What happens when a region foundationally based on visitation loses all its visitors? The local workforce was confronted with this harsh reality last spring during the pandemic lockdown, and many are still reeling from the fallout. Now the new question is: How do we become more resilient to face similar future challenges?’
Tahoe/Truckee has been keeping all its economic eggs in one basket for about 10 years: tourism, and last spring the Covid-19 pandemic raided the chicken coop. The $3 billion Tahoe Basin industry floats most jobs in the region, but those positions are typically lower-paying and especially vulnerable to changing tides. A post-Covid report by the Tahoe Prosperity Center estimated that the Basin experienced a 5,500 and 7,500 drop in local employment between March and April 2020 — dire numbers for an area with such a high cost of living.
“We’ve gone from 42% dependent on tourism to 62% dependent on tourism in the last decade, and that obviously was severely highlighted when the pandemic hit,” Tahoe Prosperity Center CEO Heidi Hill Drum said. She added that although the pandemic is slowing down, a similar effect could come from myriad causes, such as wildfire. “Any sort of disaster would impact our regional economy when you are two thirds dependent on one sector.”
Mapping out a New Economy
The prevailing consensus is that the area cannot abandon tourism as an economic base — the draw of Tahoe’s natural beauty and recreational resources isn’t going anywhere aside from short-term fluctuations. Instead, the focus for many is mapping out what capacity is available for new businesses, the kinds of industry that make sense to be encouraged, and how to draw in new talent locally and remotely.
This April the prosperity center was awarded a grant of $164,348 from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to facilitate a Tahoe Basin-wide economic resiliency plan called Envision Tahoe: Lake Tahoe Prosperity Plan 2.0, looking to “diversify the economic base, improve the quality of life for our residents, and expand work opportunities for everyone,” Hill Drum said. It’s still very early stages for the plan, which Hill Drum hopes will be founded on community feedback to draft actionable strategies within the next year.
“We’re not trying to create a new industry; we’re trying to grow within our existing industries,” Hill Drum said, adding that she sees the most potential for economic growth in the environmental innovation and health and wellness industries.
At an economic summit organized by the Tahoe Prosperity Center three years ago, Hill Drum remembers, there was tangible excitement around enticing new businesses to the Tahoe/Truckee area. Reno was in the midst of wrangling huge names like Tesla and Amazon into regional investment, and much of the conversation involved how we could follow suit up the hill in a sustainable way. Now, as the social and economic impacts of Covid are showing their teeth, the narrative has changed slightly. While drawing in new talent remains a strong desire, Hill Drum and others agree that nurturing the talent and innovation already here should be a priority.
“We’re not going to attract some big new business; that’s not what’s going to come save us … The way we can diversify the economy is through entrepreneurship,” said Kristin York, vice president of economic empowerment at the Sierra Business Council. “And there are so many good examples in the Tahoe/Truckee area of people who have built something from nothing.”
York and the SBC have a partnership with Tahoe Silicon Mountain, a nonprofit group designed to nurture local entrepreneurship. One product of this collaboration, a workshop series called Tahoe Pitch Camp, has helped launch numerous small businesses in the area, including one that is looking to entirely flip the script on glass bottle consumption in the country. After taking her idea to a Tahoe Pitch Camp in 2017 with what she calls “no background on how to start a business,” Caren McNamara completed a pivotal step in founding her business, Conscious Container — an effort to bring a reusable glass container system back to the U.S.
“When I walked in [to the pitch camp] I had a name, but I wasn’t really sure how to describe the business. That was very informative and very insightful because I totally froze when I was giving that first pitch to all those people,” McNamara said. Five years later, Conscious Container is a licensed B Corporation fresh off a number of successful pilots, including an accelerated program with Anheuser-Busch.
“The other piece that’s been interesting is that all of the large beverage producers have been talking to us; they all want to do this,” McNamara said. “So it’s just a matter of raising the capital to really get the business stood up. It’s not a small play.”
McNamara says she routinely revisits the resources available through the pitch camps and the partners involved. Some of her investors live locally, a strength of the region that York at the SBC hopes can be utilized by many future entrepreneurs like McNamara down the road.
