By Allen Best
WHITEFISH, Mont. – In addition to being a ski town, Whitefish is a railroad town. It has a large railroad yard, and train crews on the BNSF Railway’s Hi-Line Route switch there. The route connects Chicago with the ports at Seattle and Portland, shuttling cars of wheat and corn, televisions and cars.
Freight volume dropped 30 percent when the recession hit, but it has returned to 90 percent of peak levels. Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway purchased a controlling interest in the railroad in 2009 for $34 billion, and it looks to have been a good investment. Company officials tell the Whitefish Pilot that they expect traffic to return to pre-recession levels by 2013.
The railway is currently running more than 30 trains a day through Whitefish and Glacier National Park, and the resumption of business has spurred the hiring of 41 employees in Whitefish. Salaries for the jobs are relatively good, with a diesel mechanic getting $25 an hour, notes the Pilot.
Energy is the most significant component of BNSF’s freight. Twenty-seven percent of its freight is coal, most from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. The railroad is also picking up business hauling oil from the Bakken shale region of North Dakota, while delivering drilling equipment and fracking sand. BNSF also hauls turbines and other equipment for wind farms.
Sales tax revenues rise
ASPEN, Colo. – Sales tax collections in Aspen through October suggest a recovering economy, at least among the economic elites. Town officials tell The Aspen Times that retail sales were up 5.9 percent. At least part of the increase was due to more people staying in hotel rooms.
High-end soars in Vail
VAIL, Colo. – From Vail also comes news of increasing economic activity, this time in the real estate sector. Land Title Guarantee Co. in its monthly report finds that the average price per square foot for a single-family home in Vail Village has gone up by one-third during the last year. The village encompasses the slopeside real estate.
However, the price per square foot of homes elsewhere in Eagle County has dropped an average 23 percent. The raw numbers suggest that the rich are recovering nicely from the recession, and the foreclosures at the bottom and middle ends are working their way through the system.
Healthy, wealthy and suicidal
ASPEN, Colo. – Two restaurateurs, one aged 50 and the other 47, committed suicide in Aspen in recent months. Their deaths drew attention once again to the abnormally high suicide rate in Aspen and Pitkin County. The irony is that the county also consistently ranks among the highest in the nation for fitness and income, notes the Aspen Daily News.
Blaine sees new housing needs
KETCHUM, Idaho – A new affordable housing needs assessment finds that Ketchum, Sun Valley and surrounding areas of Blaine County need 480 additional units. That compares with a 2006 estimate of 1,200.
The new study also finds that more rental housing is now needed as compared to before. It also notes that the Hispanic population doubled from 2000 to 2011.
The Idaho Mountain Express also reports agreement that some of lower-income housing built in the past decade has lacked good management and has had a “ghetto-style.”
Rebuilding after the rampage
GRANBY, Colo. – More than seven years after a bulldozer operator destroyed their store and a half-dozen building in a day-long reign of terror in Granby, the owners of a Gambles hardware store are preparing to rebuild.
“The crazy thing is that I liked Marv,” said Casey Farrell, in an interview with the Sky-Hi News.
He was referred to Marvin Heemeyer, who became incensed when the town board – which included Farrell at the time — approved of a batch plant across the street from his muffler shop. Vowing revenge, Heemeyer clandestinely armored a Komatsu bulldozer, creating a cocoon around the controls to make him impervious to bullets, and then set out on a spring morning to wreak havoc.
Heemeyer succeeded. He first rammed the bulldozer into the house of the mayor, then tore out the town hall and library, eventually pushing into the front of the newspaper office as the editor, Patrick Brower, ran out the bad door. Nobody died, but it wasn’t necessarily that Heemeyer intended it that way. He even took shots at propane tanks, but was unable to penetrate them.
Finally, he came to the Gamble’s store. He plowed into it, but after hours of destruction, the heavily-weighted bulldozer was finally overheating. Heemeyer then shot himself.
After that, Farrell and his wife, Ronda, set up their Gambles store in a business plaza, but they hope to improve their business by building a new store at their old location.
As for Brower, now retired, he has completed work on a book that he calls “Killdozer.”
Planting micro-grant seeds
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS, Colo. – In an effort to nurture economic vitality, the Steamboat Springs city government is awarding micro-grants of up to $5,000 to small businesses filling unoccupied niches.
Steamboat Today, in a story about the grants, cites the example of a business called Chocolate Soup, which needed help to buy equipment after getting a contract to supply milk chocolate almond macaroons and other tasty treats to Whole Food Markets in the Rocky Mountains.
Deb Hinsvark, deputy city manager, told the newspaper that grant recipients can’t compete directly with existing businesses in Steamboat. A new coffee shop would get no support. “Really, what we’re looking for are small incentives to new ventures.”
Ski areas contemplate summer
ASPEN, Colo. – Like most other ski-area operators, the Aspen Skiing Co. is considering how to best use its new authority from the federal government to generate additional non-skiing income.
“We think that enhanced activities like ziplines, for example, through the forest canopy would be a really wonderful addition,” said David Perry, senior vice president for the company. “It’s low impact. It would get people to appreciate the national forest for its beauty and its diversity and the ecosystem.”
In an interview with The Aspen Times, Perry also said that the company will consider an alpine slide. Although environmentalists have been wary of such amusements, Perry points out that it uses gravity. “It’s not a motorized activity, and it’s people enjoying the outdoors in a family environment.”