Hardly anyone knows the richest place in the USA. A visit to the billionaires’ new favorite place reveals an ideal world, but deep cracks open up behind the facade. How much money can a small town take?
Today the column is not from Washington, but from the richest community in America. I’m not reporting from Manhattan or the hills around Hollywood. And the splendor of Palm Beach is also far away. Now if you get impatient – what a long run the Reinbold takes again! – and google it quickly, you probably wouldn’t find the place. Because in many annual rankings of the wealthiest places in the United States, this community doesn’t even show up, simply because it’s too small.
Only a good 21,000 people live here, each of whom earns an average of $ 251,728 a year. However, because the numbers are two years old, they reveal little about the fabulous boom that has recently taken place here.
Photo series with 10 pictures
And with that, a warm welcome to the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming. The community is called Teton County, the beautiful valley you live in is called Jackson Hole, and the town in the center of the madness is called Jackson.
The three places are going through turbulent times. Only the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar has been indestructible on Jackson’s town square since the late 1930s, but would have to consider renaming if it wanted to reflect current developments. Billion Dollar Cowboy Bar would be a more appropriate name. Because after the millionaires ousted the normal people, now the billionaires oust the millionaires.
A breathtaking location, escape from the city due to Corona, ridiculously low taxes and the good old myth of the Wild West have made Jackson a haven for the super-rich – which causes all sorts of upheavals on site. The air in Jackson Hole, 1,900 meters above zero, is getting pretty thin for many.
If you stroll through the town, you guessed nothing of it. Jackson presents itself as the tourist destination it has long been: The nearby Grand Teton and Yellowstone national parks as well as the excellent ski slopes do not allow the flow of travelers to dry up at any time of the year. Four archways made of elk antlers greet you in the town square and for a few dollars more, a buffalo beef will land on the burger instead of beef. So far, so quaint.
Archway made of elk antlers in Jackson: A rustic, down-to-earth attitude dominates. (Source: Richard Maschmeyer / imago images)
This is exactly what the billionaires from Silicon Valley, Los Angeles and New York who are now flocking to love here. The breathtaking nature meets a down-to-earth culture that you would love to immerse yourself in. There are no Porsches or Bentleys roaring through the valley, but massive pickup trucks that are considered perfectly normal by local standards.
On Saturday evenings you go to the rodeo. The long-time residents, the tourists and the new rich neighbors all come in cowboy hats and pointed leather boots. The organizers have found the perfect slogan: “Where the West is still the West” – where the West is still the West. Between bull riding and horse catching, the stadium announcer asked the audience: “Who is here from California?” When a couple of hands tentatively slide their way out of the sea of cowboy hats, he says: “Welcome to America”.
Parallels to the science fiction series “Westworld”
The Americans have been continuing the myth of the “Frontier” for a good hundred years. This is the idea that it was the experiences of the continually shifting border that turned America into America. Wild west, the simple life in beautiful nature and dangerous wilderness, far away from rigid rules of a government. In Jackson, any hedge fund manager can feel a little like Buffalo Bill, or at least Lucky Luke. It’s an adventure playground for the super rich.
It’s a bit like the science fiction series “Westworld”, only without the robots.
At the rodeo, Drue Meyer leans casually against the metal fence, a can of Coors light in his pocket. Drue works in construction, he is fine thanks to the new neighbors. He recently helped build the property for so many celebrities. For whom, however, he is not allowed to say. Before the first handshake, he had to sign a confidentiality agreement.
So much remains in the vague. Harrison Ford was one of the first stars here, that much is clear, he has a ranch on the wild Snake River. Drue Meyer knows: “He had to cede it to his wife as part of a divorce, but bought it back the next day.” The Cheneys (Dick, Liz and Co.) live a little further up the river. Kanye West loved to eat the chicken wings at Big Hole BBQ, but who has come since the pandemic, how and where the new billionaires live, all of this cannot be precisely determined. The same applies in Jackson: rich, richer, invisible.
Riders collect elk antlers near Jackson: The hedge fund manager is also allowed to play cowboy. (Source: Jeff Vanuga)
The place where the big deals are made disguises itself as a modest log cabin a few blocks away from the city center. Sotheby’s brokers are juggling the new mega-offers. There is little going on on Saturday morning, a friendly man has time to provide insights.
“Those who want to inherit wealth have many advantages when they move to Wyoming,” says the broker. Not only is inheritance tax minimal, property tax is also minimal. Wyoming and Teton County waive any income tax that is commonly paid in the US at the federal, state, and local levels.
Now he is making an object palatable to me: An ensemble that he is promoting as a single-family house with four bedrooms plus a guest house with four additional bedrooms: 11 baths, 112 acres, list price $ 69.5 million. When my look reveals a bit of disbelief, he is now once again promoting the property in a different way: “So much contiguous area is really unique. You can create your own hiking and cycling trails there.”
“There aren’t that many well-paying jobs here”
Indeed, the area is a sticking point here. Less than three percent of the Jackson Hole area is privately owned. The rest is in the hands of the federal government. In addition to the mountain ranges, a huge elk reserve limits the city to the north. That makes everything even more secluded, exclusive, and sought-after.
And it makes the city more cramped. The broker also knows about the problem: “There aren’t that many well-paid jobs here, and you just can’t keep up with the money that’s pouring in.” If you can’t keep up, you can’t just pull out a little further.
His construction colleagues, Drue Meyer had told me at the rodeo fence, now come every morning from Pinedale, almost 90 miles away. Other workers who clean the houses of the rich or tend the ranches commute from the next state of Idaho. Every morning and every evening over the Teton mountain pass. This is possible in summer, but it is often closed in winter. Then America’s richest place may suffer from labor poverty.
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The broker proudly shows how his sales exploded in the pandemic year. In 2019 they sold real estate here valued at $ 933 million, and in 2020 they will double to $ 1.8 billion. In a small town. The average price per home rose from $ 1.7 million to $ 2.7 million. These are just the objects of purchase. Even those who want to rent now pay 50 percent more – the reason is the so-called “zoom boom”, ie the move of people who work from home via video conference during the pandemic and could not leave their cities fast enough.
When a school board met recently, it wasn’t about repairs and new learning plans. Topic number one was the complaint that the teachers could no longer find a home in Jackson. We are not only in the richest church, but also the one with the highest inequality.
When the friendly broker has finished his presentation, he gets cold feet. “We’re stigmatized right now.” He doesn’t want me to mention his name. This experience is repeated in other conversations. Behind the moose-mountains-and-cowboy romance it’s about a lot of power and a lot, a lot of money.
The man who got the best insight into this conflict is called Justin Farrell. The sociologist works at the elite Yale University. Farrell wrote an entire book on the phenomenon: It is called “Billionaire Wilderness”, meaning the wilderness of the billionaires. Farrell managed to talk to the super rich and to the poor. Some were flattered that a researcher from a renowned university wanted to talk to them, while others found a connection when he was born in Wyomingen.
Farrell confirmed my impression: “The billionaires can escape the contradictions of their lives as the super-rich here. They tell themselves that everyone is the same here and that they want the same thing: out in nature, play a little cowboy.” But, Farrell knows, that is just a “beautiful facade, behind which things are pretty tough”.