do with the specific needs of businesses and employers and covered topics like housing, child care and affordability for tourism workers and employees.
Rural Restructuring Study: Take the survey
• Participate in the TwispWorks survey at http://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5RCGZYP.
• For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The second set of data we planned on collecting had to do with second homeowners and remote workers, an issue that has come to the fore during COVID-19. Three weeks ago, the Methow Valley News reported on the “Zoom Town” economy of the Methow Valley, citing comments from real estate agents who described families and new residents who took the plunge and moved to the Methow during the pandemic as their jobs went online.
Like other outdoor recreation areas (Bozeman, Flathead Lake, the Grand Tetons) real estate sales in the Methow have recorded record-high transactions, with homes selling for significantly more than the asking price. Prior to COVID-19, tech-savvy Seattle already had a higher-than-average remote worker population, 6-7% compared to 3% nationally. Today almost half of all Seattle adults work online.
For the Methow, this restructuring could mean many things. According to new statistics based on the number of homes in the Methow Valley Watershed, the Methow’s full-time population is around 6,120, while our part-time population is around 4,180. With restructuring due to COVID-19, this ratio could be changing. Maybe we’ll see a 70/30 split or even 80/20 as more people are able to work remotely. Additionally, the impact of remote wages is yet to be seen. The average Microsoft or Google mid-salaried employee makes $118,000 to $164,000 a year — between two to three times that of the average household income in the Methow Valley. Remote wages represent a boon to the economy (more money gets spent here), but also contributes to the rising cost of homes and property taxes.
The survey that TwispWorks is launching this week seeks to understand these timely impacts on our economy. Some of the questions are geared towards second homeowners and retirees; some are geared towards remote workers, and some are geared towards longtime valley residents. We need to know, for example, how many days on average second homeowners spend in the Methow in order to calculate their financial contribution to the economy. Likewise, we need to know how many remote workers we have in the Methow to understand their impact on the economy. We also want to know how retirees envision their future: whether they feel like they can live out their lives in the Methow Valley or not.
Whether you consider yourself a local, a second homeowner, or a remote worker, this survey is for you. Please visit http://www.surveymonkey.com/r/5RCGZYP to take part.
The Methow’s restructuring is not new to most residents. It’s a process we’ve watched over the last 30 years. What is new, perhaps, is the scale and flavor of change. We all witnessed the crowded trails on Washington Pass this summer. We all noticed the number of second homeowners here in March and April. We were surprised at the number of tourists who flocked to the valley all summer — during an essential-travel-only order from the governor. I suppose we all feel a little uneasy about these changes. We’re grateful for our community. We’re grateful for our wilderness and open spaces, and we don’t know where these changes will take us.
The structural changes occurring today will have a lasting impact on the Methow. Communities don’t go backward. They grow, they change, and they develop. We want to understand these changes so we can plan for the future. The results of this study will be open to the public and any organization making strategic plans, whether it’s to do with affordable housing, child care availability, business ventures, or the preservation of agricultural land and open space. For those who’ve recently moved here and for those who grew up here, please take the survey this week. As we all saw in the recent elections, every voice really does matter.
Julie Tate Libby is the Program Director at TwispWorks.