A&E Columns

This must be the place: 'Sod the streets at once, change the name Aspen to Fat City'

The Blue Ridge Mountains of WNC. The Blue Ridge Mountains of WNC. Garret K. Woodward photo.

Recently, I came across a real estate listing for a house while scrolling Facebook. It was located on the east side of Jackson, Wyoming. In the shadow of the Grand Teton Mountains, any and all homes and undeveloped land are a mad scramble to bid on and purchase. 

The house listed wasn’t anything special. Basic looking ranch. Nothing aesthetically unique about the structure or the property. Four bedrooms, two baths. A little over 2,800 square feet on 0.15 acres. Price tag? A cool $2.5 million. 

Yep. You read right. Two and a half million dollars. But, it’s Jackson, one of the most affluent communities on the entire planet, with a limited inventory of property due to the town being landlocked by the national park and other protected entities. And that ranch house will sell after a bidding war. 

Flashbacks immediately flooded my field-of-vision of living out in the Tetons. I was 22 years old. Fresh out of college with my first paid writing gig. Reporter for the Teton Valley News, just over the Teton Pass in Driggs, Idaho. 

When I rolled into town from Upstate New York in January 2008, I was lucky enough to find an apartment in the tiny outpost town of Victor, Idaho. A one bedroom for $500 a month attached to the back of an abandoned doublewide trailer. It included a small bathroom, an all-in-one kitchen area and a bookshelf in the corner. Barebones, to say the least. But, for me, it was home. 

Part of my reporting beat was covering town meetings and planning/zoning committees within the three towns in Teton County. Mainly, I found myself at the Victor meetings, seeing as the town hall was just around the corner from my humble abode. 

Now, keep in mind this was 2008. And I vividly remember countless P&Z meetings where local folks were up in arms when developer after developer (after developer) swooped in and asked for permits, rezoning and so on, all to build more and more (and more) expensive homes. 

The sprawl was seemingly out-of-control, and with no end in sight. There were nights when the town hall air was thick with arguing and tears shed, to which one time a P&Z board member broke down in an uncontrollable sob, moaning through the crying while saying, “What are we even doing? We’re destroying our town.”

And she was right. I agreed with her 15 years ago, and more so nowadays. Not long after all those expensive homes were built the economy tanked in the fall of 2008. The once white-hot housing market bubble burst, leaving many penniless and without a home from coast-to-coast. All those expensive homes in Teton County, Idaho? Projects were abandoned. Promises and contracts were broken. And homes already constructed remained dormant for years. 

Today? The market out there in the Tetons is again white-hot, and with no real solution to any of the same ole societal problems — rural sprawl, sky-high real estate prices, lack of affordable housing, infrastructure barely able to keep up. In truth, what seems different now is that folks are gobbling up anything they can find — to renovate and flip for profit or merely to snatch whatever comes their way in fear of being squeezed out of the market before it’s too late. 

So, here we are, 2023. Those Teton memories are always brimming near the surface of my thoughts and feelings, especially when I think about where we currently stand as a people and a culture — nothing is the same, everything is the same. Ain’t that the truth, eh? 

Not much further down the Facebook newsfeed beyond the real estate listing, there was a link to a local newspaper article about a high-end Florida real estate developer, Frank McKinney, looking to come into Haywood County and build extravagant mansions for the ultra-rich. Go to Google and type in “Escape to the Pigeon River.” 

Dig a little deeper and you’ll find another YouTube clip of McKinney in downtown Canton last month. Standing within earshot of the soon-to-be-shutdown paper mill, McKinney spoke of the real estate potential of the small town, saying “this is like Southern California before the gold rush” and “the most exciting time in Western North Carolina history because of what’s happening with the mill.” 

That feeling of cringe coursed through my body. My mind drifted to the folks I’ve interviewed in Canton during the catastrophic flood of 2021 who lost everything and were homeless, and all those articles in this publication about the mill closure and what may lie ahead for Papertown. 

