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There are communities across the Western United States that many may be familiar with.

These towns, like Moab, Park City, Springdale, Jackson, Driggs, Lake Tahoe and Breckenridge to name a few, are considered gems to those who live in or visit them. But these communities are also facing challenges they had not planned for, or ones they are not yet equipped to handle. Problems that were more prevalent in big cities.

These “gateway communities” are some of the places that are getting involved in the Gateway and Natural Amenity Region, or GNAR Initiative, based out of Utah State University in the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism.

How GNAR was Started and why it was Needed

The GNAR Initiative was first conceived of by University of Utah professor Danya Rumore, who recognized the lack of scholarly research into gateway communities and saw the need for a place where these communities could work together to share ideas and resources, collaborate and discuss challenges that they have faced or are currently facing. Seeing this as an opportunity for USU Extension, Jake Powell, Extension specialist in the Department of Landscape Architecture and Environmental Planning and Jordan Smith, director of the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism, worked with Rumore to couple the idea of the GNAR Initiative to Extension’s mission of “improving the lives of individuals, families and communities.” Together, Rumore, Powell and Smith are the core members of the GNAR Initiative.

“We really felt like the Institute of Outdoor Recreation and Tourism was a great fit for the GNAR Initiative meeting its original goals of building capacity, creating educational opportunities and doing important research on gateway communities,” said Powell, who is the GNAR Initiative lead.

The GNAR Initiative defines gateway communities as communities of 150-25,000 residents within 10 miles of a national or state park, national forest, major river or lake and further than 15 miles from a census-designated urbanized area. These communities are facing challenges due to increased influxes of tourists throughout their tourism season and a reliance on this tourism for their economy. Recently, they are also facing the challenge of many new homeowners moving in from metropolitan areas who are able to now telecommute for their jobs. These come with challenges that are putting additional strains on these mostly rural communities.

“We’ve described these communities as being challenged with dealing with big-city issues in small towns,” Smith said.

Some of these big-city issues include housing affordability and availability, increased traffic and parking issues, insufficient or overwhelmed infrastructure and public services, economic vulnerability and a lack of diversification, a loss of community character and income inequality as cost of living increases. Through the GNAR Initiative, USU is working with these gateway communities to help them get the information they need to tackle these problems and better prepare for future needs.

USU Helps Bring Gateway Communities and Resources Together

As an Extension program, USU’s GNAR Initiative works as a planning resource for gateway communities across the Western United States. These communities are located between the Sierra Nevada ranges of California to the edge of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado and New Mexico. The Initiative’s role is to gather research and build a network where gateway communities can find information and collaborate with one another to address planning challenges and make smarter and more informed decisions.

“We are a hub for researchers, practitioners and community members who work together to understand the unique challenges of gateway communities,” Powell said. “We are a linking organization, putting the right people together and also trying to gather the right resources into a place where people can get ahold of them.”

Originally focused on how to address gateway community challenges in the state of Utah, Smith and Powell soon learned that Utah communities would also benefit from the experiences of communities facing similar challenges in neighboring states.

“We quickly learned that there is a lot that a gateway community in Utah can learn from the gateway communities within the larger region,” Powell said. “Even though Extension is Utah focused, we felt like the best way to serve Utah’s communities was to look regionally and learn lessons and share those lessons by leveraging the wisdom of the region for Utah’s communities, and share the wisdom of Utah with the region.”

Smith echoed that statement, seeing how communities around the region could learn from one another. In the 10 months since the program started, Smith and the core team have seen a great response from communities who are grateful the initiative was started.

“People in Moab can learn from people in Idaho and Montana,” he said. “I think that we've gotten a lot of traction from these communities because they have a huge need for having planning expertise from the outside.”

“A lot of times these communities are kind of going at it alone. They're reinventing the wheel over and over and over again, or at least they feel that way,” Powell said.

The message that comes from the GNAR Initiative is this: There are resources available for gateway communities. All that’s needed is to get the conversation started.

COVID-19’s Impact on Gateway Communities and the Rise of Zoom Towns

The rise of the coronavirus pandemic has put an even bigger strain on gateway communities. Many of these towns rely heavily on tourism to fund their economies and public services. With tourism coming to a halt for months, and now with many places continuing to restrict visitors, these communities are feeling the strain of having an economy so dependent on outside visitors.

“The world turned upside down and, for a lot of these gateway communities, their historic chronic challenges became very acute challenges,” Powell said. “With economies that were very focused on tourism, communities started to question their history and whether they should have invested so heavily in tourism. With how the world had changed, the GNAR Initiative became very relevant very quickly to them.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has also changed how and where many Americans are able to work. With many finding they can have their big city job but use the Internet to work from home, many people have decided to escape the city and move to the towns they love visiting. People can have their cake and eat it too.

“Over the past couple months, everybody has realized that they don't have to work in San Francisco or Seattle or Chicago,” Smith said. “Now they can go to work and live in Moab or Jackson, Wyoming and still have their job in in those huge cities.”

These Zoom Towners can bring with them a host of challenges. Influxes of new residents has driven up cost of living, the demand for housing and amenities, and the change of a small town feel that many of these towns identify with. This was already a trend prior to the pandemic but has grown even more rapid since March.

With these circumstances presenting even greater challenges to communities, the GNAR Initiative is working to help these cities plan for the future. While GNAR was not intended to be a response to COVID-19, the pandemic has brought these already important concerns to the forefront of these cities’ minds.

“The problems we are seeing in these towns were always in gateway communities,” Powell said. “What we saw COVID do is just put an accelerant on these issues, such as dependency on a single economy, tourism, traffic, and now second homeownership. Those were issues that gateway communities were struggling with on a daily basis. COVID-19 has exacerbated a lot of those challenges and made them far more difficult and nuanced.”

How to Learn More and Get Involved

The GNAR Initiative is currently hosting a five-part webinar series on amenity migration, which began Oct. 15. This series is designed to look at the complicated topic of amenity migration from various perspectives. The series looks at the challenges facing GNAR communities, current outlooks on amenity migration, success stories from various cities, and provides opportunities for questions and answer sessions with experts like Powell, Smith and Rumore.

“Over the course of the summer, this larger idea of amenity migration became pretty apparent,” Powell said. This is going to be a challenge gateway communities are going to be dealing with for quite a long time. It was really relevant from a COVID standpoint as well as fulfilling our mission of research, education and capacity building.”

The GNAR website also offers many resources for those looking to learn more. The website links people to tools, research and more. Still a young program, the resources available to community members will continue to grow as more research is completed and gathered.

“We have an online toolkit,” Smith said. “It is a comprehensive list or a compendium of resources that they can use, with everything from peer review journal articles to online resources or other examples of what other communities are doing.”

Communities are also encouraged to reach out to the GNAR core team with questions and concerns. Starting a conversation is all it takes to start the process. For communities looking to obtain more information on the GNAR Initiative and get involved with resources, email Liz Sodja (liz.sodja@usu.edu).

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