PARK CITY, UTAH -- After growing up the tough way in the South, Ken Orr worked his way up in the commodity futures game during the 1970s in Manhattan. In the process he made a small fortune. He ended up with a bad case of burnout, as well, that took him out of the business for almost a decade.
After a two-year return to the commodity business in the late 1980s, Orr last year decided to go out on his own -- only this time without the noise, hassle and congestion of Manhattan. Instead he set down his new firm, Kenneth E. Orr Investment Corp., here in Park City, a small mining town turned ski resort in the snow-capped Wasatch Range 45 minutes from downtown Salt Lake City.
"I realized I had all the contacts, everything I needed to build a business and decided that business could be here," said Orr, 43, who used to vacation in Park City. "The communications -- the fax, the computer -- have made New York redundant for me. I'm at a point where I find the hustle and daily pressure less attractive. We don't need New York anymore."
Entrepreneurs like Orr are becoming more and more common in resort towns like Park City; Carmel, Calif.; Sugar Mountain, N.C.; Sun Valley, Idaho; Palm Springs, Calif.; and Traverse City, Mich. Rather than work in the concrete pressure-cookers of New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or Washington, waiting for a few precious days in paradise, they are simply packing up their families, their belongings and their skills and heading off to work where they play.
The ski slopes have become a particularly good draw. According to a study done by John Rooney, a professor of geography at the University of Oklahoma at Stillwater, Park City is located in one of 18 "super-dynamic" counties with significant skiing facilities -- including five in California, four in Colorado and three in upper New England -- that enjoyed population and economic growth rates ranging from five to 10 times greater than national norms. Although some of this growth was directly related to expansion of skiing itself, Rooney sees a newer trend toward a migration of permanent, highly skilled professional class to snow country.
No ski town has grown more rapidly in Rooney's study than Summit County, Utah, where Park City is located. From 1977 to 1987, the county's year-round population doubled to nearly 14,000. Particularly buoyant has been the real estate industry, which saw a six-fold increase in employment during the period.
Even today, during a nationwide real estate recession, business continues to boom with total sales volume up by some 28 percent from the previous record year, according to Richard Dudley, president of the Park City Board of Realtors. Single-family home sales are up a remarkable 40 percent, commercial lot sales by nearly 70 percent.
Office space is even getting scarce, as more businesses move into or are established in Park City, which has a year-round population of slightly under 5,000. Over the past few years scores of out-of-state firms, including a ski equipment manufacturer and an aerospace company, have moved into town. Since 1988, office vacancy rates have plummeted from 20 percent to about 7 percent today.
One key reason for Summit County's remarkable success, Orr suspects, is the easy one-hour drive to Salt Lake City and its modern airport. Even with modern communications linking him to financial centers around the world, Orr still feels the need to make personal contact with other brokers and his clients, mostly wealthy individuals and institutions, many of them foreign.
But as a matter of day-to-day business, Orr believes his four-person operation, including his wife, Jan, runs more efficiently in the country. Starting work at 5 in the morning to work the European and East Coast markets, he believes his daily break for golf or skiing actually increases his productivity.
"You might think you're giving up your edge but for me it's the reverse," said Orr, who this year claims to have earned roughly a 60 percent return on the $50 million under his management. "I am less stressed and can make better decisions. Here you're not trying to prove you're the biggest guy on the block. You just concentrate on doing your job."
Successful, middle-aged urban exiles like Orr represent perhaps the critical element behind the growth of super-dynamic areas like Summit County, according to geographer Rooney. Don Weller, for instance, was well into his 40s when he settled in Park City, moving his graphic arts agency and accounts with him from Los Angeles.
"For me it was a kind of a mid-life crisis," said Weller, who now runs his $200,000-a-year business with his wife, Chichako, in a modern pueblo-style house with a panoramic view of the Wasatch countryside. "We were driving and facing all that smog and traffic. Eventually we felt we had to give it up."
Another kind of burnout led Tommy Matthews to conduct most of his political consulting from Park City rather than Washington. A native of Utah, Matthews is a former newspaper reporter who worked in the Peace Corps before becoming a political consultant specializing in Democratic campaigns. In the mid-1970s he co-founded Cramer Matthews Smith Co., a liberal direct-mail consulting company. But over time he increasingly found Washington too constrained for his imagination.
Today he continues his consulting business, using a fax machine and the phone to advise political groups and campaigns, including that of recently defeated Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Silber.
"What being here does is let me not be distracted by formula thinking," said Matthews, who still spends an average of eight days a month in Washington. "Here I feel I can talk about things that if I thought them there, I'd be squashed." As professionals like Matthews, Weller and Orr begin congregating in super-dynamic places like Park City, geographer Rooney and others see a sort of critical mass forming that could lead to the development of larger, more sophisticated businesses. Such an approach is already being tested in Park City by Steven Graybill, a 43-year-old refugee from Bank of America who started out by restoring an old building on the city's historic Main Street and opening a small sportswear boutique.
Graybill and his associates, however, are not content to sell trinkets to tourists. In an effort to find a more challenging and lucrative enterprise, Graybill and his group -- including an architect and a former IBM executive -- formed a new corporation called Resort Coalition International, which will seek to invest in, develop and design mixed-use developments in Park City and other super-dynamic ski regions throughout North America.
"What we're offering here -- for someone of my age and profession -- is someplace where they want to live, but still have a career," said Graybill. "This is not the 1960s when people were dropping out and going back to the land. This is a serious business."