One could hear a collective “there goes the neighborhood” in Laramie, as Outside Magazine’s article depicting our community as “The Most Affordable Mountain Town in the West” made the rounds.
“This little burg hits the sweet spot where high adventure meets a low cost of living,” the September article reads. The author, Graham Averill, touts Laramie as a desirable community of arts, culture, and outdoor opportunities, like Boulder, Colorado, or Park City, Utah, but less pricey.
Averill isn’t wrong about Laramie’s dreaminess, but he glosses over the economic reality of living here. Many of us in the nonprofit sector, doing the arts and culture work to bolster Laramie’s vibrancy, don’t make enough to buy homes here.
Laramie is a unique Wyoming town — kept youthful as home to the state’s only four-year public university — and quirky with a burgeoning arts scene. The Medicine Bow National Forest sits in our backyard, ripe for exploring in every season. However, many of these desirable assets for both residents and visitors come from the efforts of nonprofit organizations — an economic sector with fraught standards for pay equity.
Nonprofit director salaries vary dramatically according to the Wyoming Nonprofit Network’s 2021 Salary and Benefit Report, which charts 169 full-time positions with annual salaries ranging from $20,000 to $120,000 plus. (This assessment excludes Teton County.) According to ZipRecruiter, the average hourly pay for nonprofit organizations is $16.80 per hour in Wyoming, sitting slightly above the liveable wage ($15.15 per hour) for one adult with no children in Albany County, according to a calculator from Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Wyoming’s famous low taxes come with a less-talked-about dearth of social services and amenities, leaving grant and donor-funded programming to fill the gaps. Outside’s article mentions several organizations that form Laramie’s social fabric, which are operated as 501(c)(3)s and rely heavily on strategic fundraising.
The award-winning Laramie Main Street Alliance is a nonprofit economic development agency operating under the Wyoming Business Council’s Wyoming Main Street program. Most programs affiliated with Main Street America, the national body created in response to the sprawl away from city centers in the 1980s, are run through municipal bodies, but not in Laramie. Yet, the scrappy revitalization efforts made possible by the small, unbenefited staff are noteworthy. As a former alliance staff member, current board member, and co-writer of the aforementioned national award application, I’ve looked closely at the underbelly of downtowns of communities nationwide. Most of these efforts are funded through sources like property tax mill levies or quarter-penny increases in sales tax. Laramie’s low taxes are a perk for mountain-town settlers, but a disservice to Laramie’s vitality.
Despite these challenges, our downtown is “super cool.” On that Averill and I agree.
Laramie Public Art Coalition works to enhance Laramie’s landscape by creating opportunities for artists and engaging the community through art. These projects serve the community with county-wide delights of publicly accessible murals, sculptures, pop-up events and a diverse array of educational opportunities. According to their annual report, LPCC’s team of two part-time employees and a volunteer board paid 39 artists to create and directly invested over $55,000 into the community in 2022.
For many, the outdoors keeps us rooted through Laramie’s volatile seasons. Pilot Hill Project, the nonprofit steward of the 5,000-acre trail system for hikers and bikers connecting Laramie to over 65,000 acres of National Forest, is operated by a board of directors. Its efforts are funded through public donations, grants and community fundraising events like Pilot Hill Community Days. The regionally beloved project came to be after an agreement between the owners of a local livestock company sold the acreage with an agreed intent to protect and maintain the land as open space. Many of the efforts to maintain Laramie’s outdoor spaces, drive conservancy efforts and provide recreation education are pursuits of volunteer teams. In the face of school district budget deficits this July, Albany County School District’s alpine ski team was forced to explore supplementary public fundraising efforts to ensure the program can remain a resource for Laramie’s youth.
Live music abounds in a handful of venues hosting performers en route to the big cities of the Front Range. Coffee cans pass between hands at downtown dives to collect cash to pay for the entertainment provided, while large venues like the historic Gryphon Theatre rely on limited state arts funding to fill their offering plate. Located in the Laramie Plains Civic Center, the Gryphon is a labor of communal love — one I’m familiar with as the building’s executive director, or “chief everything officer,” as my nonprofit peers often say sarcastically. Our 145-year-old building fills a full city block, and its three-story stature is congruent with the workload for the organization’s team of five. To champion a thriving community through service is a personal choice I’ve opted for from my heart above my wallet. To do this work does not lend itself to a lifestyle I’d call “affordable,” even in spite of the $4 beers.
Laramie is rich in purveyors of vibrancy, bolstering the quality of life. That’s evident by our community’s ranking as one of the healthiest counties in Wyoming, according to the County Health Rankings & Roadmaps, produced by the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute.
Scrappy yes, but “cheap” was a shocking descriptor for this mountain town where I chose to live and work.
Affordability is a topic as subjective as Outside’s “Venn Diagram of Awesomeness” — the authors’ governing metric for Laramie’s position as the most affordable in the West. Compared to the real estate of neighboring mountain communities, the market here is promising. Yet, somehow more than half of Laramie’s residents rent their home despite limited renters’ rights and notoriously exploitive landlords who benefit from Wyoming’s university town.
Averill dotes on Laramie’s average home price of $353,517 — a bargain compared to Boulder’s near $1M. However, for those working on developing the press-worthy amenities, it’s out of our league.
While the tone and tenor of Outside’s article complement Laramie’s network of community builders, it fails to reflect an accurate snapshot of this mountain town’s affordability — one that even Wyoming itself is naive to.
The state’s conservative budget strategy leaves the burden of cultivating amenities like vibrant downtown districts and public art opportunities on a network of stretched-thin nonprofits. Public services are routinely threatened by funding cuts, pushing this work to volunteer labor and foreshadowing an ill-fated future. Those called to move to Laramie under the guise of affordability arrive for the cheap beers and quiet trails, otherwise unaware of the need for residents’ participation to preserve the community comforts that drew them here.
Punchy headlines like Averill’s perpetuate a harmful narrative that ignores the already unrecognized and uncompensated labor of those people and groups boosting arts, culture and community while fueling an influx of visitors to a town that’s increasingly too expensive to house its own champions.