by Jim Schuessler, Executive Director, Door County Economic Development Corporation
Door County’s local housing shortfall – particularly for both “workforce” and “seniors” – has been well documented.
Another housing crisis, not as loudly discussed, is the growing need for seasonal housing, especially during the busiest portions of the tourism season. What has caused this to become a growing crisis?
Twenty years ago, many local hospitality jobs went to high school students who were enrolled in area school districts. Those students, naturally, lived with their families, so housing was really not an issue. Often they even worked more than one job: cleaning rooms at resorts in the morning, then waiting on tables, bussing or washing dishes at restaurants in the evening.
Twenty years later, enrollment has declined – a fact that’s evident when evaluating the enrollment trends of Door County’s four mainland school districts.
While enrollment has been declining, Door County’s diverse hospitality industry has been growing, successfully drawing in millions of visitors to this beautiful peninsula. Business-boosting entities such as the Door County Visitor Bureau and community-specific organizations have also helped to grow our county’s “shoulder seasons,” enhancing the economy before and after the main summer season.
In short, the need for labor has intensified, yet the traditional availability of young local talent has declined.
It’s no surprise then that the number of J-1 Visa workers grows every year.
As dramatic as Door County’s need is for both workforce and senior apartments and owner-occupied homes, the availability of safe, affordable accommodations for seasonal workers has not grown much either.
There have been some steps toward solving the seasonal housing crisis. In both the Villages of Egg Harbor and Sister Bay, motels have been purchased and converted to J-1 housing. Some progress has been made elsewhere in the county as well, including new construction.
These great efforts add up to dozens of seasonal beds, however, not the hundreds currently needed. The sum of these combined investments simply does not move the meter enough to address the overall seasonal need, as defined in the Door County Housing Analysis released in the spring.
Door County needs hundreds of seasonal beds to meet the demand of local businesses. In some cases, seasonal workers are reportedly forced to choose living conditions that could be considered unsafe.
Seasonal workers are guests in our county, and they provide vital services to many businesses countywide. The way they are treated and their temporary living conditions create perceptions of our county – and our nation – that J-1 workers take back home with them upon the expiration of their visa.
We need to ensure that we are providing an adequate amount of safe, economical lodging during seasonal workers’ time in Door County.