Community September 14, 2009
Who Can Save Ketchum?
An evolving town races to define itself

Thirty-year-old general contractor Carter Ramsay is a modern-day pioneer. The North Carolina native moved to the West in 2002 with little more than his pieced-together diesel pickup and a yen for the mountains. He landed in Ketchum and learned to ski. He married his girlfriend, Margot, and the couple pondered their future. They thought of moving back to the South. He had thoughts of medical school, she of nursing. But they decided to stay in Ketchum, to make a go of it in central Idaho. Today, the Ramsays want the simple things—good friends, a sturdy house, and stable careers to support the lives they chose.

At six-foot-two, Ramsay is a big man. With an unruly mane and bushy brown beard, he looks even larger standing in the Ramsay Solutions office, a ten-by-fifteen-foot walk-up on Ketchum’s Fourth Street. The room is directly above Perry’s, a popular breakfast and lunch spot, and every morning the sweet smell of fresh chocolate chip cookies fills the air.

“If we leave the Valley, it will be because we have to, not because we want to.” — Carter Ramsay

Carter Ramsay is unsure whether he can forge a successful business and life in the Wood River Valley.Ramsay is a fourth-generation builder. His great-grandfather was a surveyor. His father and grandfather were architects. In Ketchum, Ramsay is passionate about his work. Caught in his office late one Friday evening, when most of his peers were either throwing back the first of the weekend’s beers or heading into the mountains on camping trips, he explained his work ethic in terms of ownership: “My name is on the door,” he said.

Ramsay Solutions is a young business, but it has grown quickly. Ramsay has pursued work doggedly, going so far as calling or e-mailing former Sun Valley Company General Manager Wally Huffman every week for more than twenty weeks to place a bid on the resort’s upcoming River Run construction projects. In early September, he was still waiting for a return call. Ramsay said he would build anything that might help his business grow, and he recently secured a bid with Cox, the Omaha-based cable giant, to construct desks for their Ketchum offices.

So far, the scale of Ramsay’s projects has not matched his ambition. He desperately wants to contribute to and benefit from the resort town’s evolving economy. He and Margot want to feel settled, woven into a sturdy community fabric. But in Ketchum, a town in the throes of a volatile identity crisis, Ramsay’s aspirations seem increasingly out of reach.

Since its founding in 1880 by a handful of miners, Ketchum has long attracted an enterprising type of character. Cagey, self-made men were common then and after, when the town morphed into a major sheepherding hub. Evolving through the Union Pacific years and the birth of the star-dusted Sun Valley Resort, Ketchum awarded hungry self-starters—men like Ed Scott, founder of Scott USA and inventor of the aluminum ski pole, and Warren Miller, who launched his storied ski-filming career from a trailer behind his Buick in the River Run parking lot.

As it grew, the town’s isolation was both blessing and curse. Through the end of the twentieth century, more accessible Western ski towns evolved in a hurry. In Park City, Utah, development spread across the rolling, sage-covered hillsides. In Summit County, Colorado, base-area “villages” rose in a blink. But in central Idaho, the Sun Valley Resort changed ownership just three times in seventy years.

The Wood River Valley was a good place for people who didn’t like change. A live-and-let-live attitude took hold, and the community drew an eclectic mix: young ski bums, wealthy hermits, nature fanatics, old ski bums, health gurus, writers, artists and big-city refugees. Locals called the place Ketchum U, an imaginary college town safe from Real World pressures.

Then in a way that seemed both slow and all-at-once, things changed. It was during those years when the West became the New West, when sushi was no longer a luxury. Families moved to Hailey. The mining shacks went down and the galleries went up. The demographics flipped, and the banks opened. On any given Friday night, people walked out of the Pioneer Saloon to an eerie quiet on Main Street.

And so the question, “What is happening to Ketchum?” arises today with startling regularity. Through the steam rising from mugs in Valley coffee shops, across the umbrella-shaded tables of summer barbecues, locals fret and whine. To those who call Ketchum home, uncertainty about their town’s future has become the norm.

Such navel-gazing hasn’t produced many solutions. Instead, a powerful inertia seems to be dragging one of America’s classic ski towns toward a collectively unwanted end—a shut-off enclave, where no middle class can thrive, devoid of youthful vigor, dying on a gilded vine. >>>

 

 

In today’s interconnected America, Ketchum is an island no longer. The issues that shape local development have been handed down by larger national trends. The story is by now familiar. In the past fifteen years, a surging economy (and an all-consuming housing bubble) generated unprecedented wealth, and the Valley’s second homes grew in both number and scale. People still come to Ketchum to get away from it all. They just stay in mansions when they do.

Through the changes, few complained. A boomtown by nature, Ketchum knew what to do with a sudden influx of cash. Local developers, builders, architects, real estate agents, interior designers—i.e., the local economy—were keen to the windfall. By 2006, when a 10,000-square-foot mansion north of Ketchum was, relatively speaking, not that big, the average home price in the area had reached $2.4 million.

Twenty-one years after moving to Ketchum, George Kirk thinks that his town no longer attracts  young people. “If there’s nobody behind me,” he said, “then what, I’m the last dinosaur?”George Kirk thinks he has a solution. He wants a more sustainable, year-round community of full-time residents. His vision centers on high-density development. Smaller homes on smaller plots will lower housing prices, which in turn will entice young families and small businesses to move in.

“What’s the largest impediment to affordable housing?” Kirk asked. “It’s the high cost of land.” Decrease the space between them and home prices will drop, triggering a domino effect of common-good.

