As more mountain town homeowners turn to short-term renters to fill their residences, local employees are left with fewer and fewer affordable options.
Bob and Suzanne Fanch, owners of Devil’s Thumb Ranch outside of Winter Park, noticed the problem progressing over the last seven years — and especially since the pandemic began — so they decided to take matters into their own hands.
“Winter Park employees are making good money but they’re not making the kind of money that they can buy a house in this kind of market, and if you can’t find a rental, where do you live?” Bob Fanch said. “The answer is that employee housing has to be built at scale. There’s probably a 1,000-bed shortage right now.”
Last week, the couple purchased the real estate of Wild Horse Inn, a bed and breakfast about two miles from their 6,500-acre ranch and resort, for $2.7 million, Fanch said. They plan to turn the 2.5-acre property with three private cabins and a main lodge into housing for Devil’s Thumb employees.
The Wild Horse Inn opened at 1536 County Road-83 in Fraser 20 years ago, around the same time the Fanches purchased Devil’s Thumb. It has hosted weddings, corporate events and leisurely stays. The main lodge has seven bedrooms with private bathrooms, and the three cabins each have a king bed and a kitchenette.
Owners Christine French and John Cribari did not respond to a request for comment, but Fanch said the couple plans to continue their Wild Horse Catering business elsewhere. The inn will close at the end of September.
The Fanches plan to offer rooms within the inn for $600 a month to employees. They already have five buildings for employee housing with around 60 rooms, two on the ranch and three nearby.
“It’s still not enough,” Fanch said.
Prior to the pandemic, Devil’s Thumb Ranch had close to 400 employees, but because of staffing challenges, it’s now down to 250. That forced the resort to put a 70 percent cap on reservations. Fanch said he’s looking to hire 60 employees or more.
“We had a manager in one of our restaurants who was renting a house for $2,200 a month,” Fanch said. “When the fires happened last summer up in Grand Lake, they ate up a lot of inventory, and his landlord ending up raising the rent to $4,200 a month, and basically forced him out.”
In order to offset the growing short-term rental issue, the Winter Park City Council approved a program last week that would offer incentives to owners of short-term rentals or second homes to convert them to workforce housing. The council approved $325,000 for the program, which expires at the end of the year, to help house 40 employees.
Owners of a studio or one-bedroom unit would receive $5,000 for a six-month lease or $10,000 for a year-long lease, and two or three-bedroom homes would receive $10,000 for six months and $20,000 for a year lease, according to local newspaper Sky-Hi News.
“But the real answer needs to be a massive undertaking of building employee and affordable housing up there and elsewhere,” Fanch said.
In a couple of years, the Fanches plan to build more employee housing elsewhere on the ranch and restore Wild Horse Inn as a bed and breakfast under a new name. The couple owns five acres in total on either side of the inn, so they would consider expanding the business’ footprint.
Other recent changes at Devil’s Thumb include the addition of 24 home lots ranging from 11 to 35 acres, which hit the market at the end of 2018. They start at $750,000 and reach $1.8 million. Bob said 12 have sold.
The Fanches also are working on a massive residential development in Winter Park known as Roam, slated to include more than 1,000 housing units and 70,000 square feet of commercial space on 170 acres between the ski area and the town along Highway 40. Phase one of the project began in 2019, and the overall build out is slated to take 20 years.