COVID-19 has wealthy buyers fleeing to Park City

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) A house on Apsen Drive, in the Aspen Springs neighborhood in Park City, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020.

Park City • COVID-19 left Utah’s alpine resorts and mountain destinations financially hobbled when they lost the tail end of the ski season.

But Park City, Deer Valley and surrounding Summit and Wasatch counties are now seeing money pour into luxury homes, estates and open land with big sticker prices as the effects of the pandemic bring in new wealthy buyers.

Since June, a rush to sanctuary has real estate markets booming over pre-pandemic levels for multimillion-dollar homes and properties that offer secluded access to nature and a sense of security and safety.

Droves of families who’d been waiting out the pandemic in short-term rentals or second homes in the Wasatch Mountains are now buying into more exclusive enclaves and even shifting their primary residences.

Homes sales in Park City rose by 62% in July and August compared to the same time last year. Deals amounted to $446 million for those two months compared to $206 million in 2019, and September sales ran at a similar elevated pace, according to the latest data from the Park City Board of Realtors.

After a robust early summer, the luxury trend gained momentum as school resumed and folks settled in for an unpredictable winter. And this surge stretches beyond Park City and Deer Valley to nearby places such as Heber, Hideout and Francis.

“We are now on the list, and I wouldn’t say even the top five,” Park City Council member Tim Henney said of a town he’s seen evolve from mining relic to homes worth millions in two decades. “I’d say we’re on the top three of just about everybody.”

Park City’s median home price has edged above $2 million and will likely climb this fall, but new data shows homes around Jordanelle Reservoir — featuring spacious lots with lake access — have now displaced Old Town as the most expensive across Wasatch and Summit counties.

It’s too early to know how big or lasting these effects may be, but the phenomenon is already spurring new construction and sucking up hundreds of upscale vacation properties that often sit empty or rent on Airbnb, particularly in Summit County.

Well-heeled buyers relocating to Utah are also part of a global shift toward telecommuting, one that could carry some large dollars and social implications with it.

“So the question becomes, are we turning into a Zoom city?” asked Jim Wood, senior economist at the University of Utah’s Kem C. Gardner Policy Institute, suggesting that post-pandemic housing trends may portend more permanent shifts in how residents work and live.

Park City’s allure? Lots of trails, open schools.

Many of those who can afford it are gravitating toward rural areas, lake properties, mountain resorts and beach havens, experts in luxury real estate say. Agents say some larger mansions, ranches and specialty properties that have languished on the market are now selling.

There is similar demand in Utah up and down the housing prices right now, according to sales data published over the summer. Buyers, the wealthy included, are taking advantage of low interest rates and seek out new homes for extra bedrooms, home offices, larger backyards and pools.

In Park City’s case, real estate agents and residents say newcomers are lured by access to a near-ubiquitous 600-trail network for hiking and biking and thousands of acres of adjacent open space.

“We’ve worked for years to protect all this land," said Dana Williams, a former mayor, “and it’s turned around to be one of the largest determining factors in purchasing real estate here.”

Open and in-person schools in Utah have also reportedly been a major draw to families with main residences in cities still under restrictions. Many have secured Park City area homes and rentals to give their kids a scholastic foothold in the Beehive State.

Though many longtime residents predict the trend will ultimately grow Park City’s population of about 8,500 permanent residents, Park City School District has actually seen a slight decline in student enrollment so far this year, a top aide to the district superintendent said.

At the same time, a shift to online education at many top college and universities has freed hundreds of affluent students to coalesce into Park City-based collaboration houses, where they’re sharing upscale rental homes or purchases in hopes of skiing through a season of remote learning.

For Shruthi Reddy Kinkead, retired investment banker from New Jersey, her family’s decision to relocate was about those open spaces and a sense of safety they bring.

She had built a long-standing bond with Deer Valley through regular visits, ever since the New Jersey ski enthusiast and her husband, Brian, got married in a mountain ceremony 10 years ago.

Kinkead said they lucked out by bringing the kids' online learning tools with them this March while on their yearly vacation to the family condominium in Deer Valley’s Snow Park. In a few days, she said, school back in Montclair went from normal to online under that state’s COVID-19 lockdowns and travel restrictions, leading the family of four to extend their Utah stay.

The outbreak eventually turned into a tipping point, and they recently bought a home in Summit County’s Park Meadows, switched the kids to area schools and are settling in as residents.

“If something goes bad,” Kinkead said, “at least you can spread out here.”

“You can’t do that in a very densely populated community like Montclair, which we love. It’s very sad to leave it. But at the same time, I think about long-term trends, health and safety, well-being of family, etc. For us, we felt that this is a safer environment to be in.”

Big-dollar circles

Park City’s hot market is also bringing new investors who are buying residential properties in bulk.

Tony Hsieh, ex-CEO of Zappos, the online shoe and clothing retailer, has made a string of purchases of high-end homes, vacant land and other sites in sought-after neighborhoods such as Empire Avenue and Aspen Springs, according to Summit County property records.

His buys in Park City exceed $18 million so far, including a glittering nine-bedroom, 17,350-square-foot lakeside property along Aspen Springs, valued in the range of $4.6 million, records indicate.

Hsieh, a wealthy author and Burning Man enthusiast, reportedly had a large stake in redeveloping portions of Las Vegas before stepping away from Zappos in late August after 20 years with the company.

Asked about similar plans in Park City, a spokesperson for one of Hsieh’s development firms, DTP Cos., told the Las Vegas Review-Journal only that he is “disconnecting” from his usual tech circles for a bit. The firm did not respond to inquiries from The Salt Lake Tribune.

