Ketchum, Idaho: a five-star dilemma

A proposed luxury hotel would be the first in a tourist town where high-class lodging is in short supply and not much else is happening in a slumping economy. But some fear it could drive a stake in the tumbledown vibe the old ski town has managed to hold onto.
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A big luxury resort planned for Ketchum, Idaho. (DDRM Companies)

A proposed luxury hotel would be the first in a tourist town where high-class lodging is in short supply and not much else is happening in a slumping economy. But some fear it could drive a stake in the tumbledown vibe the old ski town has managed to hold onto.

Editor's note: This is an installment of a five-part series at New West in which David Frey travels the West in search of the "Next Aspen."

A pageant of Western small-town politics plays out in front of the American flag draped across the American Legion hall. Center stage are the developers: the savvy investor, the respected local architect with solid green credentials. Their backdrop, a series of slick poster boards outlining plans to convert 77 acres on the edge of Ketchum, Idaho, from a defunct golf course into a five-star hotel and housing development.

Stage left sit the planning and zoning commissioners, who moved the meeting from City Hall to this wood-paneled meeting room to allow for over 100 town residents to fill the space to standing-room only. Audience members take their turn to speak, one by one. They are, like the town itself, split down the middle on the project.

I am driving across the Rockies in search of the "next Aspen," whatever that means. "Aspenization" is seen as either a blessing or a curse in ski towns. Ketchum, it's both.

Pam Colesworthy confesses she's on the fence. "Change happens," she says. "We can either wither and die - and that is change. Or we can say we want to revive and become the hip, cool Ketchum we remember."

This town of 3,226 has suffered the woes of resort towns without enjoying the economic boom. Climbing real estate prices have driven many of the town's workers south, to places like Hailey, 12 miles away, where an estimated 80 percent of Ketchum's workers live. Some, mostly immigrant workers, including many from South America, bus 1½ hours each way from Twin Falls.

Well-heeled part-timers have made Ketchum their getaway. Tom Hanks. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry. California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. Las Vegas casino developer Steve Wynn.

Still, this town at the foot of the Sun Valley resort has avoided much of the glitz that has defined other resorts. It clings to a funky, middle-of-nowhere quality that attracted many here in the first place. Main Street still hosts locals' watering holes and homey bookstores, not oxygen bars or fur shops. You won't find a McDonald's or a Gap. Besides the downtown Starbucks - which many locals avoided for years out of principle - major chains are just about nonexistent.

Some fear the proposed hotel - 90 feet tall and swanky - could drive a stake in the tumbledown vibe this old ski town has managed to hold onto, despite soaring property values and a bevy of super-wealthy newcomers. Without it, they worry, this town could continue an economic slump it has suffered despite those high property values and high-dollar residents, or perhaps, because of them.

The proposed five-star hotel would be the first in a tourist town where high-class lodging is in short supply. Some lodges still hang on to the kitchy Swiss chalet themes many resort towns shed long ago.

"I just don't think Sun Valley has kept up with the times," says business consultant Jima Rice.

Many Ketchum residents are fierce defenders of the town's quirky character. But they're worried. The town's boom days seem to have passed. Real estate sales are sagging. Business is off. "Slack," as the town's off-season is known, didn't seem so slack for about a decade since the late 1980s. But now, Slack seems to be slacker. Tourists aren't here, and locals have moved out of town.

Sales have risen and fallen over the last five years. This past year they took a dive, a problem locals blame in part on a devasating summer of wildfires, and in part on absentee homeowners.

"There's a lot of dark houses this time of year," says Tom Nickel, owner of two Main Street restaurant mainstays, The Roosevelt and The Sawtooth Club.

Many in town repeat the same phrase. Neighborhoods once filled with locals sit quiet waiting for second-homeowners to show. The average home in 2006 sold for $2.4 million. A 2006 study found a need for 1,200 affordable housing units in Blaine County, a number likely to nearly double by 2010.

"How can you lure college-age employees when there's nowhere for them to stay?" asks Bronwyn Patterson, public relations manager for the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber, who came as a recent college grad herself and stayed put.

