For centuries, travelers have fallen in love with the beauty and serenity of Big Sky Country. Although this phrase is most closely associated with Montana, it’s also an apt description of neighboring states. Hollywood has romanticized these places over the years, from John Wayne’s 1969 Western “True Grit” and Robert Redford’s 1992 classic “A River Runs Through It” to the modern-day TV show “Yellowstone.”
The Mountain Region states of Colorado, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming are massive. At 147,040 square miles, Montana is the fourth-largest state by area
. Colorado ranks eighth, Wyoming 10th and Idaho 14th. But much of this space is empty. Only Alaska has less population density than Wyoming (six people per square mile) and Montana (eight). Idaho ranks No. 7 for lowest density while Colorado is No. 15.
Colorado has the largest economy in the region with a gross domestic product (GDP) of nearly $422 billion last year, good for 16th among all states. The office of Gov. Jared Polis reported this past June that the state is likely to avoid a recession
in the next 18 months regardless of what happens at the national level. State income tax revenues were expected to exceed a legally mandated limit by $3.65 billion during the fiscal year that ended June 30, allowing Colorado taxpayers to receive refunds of up to $1,500 per household.
Denver is far and away the largest city in the four-state region with a metro-area population of 2.9 million. The Mile High City is a national player in the aerospace, telecommunications, health care and energy sectors.
Idaho ranked No. 39 in the nation with a GDP of $94.3 billion in 2021. This past April, a forecast from the office of Gov. Brad Little projected that job, wage and population growth in the Gem State would greatly outpace the U.S. as a whole from 2022 through 2026. Annual job growth in Idaho, for example, was expected to average 3.4% during this five-year period compared to 1.3% for the nation.
Montana’s 2021 GDP of $59.3 billion was the fourth smallest among all states. But Montana is booming by many measurements. Its population growth of 9.6% from 2010 to 2020 was well above the U.S. growth rate of 7.4%, pushing Montana past 1 million residents for the first time and giving it an additional seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Much of the population surge is tied to an influx of remote workers who have relocated from more expensive regions.
At $41.6 billion, Wyoming has the nation’s second-smallest economy. Population growth in the Equality State
during the past decade was soft at 2.3%. Wyoming had negative net migration of about 12,000 residents during this time, due in large part to the shrinking of the energy and mining industries. But the largest cities of Cheyenne and Casper added a total of about 9,400 people, the bulk of Wyoming’s 13,225 new residents during these 10 years. ●
Strong population and job growth throughout the Mountain Region has equated to electric home-price growth, too. During the two-year period ending this past June, typical U.S. home values shot up by 38%, according to Zillow data. Amazingly, Idaho (55% growth), Montana (50%) and Colorado (41%) had even faster price surges. Wyoming’s growth lagged but still reached 23%, Zillow reported.
Boise is the epicenter of this activity, but the Idaho capital has cooled off recently. Bloomberg reported that monthly price growth in the city reached 4.1% in June 2021 before dropping to 0.4% in March 2022. At the end of this period, the report noted, Boise home prices were about 70% higher than what a household earning the area median income could afford.
This past spring, an index developed by The Wall Street Journal and Realtor.com showed that Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Billings, Montana, ranked No. 7 and No. 9, respectively, among the country’s emerging housing markets. Billings will need to build 2,000 homes per year
for the next 20 years to fill a supply gap that’s been growing for decades, the Big Sky Business Journal reported, but it averaged only 415 new-home permits per year from 2009 to 2021.
Montana ranked No. 1 among all states in 2020 as 4.3% of its GDP was tied to outdoors recreation, according to an analysis published by Headwaters Economics. Wyoming was No. 4 on this list, with Idaho at No. 8 and Colorado at No. 11.
Together, the four Mountain Region states had 190,000 jobs in recreation that generated roughly $8.6 billion in wages. With the Rocky Mountains stretching across a large portion of this region, snow skiing is a major attraction. The Colorado resort towns of Vail, Aspen, Telluride and Breckenridge frequently earn acclaim, as do Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Sun Valley, Idaho; and Montana’s Big Sky Resort.
Montana is known for fly fishing. The Bozeman airport offers direct flights from across the country for quick access to the Yellowstone River. Wyoming’s Grand Teton is a mecca for mountain climbing with more than 35 routes up the 13,775-foot peak. In Idaho, whitewater rafting on the Salmon, Snake and Payette rivers is a popular pastime.
What the locals say
“When COVID hit, a lot of builders started to pull back because they weren’t sure of what was going to happen. And then after the settling out of that, all of a sudden the (federal) stimulus (money) comes in and everybody says, ‘Well, we want to move to Coeur d’Alene and get out of where we’re at because of the restrictions.’ Trying to ramp that (construction) back up was a challenge. … We’re finally seeing more of a normal environment as far as longer marketing times for sellers. There’s not a bidding war on every house, so in my opinion, that’s good news for buyers.”
Platinum Home Mortgage
3 Cities to Watch
Montana’s most populous city (117,000 residents) is the hub of Yellowstone County. The local economy revolves around energy, health care, information technology, manufacturing and warehousing. Rocky Mountain College, established in 1878, has an enrollment of about 1,000. And Billings will be home to the state’s first four-year medical school, Rocky Vista University’s Montana College of Osteopathic Medicine, which is set for completion by the end of 2022.
This city of 105,000 people is a 30-minute drive northwest of downtown Denver. Boulder is home to the University of Colorado’s flagship campus, which has an undergraduate enrollment of 30,000 students. The city’s lively entertainment and dining options, and its proximity to world-class ski resorts, led to its ranking as this year’s No. 4 “Best Place to Live” by U.S. News & World Report. General Electric, Google and Lockheed Martin each have a local presence.
The Idaho panhandle has been transformed over the past decade, with Coeur d’Alene and surrounding Kootenai County adding 33,000 residents from 2010 to 2020 (or 24% growth). The county’s median home price rose 24%
to $550,000 during the year ending in April 2022, area Realtors reported. Sixty luxury condominiums — priced from $770,000 to $2 million — on the shores of picturesque Lake Coeur d’Alene are set to be delivered in 2024.
Sources: Big Sky Business Journal, Billings Gazette, Bloomberg, Boulder Economic Council, Coeur d’Alene Press, Denver Economic Development and Opportunity, Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, Headwaters Economics, Idaho Division of Financial Management, KREM-TV, Montana Angler, Oil City News, PlanetWare, Rocky Mountain College, SummitPost.org, The Colorado Sun, The Wall Street Journal, Think Billings, University of Colorado Boulder, U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, U.S. News & World Report, World Population Review, Zillow