What is it that attracts people to Ketchum and Sun Valley, or to the rest of the Wood River Valley? Is it towering hotels and buildings of empty condominiums that see a week of activity in summer and another in winter? Is it gleaming Teslas and Range Rovers crowding city parking? Is it million-dollar estates behind gates? Is it restaurants and bars packed with the out-of-touch from out-of-town?
No, what makes the valley special—the essence of the place that attracts its economic lifeblood of tourism—are the working people who, for whatever reason, decided to call this valley home. The reason is usually because we used to be able to carve out enough of a living to stay someplace that others only vacation to. We’re all bonded in our shared enjoyment and love of the mountains and stunning natural spaces that abound just beyond the five-star dining, funky stores and, of course, world-class skiing. And the high standard of living, due in no small part to a remarkable wealth of public amenities for an area so small, doesn’t hurt either.
I used to be one of those people. I worked at the Idaho Mountain Express for a year—that’s the job that brought me to Ketchum and Sun Valley—but I left the job I loved after a year because I couldn’t afford my rent. I then spent three years as a bike mechanic and ski tech at The Elephant’s Perch, which was a great job with some really great people, and great customers too.
But, honestly, I took the job at The Perch because it paid enough for me to afford rent. It also offered better health insurance. Thank you, Jason Dykhouse and Bob and Kate Rosso.
The problem is that jobs like that one, and almost-affordable places like the one I rented—which was put up for sale after I left in June—are rapidly disappearing in the Wood River Valley. And even if every business offered good benefits and great pay, it wouldn’t solve the problem if prospective workers have no place to live.
What makes the valley special is the community of locals who work hard to live here, who make its community vibrant, real and wonderful—and authentic. The rich tourists, vacationing families and snobby trust-funders all visit here or move here to experience that community, not to hang out with more of their own.
But we are disappearing. I left for a newspaper job in rural Montana that pays the same as my job at The Perch. And I, a single guy in my late 20s, just bought a two-bedroom house with a yard using the same income that barely paid rent on a small condo in Sun Valley. I was lucky to choose to leave on my own terms and move to a town where my dollar goes much further, but I would still rather be in the valley—I moved there for a reason and, after just four years, it really felt like home to me and I left a lot undone.
Many of my friends aren’t as lucky. They’re being priced out of their rentals and they have no place to go, no job or house in another town, nothing. Those who haven’t yet been pushed out are living in fear of what feels inevitable.
What will they do? How many more unstaffed and understaffed businesses will close? What becomes of the “locals” bars that tourists love once the locals all move away? And what will this valley, and the wealthy who so hollowly claim to love it, do when the people who make it so special are all gone? I guess they’re going to find out soon.
Joshua Murdock is a newspaper editor in Boulder, Montana. A former Express employee, he lived in Sun Valley from 2017 to 2021.