Park City sources say his interests may now extend to some of the town’s distressed retail and hospitality locales.

The Main event

With the Sundance Film Festival, 2002 Winter Olympics and a long-standing marketing focus on year-round appeal, Park City has polished its glitzy side for more than two decades. The latest luxury boom is in the hundreds of homes, and rising, and its largess has had a mixed effect so far on tourist-dependent Main Street.

The mid-March closure of Utah’s ski resorts due to COVID-19 travel restrictions led to at least $153 million in lost visitor spending and wiped out hundreds of seasonal and permanent jobs, according to Visit Park City.

Since then, travel bans have all but gutted a usual hefty schedule of corporate meetings and special events, CEO Bill Malone said. Hotel occupancy numbers by midsummer were still as low as a third of normal and grew more volatile, he said, with families making trip decisions more last minute and often for more solitary unguided fun.

Overall, visitors are at about 50% now for the summer, Malone said.

And while they’ve enjoyed the trails, those extending their Park City stays or buying homes while they work or learn remotely “don’t spend like they’re on vacation,” he said. “You’re not buying a beer or an ice cream cone. You’re not going fly-fishing every day or you’re not taking the kids to alpine slides. So the spending is very different.”

Also uncertain is what kind of ski season this winter will bring, with domestic and international travel still depressed and resorts altering their seasons and protocols.

That will greatly impact the fortunes of historic downtown Park City, with its mix of underground taverns and eateries in close quarters. Though many have made the move to curbside, hospitality business has been shaky for months even as COVID-19 cases in both counties eased and restrictions came off before the state’s latest surge.

Locals say they’re seeing optimistic signs that activity isn’t ebbing as it usually does as the foliage turns. The region is into its shoulder season, between a usual summer peak and whatever version of a winter season this year will bring, and some sectors are looking up from a COVID-19 downturn.

Construction is growing dramatically by Summit County standards as developers chase housing demand, new subdivisions get underway, and some wealthy families launch long-planned custom home projects. The sector has seen a 20% boost in employment or about 400 new jobs since March, the county economic development director said.

Luxury purchases and other sales related to nesting and redecorating have seen an upswing in Park City in recent months. This comes as new arrivals, those on extended stays and people staging homes to sell shop heavily at Main Street’s high-end furniture and lighting stores and art galleries.

Park City’s vital hospitality sector may continue to lag as it navigates a diminished ski season. “But anything that has to do with home furnishings," Henney, the City Council member, said, “is crushing it.”

Luxury, from Hideout to Promontory

Around the region, the lure of luxury and seclusion is taking many forms.

High-end ski resorts such as St. Regis Deer Valley and Stein Eriksen Lodge have developed residential areas alongside their hotels to capture the patronage of well-to-do families vacationing in the Wasatch. That niche could now give them an advantage as other parts of the ski industry sag.

Multimillion-dollar properties with ski-in, ski-out access and built for sale are now being recast going into winter with a COVID-aware emphasis on how exclusive and safe they are, with private butler and dining options, state-of-the-art heating, ventilating, and air conditioning systems — and the richness of isolated recreation nearby.

After selling $300 million in private residences added to its main resort building over prior seasons, St. Regis has timed the opening of nine new luxury condos in lower Deer Valley, priced from $2.7 million to $7.2 million apiece, for this November.

Stein Eriksen Lodge is now luring guests to its residential properties with “retreat to the mountains” themes, along with world-standard health and safety features for guests of "paramount importance.”

A new community called Promontory in the Snyderville Basin east of Park City has billed itself as one of the most exclusive and private in the West — an approach taking on new meaning now.

In the spurt of high-end buying since June, the 6,400-acre reserve of multimillion-dollar custom and prebuilt homes with luxury private amenities has landed transplants from Southern California, the Bay Area, New York and Chicago. Developers sold 86 homes or parcels in July and August in Promontory, more than three times as many as in the same window in 2019 — and about a fifth of all transactions in the region for those two months.

Regional effects

Whereas Park City is marketing an exclusive alpine vibe, developers on the mountainsides around Jordanelle Reservoir are catering to incoming homeowners seeking a lake experience, with larger private lots in gated projects, sweeping views and nearby water activities.

Homes around Jordanelle have a median price of $2.08 million and sales are more than a quarter or more higher than this time last year, data shows. Lands around the reservoir could allow for upward of 15,000 new housing units and other development in the years to come under current zoning, planning studies and permit data indicate.

Subdivisions at Tuhaye and the town of Hideout east of Jordanelle — with names like Soaring Hawk, Golden Eagle and Hideout Canyon — are being approved with visions of thousands of incoming residents in a post-pandemic era, according to the town’s elected officials.

Hideout is caught in a controversy over a proposed annexation that would push its northern limits across the line of Wasatch and Summit counties and onto Richardson Flat, for housing and commercial development on Park City’s eastern outskirts. The move has led Summit County to sue to block it.

Homes sales in Heber and environs, where vacation rentals are fewer than in Summit, rose by 14% in the three months ending in June, with demand continuing to rise since and the median price now well above $545,000. There, homes are selling on the merits of big backyards, a more rural community feel and trail access.

Sales of the Wasatch-Summit region’s least expensive housing, located in the Wanship/Hoytsville area, are up 62% over last year. Those homes now go for a median of $485,000, data shows — compared to current median price for the five-county Wasatch Front area of about $343,500.

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