Recently, a Jackson economics summit/conference/brainstorming session took place. I’ve now had a chance to read some reviews of that gathering–how accurate they are I can’t say, because I didn’t attend. From time to time, I have my own little economic tutorials with friends and mentors.
Jackson Hole has always been a seasonal economy. We’re a tourist destination because our region is so astoundingly beautiful, is adjacent to Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, is “Western,” has a great and growing arts sector, and when the snow falls skiers go nuts to come here. Until a few years ago, the lion’s share of full time jobs in Jackson were related to the construction and real estate industries. One of my mentors points out that real estate and construction don’t really create economic growth or wealth; they are the residuals of wealth creation. And yes, those are good jobs for Jackson, and it feels like the market will re-shape and rebound to a certain extent (see the Hole Report)—but smart money won’t rely on construction to sustain Jackson’s future. It’s millionaires and billionaires with fortunes built elsewhere who have erected big houses, supplying jobs for architects, landscapers, construction companies and real estate agents. And, we’re a tax shelter. They’ve also supported many of our critical non-profits.
We’ll always attract tourists, and it seems prudent to stay that course. (Those two-headed trout, and headlines about kidnapping mom and baby cougars, might put a crimp in plans to become an eco-tourism destination!) In California, although many people are out of jobs and the state has massive financial problems, monthly rental rates are sky high—they make our rental market look dirt cheap. That’s because compared to larger arenas, Jackson is primarily a low-paying service economy; we don’t have jobs that provide the level of income needed to pay such high rents. And, even with more flights coming in and out of Jackson, it’s still wildly expensive and awkward—sometimes treacherous—to travel back and forth from here. In California, they have Southwest Airlines and you can get anywhere cheaply. California gas and groceries (incredibly luscious groceries) are very expensive, so there’s no trade-off there. And the state is taxed to the max.
The question is how to keep Jackson—which has already experienced massive changes in its identity—Jackson. How to keep it the magical place that it is while making it healthier economically. I think the answer might lie in part in finding financial incentives to lure more companies into setting up shop in existing buildings. Often correlations are drawn between the effect of higher levels of education and economic success–a teensy excerpt from a huge Brookings Institute study says: “Despite the enormous interest in the relationship between education and growth, the evidence is fragile at best. This is for several reasons. First, a state’s education investments are non-random. States that are richer, faster growing, or have better institutions probably find it easier to increase their education spending.”
Of course art is something people buy when they can afford it, but I believe our arts community has done so much to raise Jackson’s profile. There were no gallery representatives speaking at the economic conference, and given the success of Jackson’s Fall Arts Festival, the fact that its artists rise ever higher in the national arts consciousness, it seems a strange omission. There are a number of savvy gallery owners and entrepreneurs in town, and they’re sharp on economics, marketing and trends. Really sharp.
Art on the Rocks sounds like a super grass roots opportunity for anyone interested in Jackson’s arts to get together and network. “Socials” are an old concept, but many a good project and support system spring from such gatherings. Next Friday, February 10, artists and organizations are encouraged to meet, bring their work and ideas and information on upcoming events and mingle. The social runs 6-8:00 pm, and munchies, wine and beer will be available for a donation.
UPDATE: ART ON THE ROCKS IS NOW BEING HELD AT THE ART ASSOCIATION, IN THE JACKSON HOLE CENTER FOR THE ARTS!