Real estate boom turns up heat on Leadville — “the last frontier mountain town”

Leadville could have withered along with the sputtering mine up the road.

But the community recast itself as a tourist destination, rich with cultural and outdoor charms. And now, as its tourism economy hums, the highest-altitude incorporated city in the country is enthralling investors and second homeowners, promising a boom that could eclipse the historic gold rush that founded Leadville.

Finally.

For years, Leadville has watched its resort-anchored neighbors throb with vibrant real estate markets, spurred by second homeowners willing to pay ever higher prices for mountain homes. Finally, the city of 2,700 people is joining that real estate party.

Homes are selling in a day. Prices are soaring. Investors are going big. Businesses are flocking to Leadville. There’s a vigor and optimism — familiar in the popular communities that border Lake County — that is floating hopes that Leadville has at last arrived after years of economic toil.

“Welcome to the ride, Leadville,” said former Mayor Jamie Stuever, who’s eyeing retirement after selling a downtown apartment building to investors who plan to install a natural-food grocery store there. “We are the last-frontier mountain town that is still intact and still rough around the edges, which people love. We are affordable, and people want a piece of that rustic mountain town. With broadband, of course.”

In 2007, when irrational exuberance dominated the high-country resort real estate market with a dangerous mix of easy money and skyrocketing home prices, Leadville simmered with slow growth. When the bubble burst and resort communities saw sales volume and prices crater, Leadville saw a slight slowdown.

As the other resort communities clambered out of the recession, Leadville resumed its leisurely pace of modest annual price increases and slight upticks in residential sales and prices.

For decades, the resort communities surrounding Lake County and Leadville have boasted diverse and growing economies spinning off the ever-rocking resort tourism industry. This summer, real estate sales and visitor spending around the 10,150-foot Leadville have exploded, joining the neighboring markets. Real estate sales in Eagle, Pitkin, Summit, Grand, Routt, Chaffee and San Miguel counties are up 24 percent to 60 percent through the midpoint of the year. Median prices are climbing.

And finally, Leadville is not just in the mix but posting the strongest gains.

The median home price in Lake County is $250,000, up 42 percent through July compared with the first six months of 2016. Average home prices are up 23 percent, and the length of time a home stays on the market — 62 days through July — is down 33 percent. The price spike is connected to fewer homes for sale: In July 2016 there were 220 homes on the market, and this July there were only 52. Sales volume for 2017 is pacing to match or exceed last year’s record- setting $66.8 million.

“It’s been a hot summer,” said Amy Morrison, a broker with Re/Max Aspen Leaf. “We’ve been lagging, but it looks like we are finally catching up.”

Amy Morrison, a real estate broker, ...

RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post

Amy Morrison, a real estate broker, stands outside a home she is selling on Aug. 23, 2017 in Leadville.

Leadville and Lake County have long lingered as the sleepy bedroom community to the resort-anchored Eagle and Summit counties. An estimated 2,800 of Lake County’s 4,000  workers commute over mountain passes into Vail and the Eagle Valley or the resorts in Summit County. Home sales in Leadville and Lake County over the years have typically centered on those resort-area workers who were ready to buy in the always-affordable Leadville.

This summer, with Land Title Guarantee Co. buyer-profile stats showing the booming population of the Front Range comprising more than 57 percent of all the sales in Winter Park’s Grand County and 38 percent of all sales in Summit County, second-home buyers from the cities are hunting a bit farther. And they’re finding Leadville.

Investors are eyeing Leadville too, seeing opportunities in renting or building and selling homes. A Japanese investment group last summer spent $13.5 million on Leadville’s 162-unit Eagle Nest apartment complex — one of the largest on the Western Slope. Last fall a Missouri developer bought 40 acres in downtown Leadville’s old rail yard, with plans to build a 250-residence village blending commercial, retail, apartments and single-family homes.

“It’s a pretty strong mix of buyers these days,” said Amy Tait of Centennial Real Estate. “Anything under $200,000 right now sees multiple offers and goes really fast with those three pools of buyers competing.”

Mike Bordogna is a former Lake County commissioner who now serves as head of the Leadville/Lake County Economic Development Corporation, which pushes, cajoles and lobbies for business development in the region.

He is seeing investors and Front Range second homeowners buying homes for $250,000 or less without even seeing them. Affordable homes that once sat on the market for two or three months are now selling in a day. There’s a nervousness about missing a chance to get into the mountain market, he said. He has more businesses that want to locate in Leadville than he has office space for them.

“A lot of folks have realized that the Arkansas Valley is that outdoor, small town paradise that hasn’t been overrun with people like you see in Eagle and Summit counties,” Bordogna said.