In some ways Ketchum has the problems many resort towns wish they had. Plenty of boom towns caught in a whirlwind of development would love to complain about an economic slowdown. It's a rare resort town where longtimers say no, things haven't really changed all that much. They do in Ketchum, where sheep drives still send herds through town every spring and fall.

Ketchum hasn't sold its soul to Gucci, or even Eddie Bauer. When the Pioneer Saloon slashes its menu back to 1970s prices each November for Pio Days, "a 3-night salute to the good old days," the Main Street bar fills with young people, and it's easy to feel, for a moment, like those days never ended.

"We need the Realtors to have a Pio Days," one local grumbles at Grumpy's, a 29-year-old burger joint that serves up giant mugs of beer and a laidback locals' spirit while snowboarders and surfers show off on TV.

Dropped down in the wilds of central Idaho, between Twin Falls' deserts and Stanley's jagged Sawtooth skyline, Ketchum feels like a world apart. Rivers and mountain ridges surround it and seem to protect it. A sense of history permeates the place. Created in 1935, Sun Valley was the nation's first major ski resort, and black-and-white photos of bygone celebrity visitors like Lucille Ball and Louis Armstrong hang in the halls of the historic resort lodge. This was Ernest Hemingway's last home before he killed himself in 1961, and I can't avoid the sense that his presence still lingers here.

Here, at least, he had mountains and a good river below his house; he could live among rugged, non-political people and visit, when he chose to, with a few of his famous friends who came up to Sun Valley. He could sit in The Tram or The Alpine or The Sawtooth Club and talk with men who felt the same way he did about life, even if they were not so articulate. In this congenial atmosphere he felt he could get away from the pressures of a world gone mad ...

Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson wrote those words about Hemingway in his book The Great Shark Hunt, and they hang in the bar at The Sawtooth Club, where they sum up why many more than Hemingway have come here.

"It's funny," says Dick Dorworth, a veteran ski journalist and author who reports for the local newspaper, the Idaho Mountain Express. "On a powder morning you go down to the lift lines at 9 in the morning and you'll see all the professionals in line. Which is part of why it's good here. A lot of people live here for the reasons that I live here."

In the hubbub of bustling resort towns, it's hard to find shops that close for powder days anymore. Not so in Ketchum, says Dorworth, who has lived in Ketchum off and on for the last 45 years. His most recent stint started 16 years ago, drawn back by great skiing and an off-the-map quality that has helped preserve its laidback character.

"I'm not sure it suits everyone, but it suits me," Dorworth says. "It's still the kind of place that, 10 minutes from downtown in any direction you're in the backcountry. That's pretty cool."

With business souring, though, many in town worry Ketchum can't afford to be so laid back anymore. Jan Hegewald, 28, bagged law school for resort town life. He is bar manager at Cavallino, a dimly-lit bar with Italian posters on the wall and ska on the stereo - one of the hipper spots in a town that has resisted hipness. But he worries young people aren't coming like they used to, and those that do can't afford to stay.

"It's a give-and-take," Hegewald says. "You give up the small, I guess remote, mountain town atmosphere. No lift lines. Powder for weeks after a storm. But you gain a revitalized economy."

Is a five-star hotel the answer? It's a question Nickel, the restaurateur, struggles with. When friends asked him to endorse the hotel development, Nickel wrestled with the question, then put down his pen. A hotel project would probably be a shot in the arm for Ketchum, he says. But is this one the right one?

"I've come to believe that what's good for me is not necessarily good for Ketchum," says Nickel, a thoughtful, soft-spoken man. Seated in the plush chairs at the front of The Roosevelt, below the giant trophy head of the eponymous elk on the wall, his voice fits the restaurant's clubby atmosphere. "But what's good for Ketchum is always, 100 percent of the time, what's good for me."

Locals do worry about becoming the next Aspen, he says. For some, there's a mantra: "Let's make sure Aspen remains nothing more than the name of a tree." They want to see Ketchum keep its character, even as more and more super-wealthy call it their second, or third, or fourth home.

Is he worried about Ketchum losing its character? Yes, he says. Then he changes his mind.

"I just don't see it happening," he says. Too many people are too committed to preserving Ketchum's character to see it "sold down the river," he says.

"Even when this place is built out, it's still, relatively speaking, going to be a little town in the mountains where right outside your back door you can fish or ski or jump on the back of your horse," he says.


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