Is Haywood County on the same trajectory as the Tetons? Perhaps. Who knows? Some days it does feel like it, especially when a quarter-million doesn’t go as far as it used to in the real estate market. But, with a mill closure and countless local folks out of work, it seems a little out-of-touch or tone deaf to be licking one’s chops in anticipation for the feast of land and opportunity, whereas many are facing famine. 

Figures like McKinney will do what they do, and most likely do it well. They’re opportunists in search of the next big thing to pillage and conquer, the thought being if they don’t do it, somebody else will come along eventually and do the same. So, why not? And I think about all those multi-generation families I’ve befriended in these mountains, incredible blue-collar folks who worked hard to provide for their families — to ink out a living, and be damn proud to do so in the face of adversity. 

I’ve called these mountains home for 11 years, all of which working for The Smoky Mountain News. I’ve lived in the same apartment since 2012. The first five years or so I thought, “I can’t wait to move up and buy my first home.” In the last five years or so I think, “I’m so lucky to be able to afford this apartment.” 

Regardless, I live and work here. And I choose to be here. Everything changes, which is the only constant in life. That, and the almighty dollar reigns supreme. But, what will we do about affordable housing beyond just lip service to the ongoing issue? Is anyone even thinking about smart growth? Are we beyond the point of no return? 

Searching for an affordable starter home in this area — within this economy of inflation and ridiculous housing prices — I’ve been officially squeezed out of the market, even with a lower middle-class paycheck. And I wonder what happens next, for me and innumerable others also in the same predicament. 

And if I had to find another apartment? I’d be absolutely screwed. I couldn’t afford these new apartments popping up around the region. And neither can many of my peers. In essence, we’d either have to leave the area or find a few roommates. I digress. And I hold out hope for the future. Somebody does, I suppose. 

Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.

Leave a comment


  • Great article Garret! I agree with you, everything is being priced out of proportion. Especially when the minimum wage hasn’t budged in forever.

    posted by Lynn Copeland

    Tuesday, 05/23/2023

  • Very astute observation!! This past July, I accepted a local teaching position . The salary seemed very fair, but moving in from someplace else, we hadn't looked that closely at the housing prices. We figured being a country mountain area, they would be moderate... We were greatly mistaken!
    After searching daily from the first of August through the month of November, being disappointed and outbid multiple times, we were finally able to find a home we could afford. It had set empty for two years. The roof had leaked and needed replaced, all the plumbing fixtures, drains, and appliances had frozen up and broken, the HVAC system was empty of Freon, and the blower motor was frozen up, all the carpet had been torn out, leaving a subfloor with thousands of rusty staples.
    These along with countless other cosmetic issues made the home sit on the market long enough for us to
    make an offer and have it accepted. Thankfully, I am able to make the necessary repairs, and will soon have a home worth three to four times what we paid for it.
    But, I do agree with you. This area is slowly becoming an area for "Big-Money" folks, and for those hard working Americans that call it home who have lived here for generations, they can end up being priced out of their homeland by rising taxes, and cost of living increases brought about by people none of the locals want here in the first place.
    Great article!!

    posted by Steve

    Monday, 05/22/2023

  • Truer words never spoken! Reminds me of northern carpetbaggers in times past but now days they seem to be coming from Florida!

    posted by Mary

    Sunday, 05/21/2023

  • I really enjoyed your article!!!

    posted by Jan Jacobson

    Saturday, 05/20/2023

  • All this sickens me. ..the self centered vultures swoop down and destroy communities. ...we on Lake Champlain have just witnessed too. A Texas concern has just purchased prime property on the Lake ..to now destroy this little city. .and it goes...

    posted by Kathy Woodward

    Thursday, 05/18/2023

  • Your article is spot on--and trust me, it's coming to WNC, it already has. I could not afford to live there any more and was forced to move after I got sick last year. Never thought it would be this crazy --but it is. Basically there is no longer a middle class left. And that's sad.

    posted by Robert G Plott

    Wednesday, 05/17/2023

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.