It started with that sale of Eagle’s Nest to Japanese investors last year.

“That woke people up to Leadville as a good, long-term investment,” he said.

The new vitality in Leadville’s business community could help keep more workers in town. Bordogna said most of the area’s over-the-hill commuters are in the construction business. But a growing portion of them are professionals with talent that could thrive in Leadville with the right investment in the business community.

Lake County and Leadville leaders recognize that potential, he said. The city has 1,000 acres of developable land on its edges. It’s been securing water rights to feed that land. It’s luring broadband companies to set up shop. New leadership in freshly renovated schools — such as the middle school and high school — are buoying school performance. Leaders are focusing on affordable and attainable housing so more local families can stay in the region as prices climb and economies grow.

“Is there a growing sense of optimism? Yes, and it’s combined with a nervousness of the coming change. This community has seen little growth in waves over time. But there’s a new normal up here. We are seeking, as far as housing and as far as Lake County becoming a viable play place year-round, to keep people from having to commute out of the county for work,” Bordogna said. “As more and more people discover this place, they are wanting to invest. Once all these new second homeowners get a taste of this pace and this lifestyle and the growing opportunities that are here, they will want to be here full time.”

That’s all good news for Leadville, which has long leaned on tourism as the economic engine to help supplant the declining operations at the Climax molybdenum mine up the road. And tourism is delivering. Sales tax revenues have climbed for three consecutive years in Leadville, increasing 22 percent in 2016 over the previous year, and tax receipts through June are up 12 percent this summer. Lodging tax revenue in Lake County grew by 21 percent in 2016 over 2015 and this year is pacing 26 percent ahead of last year. Businesses in downtown are reporting that July was the busiest in 20 years, Bordogna said.

It harkens back to Leadville’s decades-long boom days, when the Climax was humming with more than 3,000 workers. But the town suffered mightily when the mine closed in the late 1980s. A partial reopening in 2012 has helped, but Leadville has labored to shed its bedroom community and mining-town status by developing a rich summer tourism scene that has reduced its boom-bust reliance on the whims of the international molybdenum market.

Bolstered by high-profile events such as the Leadville Trail 100 bike and running races, town boosters hope to push that warm-weather energy into winter, elevating the city-owned Ski Cooper ski area and a growing roster of winter events.

“Our local business community is trying to get more people interesting in investing up here and then, hopefully, they will start spending their money up here,” Tait said.

The investment is happening in Leadville and Lake County. And across the Colorado mountains, buyers are pumping near-record amounts into real estate, with chances strong that sales in 2017 will end up close to previous mountain-town records set in 2006 and 2007.

The uncertainties around last year’s presidential election dampened sales in the high country. That happens just about every four years. This year, sales are rebounding. Eagle County, just to the north of Leadville, passed the $1 billion mark in June, pacing toward a record year and up 47 percent from the previous year. To the east, in Summit County, sales volume is up 24 percent and the median sales price is up 15 percent, according to Land Title data.

And to the south, the real estate markets in Salida and Buena Vista are red-hot with a steep decline in for-sale homes triggering solid price increases. The median sales prices for homes in both Chaffee County towns have climbed more than 10 percent a year for the past few years. So the pressure on Leadville is now coming from all sides.

“There were a few years of this where I was like, ‘Really, why isn’t Leadville seeing this?’ ” said Morrison, who moved to Leadville in 1990 and has been selling real estate there since 2005. “But it looks like we are rocking and rolling now.”

Leadville and Lake County are feeling a real estate revival that is floating hope that the community is back on a firm economic footing.

Leadville / Lake County median sales price / sales volume:

2009: $180,000 / $15.4 million

2010: $160,000 / $15.2 million

2011: $136,000 / $14.5 million

2012: $166,000 / $24.3 million

2013: $145,000 / $22.3 million

2014: $163,000 / $28.9 million

2015: $175,000 / $42.7 million

2016: $176,000 / $66.8 million

2017: $254,000 / $21.7 million (through June 2017)

Source: Realtors of Central Colorado

Residential real estate sales are trending upward in high-country counties across Colorado. 

Total sales volume / percentage annual YTD change through June 2017:

Eagle: $1.1 billion / up 47 percent

Grand: $277.7 million / up 56 percent

Lake: $21.7 million/ down 10 percent

Pitkin: $871.3 million / up 60 percent

Routt: $286.2 million / up 29 percent

San Miguel: $267 million / up 50 percent

Summit: $663 million / up 24 percent

Source: Land Title Guarantee Co.

 

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