Best of the West: Pandemic real estate boom; cryptocurrency innovation in Wyoming; Montana launches its Crisis Recovery Hotline

The Western Governors' Association keeps you updated on the latest news in the West. Here are the top stories for the week starting Dec. 7, 2020. Photo courtesy of @CityofBend on Twitter.

Vacation communities in the West are experiencing a real estate boom, as remote workers increasingly leave cities behind in favor of scenic, outdoor-oriented destinations.

According to Oregon Public Broadcasting, these so-called “Zoom towns” are emerging across the region, from Sandpoint, Idaho to the San Juan Islands in Washington state.

"For anyone that had interest in moving to a town like ours, that plan was greatly accelerated because of COVID,” said Brian Ladd, a principal broker with Cascade Sotheby's International Realty in Bend, Oregon. "When they were able to work remotely, or they were forced to work remotely, all of a sudden it became an option."

Oregon’s Deschutes County, which includes Bend and the nearby resort community of Sunriver, has seen a 17% year-over-year increase in the average cost of a residential home. As of October, the median sales price hovered around $560,000, with desirable properties often swept up in a matter of days.

"What it felt like is it really unleashed a whole wave of people who had the dream of moving and living in a beautiful place like this, and it seemingly all happened at once," Ladd said.

In Montana, real estate professionals report a similar trend, resulting in a 10% rise in the statewide housing price index, Montana Public Radio reports. Data from the Federal Housing Finance Authority reveals that this is one of the largest increases in housing prices of any state in the country.

“Our business has grown exponentially every year, but this year is record-breaking,” said Dawn Maddux, a global real estate advisor at Engel & Völkers Western Frontier in Missoula. "It’s a strong seller's market. Things are going for a premium.”

Read more about the rise of “Zoom towns” in the West.

Digital Innovation: The University of Wyoming recently opened its Center for Blockchain and Digital Innovation, geared towards helping the state diversify its economy. Center Director Steven Lupien explained to Wyoming Public Media that in the last three years, the Cowboy State has passed 20 laws enabling digital assets, blockchain and cryptocurrency. The goal of the legislation is to legitimize the industry and create a climate of legal certainty, in turn attracting new companies to Wyoming in the process. “We want to have an environment where graduates can stay here and live in the communities that they grew up in and have good paying technology and finance jobs,” Lupien said. “It's our responsibility to create the type of students that these businesses want to hire.” Learn more about Wyoming’s burgeoning cryptocurrency sector.

Wildlife Conservation: Last month, the Utah Wildlife Federation was voted as an official affiliate of the National Wildlife Federation. According to Utah Public Radio, all 50 states now have a chapter in the organization. “We were the last link, and I'm so proud to be part of bringing that chain together,” said Ken Verdoia, a board member of the Utah branch. “Because that means commitment extends from the Florida Everglades, to the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, to coastal California, and here to the Great Basin to ensure that we are connected as a nation with these important issues.” One of the top priorities for the Federation is animal migration. It seeks to better understand how human development can impact migratory patterns, and what can be done to protect historic routes and the wildlife that uses them. Find out more about the Federation’s goals.

Pandemic Hotline: Residents of Montana have a new resource to deal with the mental strain of the COVID-19 pandemic: the Montana Crisis Recovery Hotline. The project, funded by $1.6 million in federal grants, is open to everyone, Montana Public Radio reports, with a specific focus on Native Americans, students, health care workers, and residents of communities hit hardest by the virus. "People are social creatures and we're all feeling very, very tired of this pandemic,” said Zoe Barnard, who leads the state health department’s Addictive and Mental Disorders Division. “I think it’s really important to normalize that the feelings people are going through right now are to be expected during this time." Hotline counselors are available Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., and also can connect callers to local mental health providers. The hotline number is 877-503-0833. Read more.

Youth Philanthropy: Jack Pierce, an eighth grader from Idaho, has been honored by the Idaho Nonprofit Center as one of the state’s best philanthropists. According to Boise State Public Radio, starting when he was just seven years old, Jack would convince his friends and family to make a donation to Kootenai Health Medical Center instead of buying him a birthday gift. Six years later, the medical center has created "Jack's Birthday Club" to showcase the tradition and inspire others. “You know, it's a community hospital and it's just something that we believe in as a family,” said Gil Pierce, Jack’s father. “And we do our best to support that and try to get other folks to support it as well.” Jack’s most recent donation helped the hospital purchase a Da Vinci Robot, a surgical system that enables doctors to better perform minimally invasive procedures. Check out an interview with Jack and his family.

ICYMI: COVID-19 in the West: A state-by-state breakdown of the Governors’ work (updated regularly)

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