Wanted: spouse with a home in resort town

In Jackson Hole, Wyo., locals fretting over sky-high home prices flock to this college course: 'Who Wants to Marry a Millionaire.'

In this mountain resort community known for its cowboys and outdoor passions, the fine art of social climbing has always ranked well behind downhill skiing, flyfishing for Snake River trout, scaling the Tetons, kayaking whitewater, and big-game hunting.

But this winter, as a sign of the changing times, a local college course is being offered that's proving wildly popular among denizens interested in achieving new heights of upward mobility.

Its title: How to Marry a Millionaire.

Although the course has generated no small amount of bemusement among the ski-bum crowd, it also points to a disconcerting reality in this corner of the New West. Planting roots in a pretty place can cost big money, and in Jackson Hole, the number of digits in a checking account has created a widening gap between wealthy transplants and working-class folks who gave the valley its once-unpretentious flavor.

Marrying a millionaire is considered the only hope some residents have of remaining in the valley. "Next year they'll have to change the name of the course to 'How to Marry a Billionaire,' because even the millionaires are finding themselves priced out of prime real estate," says Jonathan Schechter, a Jackson Hole economist.

Across North America, resort communities from Nantucket, Mass. to Taos, N.M., to Lake Tahoe are undergoing similar transformations, but few are as pronounced as in Jackson Hole. Until recently, the valley's remote location insulated it somewhat from the social upheaval sweeping the New West.

But as the Internet has enabled business executives to commute to work digitally from satellite offices in the middle of nowhere, a housing-construction boom has begun, spurred by residents who spend only part of the year in Jackson Hole, but who want homes with prodigious amounts of square footage.

Well-heeled snowboarders

On winter mornings after heavy snows, scores of backcountry skiers, many of them young, independently wealthy trust funders, typically gather for breakfast at Nora's Fish Creek Inn before ascending into the mountains to reach the fresh powder.

"There is a high percentage of millionaires around here, so it's probably a good spot to find one," laughs Mary Gridley, coordinator of college-level course offerings by the University of Wyoming and Western Wyoming College.

The course isn't really about conveying a step-by-step strategy for landing a well-heeled spouse. Rather, it's intended to teach middle-class inhabitants how to reach seven-figure fortunes by investing wisely. Within days of its announcement, the class was nearly full.

Still, Ms. Gridley says, desperate local Cinderellas feeling the need to find a prince-charming benefactor - or, in this case, a Lycra sugar daddy - in order to have a future here, aren't just a fable.

In many ways, the West's vast holdings of public lands have shaped Jackson Hole, a valley at the foot of the Teton Mountains, more than any other hamlet. Just 3 percent of its land base is privately owned, putting choice home sites in high demand.

During the 1990s, Jackson Hole began filling to its seams with rich and famous newcomers seeking a quiet alternative to the rarefied airs of Aspen, Colo., and Sun Valley, Idaho. In fact, it cultivated a reputation as "the Aspen of the northern Rockies."

Real estate prices soared when World Bank President James Wolfensohn and Vice President-elect Dick Cheney joined Hollywood celebrities like Harrison Ford on the posh list of homeowners. Mr. Cheney and his wife, Lynne, own a $2.9 million home in Teton Pines, a gated subdivision next to a golf course designed by Arnold Palmer.

Today, Humvees and Lear jets have replaced ranchers' stallions as chic icons of horsepower. Trophy homes on the ridge tops, not athletic prowess, are key gauges of social standing. And online investment portfolios, not branding irons, reveal who owns the most stock.

Locals driven out

In turn, the valley's growing affluence has caused an exodus of working-class families who have no means of affording the $500,000 cost of even a modest home.

The school district is having a hard time attracting teachers because of high rents, and restaurant, shop, and resort owners face a chronic employee shortage.

Between 1991 and 1999, the price of a family home tripled. Two years ago, at the height of the bullish market on Wall Street 2,000 miles away, the average price of a home in Jackson Hole was $800,000.

In 2000, the valley set a new record for the price of a single property when a lot sold for $40 million. "Assuming something remarkably disastrous doesn't happen with the world financial markets which would affect land values here, more money will be spent on real estate in Teton County this year than on all taxable goods combined," Mr. Schechter says.

For the lucky few, Gridley notes, being in the right place at the right time has translated into a financial windfall. Hippies who drove west in their Volkswagen vans in the 1970s and bought a couple of acres now have holdings worth millions.

For the rest, the only way for minimum-wage earners to stay in Jackson Hole these days may be by marrying a wealthy mate.

One saving grace, Schechter chuckles, is that the matrimonial hunt isn't limited to women in search of men. "There are a lot of women in this valley who have divorced well and have a lot of money," he says. "It's a wide-open market for both genders."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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