“On preserving the sanctity of our natural environment while diversifying the economy, there is a lot of room for philanthropy and people to get involved,” York said. “I think we can get back there if we tap into some of the new residents and some of their wealth and intellectual capacity.”
The one sticking point for Conscious Container is local space. Although McNamara founded the business in Truckee and is considering keeping the headquarters there, the physical bottle washing operation is simply too big for the infrastructure to support.
The region’s limited capacity for certain industries has had many looking toward tech. In 2016 Truckee native Ryan Desmond and his wife, Kim, founded their computer coding boot camp company, CodingNomads, based around their experience working remotely and traveling to over 30 countries with laptops in tow. They believe from their experience that coding is something that virtually anyone can learn, providing a perfect opportunity in conjunction with only a Wi-Fi connection to make a livable wage — even in a ski town. According to Ryan, “It’s just another skill, like learning a new language.”
The company, with headquarters that faces Lake Tahoe in Kings Beach, now has mentors and students in more than 50 different countries, including locally. Ryan said he couldn’t name any obstacles specific to starting an online business in the Tahoe region, and even the local internet connectivity has been more than sufficient to handle all the business’s needs.
Slow internet speeds have been cited as a major barrier to local economic growth, and multiple local partners are working to bring enhanced broadband to the region.
Desmond said starting the business in Truckee/Tahoe has only enhanced it, simply because of the lifestyle it promotes. He believes coding is a pathway to living like a ski bum, such as having the opportunity to break from the computer for a few hours to go for a bike ride or take a much-needed powder day, while also being able to pay Tahoe-level rent prices. According to salary.com, the median wage for a computer programmer in California is about $92,000.
“That’s kind of what the entire ethos of CodingNomads is, to learn good skills so you can get good jobs and be able to work on your own terms in your own time,” Desmond said.
The data suggests the region is ready for these kinds of opportunities — the talent is here. According to a Tahoe Prosperity Center report, the Tahoe Basin has a higher percentage of college graduates than the California and Nevada state averages. “We have those skilled workers, but they’re not working in the jobs that match with their skills,” Hill Drum said.
“If anybody calls me and says they live in the Reno/Truckee/Tahoe [region] and that they’d like to learn how to code, we always love that because it’s our home base and we would offer discounts to that,” Desmond said. “We’d love to, and our goal and our aim is to help people not only around the world but here in the Tahoe/Reno region to scale up to be able to rent, and be able to afford a home.”
TRAIL KITCHENS’ MOBILE COOKING AND WASHING UNITS are all designed and manufactured in owner Hans Wain’s shop space in Truckee; (left) Wain and his wife, Roxanne, are frequently on adventures themselves; (right) The company’s designs are in such high demand that Wain says he could use six times his current workforce, but has had issues finding employees due to the housing shortage. Courtesy photos
Back to Housing
But what about when a good job with a good wage (in an industry other than tourism) still doesn’t make it possible for employees to live in the region? Hans Wain, owner and founder of Trail Kitchens in Truckee, has been running into one of the primary barriers to local economic growth, and guess what — it ties back to housing.
“A lot of business owners are trying to figure out what we can do to figure out the [housing] supply side. If you could just throw up money and solve it, that would be one thing, but you can’t,” Wain said. “It’s the availability piece.”
Wain started Trail Kitchens in 2016 as a products-based company offering in-house designed camping systems for living and cooking out of vans and various types of vehicles. He has lived in the area for 35 years, and everything from the design to the manufacturing of Trail Kitchens products occurs in his shop in Truckee.
The demand for camping systems, especially associated with van life, has grown rapidly over the last few years, and Wain said he would need to grow his team approximately five or six times larger than his current workforce of six employees to keep up with the potential for growth. He has been looking for increased commercial shop space, but says he likely won’t follow through with a purchase unless it includes living units for employee housing.
“We’re struggling with the growth thing in Truckee, for sure,” Wain said. “Unless we just moved down the hill, I’m just not inclined to do that. At this point in my life I’m willing to pay more and suffer more, I guess.”