As economy sputters, some  turn to Airbnb for extra $

Shea Lehnen admires a vintage U.S. map that hangs above the bed in the two-bedroom cottage she recently listed on Airbnb.

A vintage map of the United States from 1919 hangs over the bed. Antique World War II trunks that belonged to a previous owner are strategically placed around the room.

Toward the doorway, on your left, a row of old car license plates from Western states and a smattering from other locations in the U.S. are fastened to the wall. Even more plates adorn the living room of this cute two-bedroom cottage in Douglas. They are a great conversation starter for visitors.

This is not a new house for sale on the market. It’s actually one of a handful of homes in town that are available for short-term stays on the online rental sites Airbnb and Vrbo.

“It’s in the historic area of Douglas, near downtown, and it has been in the family for 70 years,” said Shea Lehnen, a manager at Peak Fitness, who just recently started listing the property on Airbnb.

She’s thinking about starting the rates at around $85 per night.

East-central Wyoming is not known for being a tourist mecca like Yellowstone or the Black Hills, though it is a decent day’s drive from both, and the Airbnb phenomenon that has been strong elsewhere for a decade hadn’t really caught on here, probably because of the strong energy economy. But as that economy – based mostly on coal, oil/gas, uranium – has taken big hits in all those areas this year, some are finding solace in short-term private rentals.

In recent months, the city has received a growing number of permit applications. Some say they are finding there are plenty of people in other parts of the country interested in booking the Airbnbs for various types of trips and travel needs.

The owners and managers of the rentals say they provide an extra source of income during uncertain economic times.

Several of the listings on Airbnb were just made available to rent earlier this year.

The rentals on Airbnb typically list for at least $100 per night and go up from there. Most are entire single-family homes that are available to rent, with the owner living somewhere nearby.

There is even a 2-bedroom, 5-bed, 1-bathroom farm available just outside town.

The Koss Agency also manages two different Airbnb properties. One of them was popular with energy workers earlier in the year before the oil bust, though it still attracts hunters this fall, office manager and property manager Michael Maher said.

“It’s nearly always rented,” she said.

The other, a single-family home owned by agent and broker Kara Koss, has attracted a motley crew of hunters, couples, a group of women across Wyoming having a girl’s weekend, and a 4-H director during the Wyoming State Fair.

Rancher Connie Werner, meanwhile, said she enjoys the flexibility on Airbnb that allows her to rent her 4-bedroom house in town when it makes sense for her schedule. She lives on a commercial cattle ranch more than 30 miles north of town and often uses the house as a home base for her family during the school year, when she is not renting it.

“I have the freedom to rent it when I want to,” she said.

Most of her bookings are also hunters and people visiting family in town, although she said she was getting more reservations before the oil bust.

So the economic downturn and the pandemic do seem to be putting a dent in at least some owners’ bookings.

Quentin Toone started listing a single-family home earlier this year, but bookings dried up after the virus hit.

“It was not a very good run,” he said. The few people who did make reservations were hunters and oil field workers. He was renting it for $70-$100 per night.

The property is now rented through a standard longer-term rental lease.

The major hotel chains in Douglas do not seem to have any issues with the short-term rentals on Airbnb and Vrbo. Managers at most of the hotels said they do not see the sites as competing with them at all.

“They have no affect on our hotel, which is consistently full, and a high-occupancy hotel,” Hampton Inn & Suites general manager Lori Moore said.

Bill Kalar, general manager at the Hotel Labonte, said he saw Airbnbs as “a good thing,” partly because they serve a different type of customer with different expectations than those who might be staying at the historic hotel.

Douglas residents who decide to list property on one of the short-term rental sites are required to fill out a conditional use permit with the town, primarily for tracking purposes. That permitting process does not apply to rural properties outside the city limits.

The permit process allows nearby property owners to be aware of the rentals and enables the city to track their use and provide information to emergency management if needed, Douglas Community Development Director Clara Chaffin said.

And, while this is not currently an issue in Douglas, she said, the permit process enables the city to combat any negative issues that might arise if a large enough number of owners decide to rent their properties, but they live elsewhere.

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