Tourism once saved Leavenworth; now it’s pricing out the locals

(The Center Square) – Tourism might have saved Leavenworth when it was a fleeting logging town in the 1960s, but now the industry is pricing out the locals who call the Bavarian-themed destination their home.

The alarms rang out last week after Mayor Carl Florea announced a new initiative in response to the area’s rising cost of living. He plans to host several community workshops this fall as part of a realignment process to ensure the future sustainability of Leavenworth. 

“Unlike the boarded-up buildings of the past, our current struggle lies in managing our newfound allure,” Florea said in the announcement. “We are no longer a town in decline; instead, we attract millions of visitors and potential residents.”

September’s workshops will consider what demographics Leavenworth will house in the future while also focusing on empowering local businesses and protecting the environment.

Florea said the goal is to strike a balance between prosperity and preservation. Residents will decide whether Leavenworth is a wealthy town full of retirees or a diverse mix of ages and incomes that welcomes small businesses and environmental stewardship. 

A shift toward the latter would undoubtedly affect the tourism-based economy, which attracted 3.6 million visitors in 2023, according to Leavenworth’s 2024 Economic & Visitor Profile. However, it could potentially bring down property values. 

Median property values in Leavenworth reached $494,600 in 2022, an almost 20% year-over-year increase; meanwhile, the city’s median household income only grew 8.3% to just over $66,000, according to DataUSA

Comparatively, median property values in Chelan County, which encompasses Leavenworth, reached $412,000 in 2022, about 16.5% cheaper than in the Bavarian-themed town. The county’s median household income was also 8.8% higher at just under $72,000, according to DataUSA. 

“Leavenworth’s economic engine is now speeding towards becoming a runaway train. Ironically, what saved us then endangers us now,” Florea continued. “Let us remember that our economic engine exists to nourish and fortify our community, not overshadow it.”

The destination’s popularity has only grown since the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, with 13 of the 20 busiest days since then happening last year. Additionally, the accommodation and food industry comprised the largest sector of Leavenworth’s workforce, with retail sales just behind. 

If Leavenworth fails to strike the balance that Florea hopes to reach, its roughly 2,500 residents and the millions of tourists who visit the 1.25-square-mile town every year will likely feel the impact. 

Florea said the workshops will take place on September 9, 16 and 23 before another meeting is held on Oct. 14 to consolidate the input and determine a path forward. 

“These revisioning sessions are not about dwelling on the ‘how it used to be’ or getting caught up in a cycle of current criticisms,” He said in the announcement. “It’s about creative problem-solving — finding a way to preserve what we value as we embrace a new, different future.”