The Price of Paradise: Millennials choose location, then find work
Post Independent Correspondent
Last of five parts.
The Roaring Fork Valley is a magnet for Millennials. It has all the goodies they desire: recreation, history, character and a sense of community.
This age group, born roughly between 1980 and 2000, was projected to eclipse baby boomers this year as largest generation in the United States. Unlike boomers, who focused on pay and potential growth, Millennials find location and the job equally important.
“One of the clear trends is that today people are picking where they want to live and learning how to make a living when they get there,” said Jim Charlier of the Boulder-based transportation planning firm Charlier Associates, which has done three regional transit studies in our area. “It’s a pretty dramatic change.”
A Brookings Institution study found that 87.5 percent of Millennials disagreed with the idea that “money is the best measure of success” compared with about 78 percent of the total population.
Sixty-four percent of Millennials said they would choose to make $40,000 in a job they love rather than $100,000 in a job they dislike.
A 2015 National Association of Realtors Community Preference Study found that Millennials are also attracted to having choice in their mobility — walkability, car-sharing and, with the Roaring Public Transportation Authority, rapid transit to Aspen.
“All these trends, car-sharing, house-sharing, relying more heavily on biking, walking and transit are trends among the Millennials. These are national trends,” Charlier pointed out. “And people here are choosing to live in specific communities, probably, most importantly, Carbondale and Glenwood Springs, for quality-of-life reasons. We think the trend is starting to affect Rifle as well.”
Here are two snapshots of Millennial life in our region.
Driving a 26-foot U-Haul with their 2004 Jeep Liberty in tow, Jillian and Zac Sutherland left the Windy City in favor of Glenwood Springs.
It was August 2011, and the couple was happy to leave Irving Park, a Chicago suburb.
“Then you go to the city, a lot of traffic, it’s that plus a lot of violence,” Zac said. “Things I was just ready to get away from. And I couldn’t imagine a further end of the spectrum than Glenwood Springs.”
Between his base salary plus bonuses, Zac had been doing well as a sales manager at Best Buy, but he was putting in 50-70 hours a week.
“And Jill was working like crazy trying to finish up her master’s on urban planning,” he said. “Our work-life balance was off. And we commuted crazy distances to our jobs. It wasn’t really there. We both wanted something more.”
The couple decided to make the jump when Jill, 31, was offered a project manager position at Glenwood’s nonprofit Sonoran Institute. Zac, 32, decided to pursue a bachelor’s in sustainability studies from Colorado Mountain College. Today, he works as an Environmental Health Specialist with Garfield County Public Health.
Along with their “dream jobs,” the couple now has the time the soak in the local culture: snowboarding, camping, hiking and biking.
“Our annual income is close to cut in half,” Zac said. “My salary now is not even close to what I was making in Chicago. But I’m glad that I figured out in my 20s that bringing home a big paycheck is meaningless if you don’t have time to see your family.”
While they hunted for affordable housing in Glenwood, the couple stayed at the Silver Spruce Motel.
“The only thing we could find was this really ramshackle apartment behind Doc Holliday’s,” Jill recalled. “The rent was about $800 a month. It was horrible, but we stayed there for a year.”
The vacancy rate for multi-family rentals in Glenwood Springs was a tight 2.4 percent, according to a third-quarter 2014 Colorado Department of Local Affairs Statewide Multi-Family Vacancy and Rent Survey. That puts a squeeze on affordability and quality of rental stock.
At the time the Sutherlands were house-hunting, prices in Chicago were slightly less than Glenwood. They were eventually able to find an affordable condo in town, though.
“And with both of us working full time, we are now in a better position than we were in Chicago,” Zac said. “We’re saving quite a bit and paying off debt.” Although they have no credit card debt, the couple owes $35,000 in student loans.
“We don’t have any kids yet, but we do want to have a single-family house, but we can’t afford one in Glenwood Springs,” Jill points out. “We have not been able to find quality housing for under $400,000.”
The Sutherlands had seen many of their married friends leave the valley due to financial stress.
“One couple came here because one of them had secured a professional job, the other ended up working odd jobs for a couple of years,” Jill said. “They couldn’t find any housing so they moved to a metropolitan region where they both could get professional jobs. This is a struggle that a lot of married couples face in this region.”
“I love the mountains and I sacrifice anything I could do — even two jobs — to live here and raise my two kids here,” Jennifer Ammerman said.
The Wisconsin transplant moved here four years ago. Ammerman, 32, and her boyfriend first set their Glenwood housing limit at $1,100 a month. “Then we realized that we were not going to find anything at that price, so my boyfriend asked his brother and sister to move here from New Jersey. They have both found jobs and now the rent, $1,750, is split between the four of us.”
Wisconsin may be cold and drab, but it is far more affordable than the Roaring Fork Valley.
“You certainly get way more bang for your buck there compared to the mountains,” Ammerman said. “But you have to sacrifice one for the other.”
A 2015 Sonoran Institute study found that 83 percent of those surveyed across the Mountain West would choose the ideal community and take less salary.
“We surveyed business owners and residents across Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho,” said project manager Jill Sutherland, who is featured above. “We asked folks, ‘When you pick where you want to live, which is more important, and ideal community or a better salary?’ Many said they would take the ideal community with less salary.”
Ammerman works as a stylist at the Regis Salon in Glenwood Meadows, where she makes a base salary of $8 an hour. “I get 40 percent on services,” she said. “I’m happy.”
The stylist had a better-paying position in Aspen, but soon realized that the commuting costs were eating up the extra money.
“I love Colorado,” she concluded. “And I definitely do not want to go back to Wisconsin.”
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