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Pandemic Boosts Sun Valley, Idaho's Economy, But Not Everyone Benefits

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At one point last spring, the county that's home to Idaho's Sun Valley Ski Resort had the country's highest coronavirus infection rate. Local leaders were worried the tourism economy would crash. There's been a rebound, but as Boise State Public Radio's Rachel Cohen reports, it's not benefiting everyone.

RACHEL COHEN, BYLINE: Sun Valley's infection rate dropped pretty quickly. And by June, there was no question it was busy. The visitors came in RV's headed for the mountains or to stay in secluded Airbnbs. Many have never left the mountain resort community.

CHRISTINE BROZOWSKI: It just seemed like a safer situation for my family versus - the Bay Area has just such a high population density. I mean, everyone's just right next door to you.

COHEN: Christine Brozowski lives in San Francisco with her husband and their three elementary school-aged children, but they've owned a second house near Sun Valley for 15 years. They came to Idaho in May, when case numbers had declined. All summer, the kids played in rivers and parks and even went to day camps, something that wasn't available to them in the Bay Area.

BROZOWSKI: They really couldn't do anything. California kind of wants children to be invisible right now and just stay inside their house, and that is just not healthy for kids physically or mentally.

COHEN: And when it came time to decide what to do for the school year, that weighed on Brozowski's mind. In California, the kids would have done school online like they had in the spring. Here - at least for now - they attend school two days a week in person and play on soccer teams, so they've decided to stay. Harry Griffith, the director of Sun Valley Economic Development, says Brozowski is part of a growing trend.

HARRY GRIFFITH: We believe that we'll see more people here longer, which will reduce some seasonality.

COHEN: Realtors are reporting record interest in the housing market. The median residential sale price jumped by 30% from last summer to this one. An influx of remote workers, Griffith says, could give a boost to the economy, which doesn't have many high-paying local jobs to offer. On the other hand, people staying in Sun Valley now still aren't creating a lot of business at bars and restaurants.

GRIFFITH: You've got people that are buying homes sight unseen, bidding up prices at the upper end while, at the lower end, you have people that have lost hours, lost part-time work and are, in some cases, having to move out of the community because they can't afford to live here anymore.

COHEN: Jenni Franklin has been working on ski hills, in restaurants and in a dance studio since she came to Sun Valley 10 years ago. She says then, the cost of living was reasonable.

JENNI FRANKLIN: And you could have that big mountain lifestyle, so you could work really hard but still ski and still recreate.

COHEN: But her rent nearly doubled five years ago. As a single mom, she'd qualified for subsidized housing. But with a new husband and growing family, that was no longer an option.

FRANKLIN: And at some point, I started to realize that this wasn't really living, either. There's no getting out and recreating with the kids if you're working all these hours and there's no support.

COHEN: In August, she moved her family an hour and a half south out of the valley to the more affordable city of Twin Falls.

FRANKLIN: It was hard, and it was heartbreaking for us.

COHEN: Franklin still drives up to the resort community multiple times a week to work. But she breathes easier in Twin Falls, where she and her husband bought a six-bedroom house with a backyard. Local leaders say if more workers can't live in the community, that's bad for businesses, which were already struggling with staffing before the pandemic and are now facing another big unknown - what winter ski season will look like.

For NPR News, I'm Rachel Cohen in Boise.

(SOUNDBITE OF RL GRIME SONG, "LIGHT ME UP") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.