The State of America’s Zoomtowns

I’ve recently been introduced to a new term (for me at least):  Zoomtowns.  This refers to smaller communities, often also known as gateway communities, that are attracting highly skilled and mobile workers who seek scenic amenities and a small town feel while also remaining connected to urban work centers and practices.  Think Bozeman MT, Moab UT, Bar Harbor ME, or Bend OR.   These places were attracting many newcomers prior to the COVID-19 pandemic and the pace of in-migration seems to be accelerating even faster now.  As such, these towns are facing both good (how to spend increased tax revenues) and bad (how to manage rapid growth) economic development challenges.

new study in the Journal of American Planning Association shares results from surveys and interviews  with more than 300 officials in smaller Western gateway communities.   Some interesting results emerge.  When asked to identify the most important characteristics of their community, respondents cited (in rank order):  well-maintained city infrastructure, small town feel, community character, livable wages and housing affordability.  When asked for their top challenges in the face of growth, they cited housing affordability, lagging wages/job quality, lack of local resources, housing affordability, and climate change-related risks.  While respondents in growing towns cited common growth challenges (e.g. too many tourists), most of those surveyed noted that the quality of life for residents has improved in recent years thank to an influx of new residents and tourists.

The local officials in these “Zoomtowns” also noted that they are now facing many issues more commonly associated with larger cities.  These include zoning reform, affordable housing development, e-bike programs, traffic management and the like.  They expressed interest in learning more about how other communities—urban and rural—have addressed such issues, and also recognized the need for more regional collaboration in areas like housing and transportation.  They noted that strong regional partnerships often existed to promote tourism, but that more work to advance regionalism in other issue areas is still needed.

This is a solid review of the state of play in gateway communities and well worth a read.  Other great resources include the Conservation Fund and  the National Park Service, who both operate programs focused on gateway communities or what we may now be calling Zoomtowns.