Kirk moved to central Idaho from San Diego in 1988, and in 1997 he founded The Kirk Group, a real estate investment and development company. He has since been the lead developer on a number of prominent commercial and business projects, including the Smith Optics building on Lewis Street in Ketchum and the Airport West business park in Hailey.

For the developers, builders and architects who believe in the restorative effects of high-density building (and their numbers are legion), the obstacles go beyond prohibitive pricing. Despite his established record of success, several of Kirk’s community-minded efforts have floundered. Even when land can be secured, sound proposals have caved under a barrage of pressures. As Kirk sees it, interests seemingly at odds—environmental, political, social and economic—conspire to obstruct fresh ideas.

“There is a political contingent in our community that the simple word ‘development’ scares tremendously,” Kirk said. “It makes them really, really, really afraid. And that political contingent has done very well in creating enough doubt in the minds of elected officials that oftentimes they simply won’t render a decision.”

Channeling his inner councilman, Kirk ponders the quandary: “If we allow this kind of density in one place, then are there going to be negative impacts that we wish we hadn’t made to legitimate things like water, wildlife, wetlands, hillsides?”

While Kirk agrees that wildlife and water issues are vital to the Valley’s character, he worries that some decisions value environmental preservation to the detriment of the human community.
He has submitted several proposals that resulted in lengthy litigation. A development just south of Ketchum, near St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center, was tied up in Idaho courtrooms for four years, until spring 2009. At the end of such battles, with money and energy diverted, developers’ options can range from bad to worse. Many, Kirk conceded, settle on something, anything, simply to make a living.

Kirk said that what keeps him going are the young people still working to live in the Valley. When he moved there in 1990, the majority of the town’s workers lived in Ketchum. “Now it’s only 12 percent,” he said, citing a 2006 Blaine County Housing Authority study. “Sure, I have a great business, a family, a home. It’s easy for people to say, ‘What are you bitching about?’ But I think we have lost the young people. I think we lost me twenty years ago. I think we’ve lost Carter [Ramsay], and I think that is a shame.”

While Kirk is acutely concerned with the exodus of the young, others point to Ketchum’s stagnant tourist trade as greater cause for worry. To these town elders, hotels are the answer.

In the past four years, large-scale luxury hotel projects have gained considerable traction. In early 2008, Lisa Horowitz, Ketchum’s community and economic development director, said there had

“been a change in the political and community climate.” There was, she said, “a recognition of a need” for the hotels (Idaho Mountain Express, Feb. 15, 2008). Within just over a year, the Ketchum City Council followed the Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendations and approved plans for three major hotels.

In scope and number, the projects are ambitious and, according to John Sofro, wise. Sofro is a real estate broker and co-founder of the Wood River Economic Partnership, a conglomerate of business owners and residents who lobby on behalf of development.

Sofro is more than just business-oriented. He is heavily involved in Ketchum’s cultural and social worlds. He sits on the boards of the nexStage Theatre and the Sun Valley Wellness Festival. He co-founded the Ketchum Events Planning Committee, a group on a mission “to create a fun and festive atmosphere in the north-Valley.” They promote the popular Ketchum Wide Open miniature golf tournament and various holiday street parties. On his own, Sofro has hosted nightlife events like the Plaza Night Concert Series and the Club 511 parties.

Interests seemingly at odds—evironmental, political, social and economic—conspire to obstruct fresh ideas.

His efforts have not been in vain. Since Ketchum lost its largest nightclub and live-music venue, Whiskey Jacques’, to a September, 2008 fire, social planners have surged to fill the void. For Sofro, an active social world is “what makes a community whole, what makes a community vibrant and vital.”

When it comes to development, he is focused on tourism. “In the last 15 years, most, if not all, of our development was centered on second homes. Based on the amount of time second-home owners spend here—which isn’t much—their presence here alone is not enough to sustain our economy.”

Sofro believes hotels will help reverse the trend. In the jargon of developers and city planners, the key is “hotbeds,” rooms with high turnover that promise a more consistent return than empty mansions. Hotels will open the valve for a steady stream of visitors pouring through a perpetually revolving door. Plus, today’s visitors could be tomorrow’s residents.

Ketchum’s sudden embrace of the hotel mantra has not been timid. The proposed construction is, in fact, unprecedented. The largest of them is the Warm Springs Ranch Resort, a sprawling development centered on a 418,245-square-foot hotel, which would be among the largest in Idaho. To give this number some scale, picture the Cabela’s outdoor retail store in Boise (a former CostCo building)—you could fit three Cabela’s inside the construction slated for Warm Springs Road. Locally speaking, the hotel will be more than 700 percent larger than the Wood River YMCA, one of the biggest buildings in Ketchum.

“That’s a substantial amount of square footage to do in one fell swoop,” said Jennifer Gilliland, buildings division manager for the city of Boise. “For our state, no matter what jurisdiction, that is a good, healthy size project.”

Local architect and former Sun Valley Planning and Zoning commissioner Mark Pynn sees it in starker terms. “I think it’s a mega-structure,” he said.

But Sofro is all in. “There has been no more vocal and outspoken person in support of that project than myself.”

Warm Springs Ranch Resort is the largest of Ketchum’s looming projects, but its projected peers are not meek. Main Street’s Bald Mountain Lodge would be 225,700 square feet, or a little more than twice the size of the Sun Valley Lodge. The Hotel Ketchum (also on Main Street) and the Ketchum Lodge (adjacent to the post office) were submitted at 148,000 and 173,000 square feet, respectively.

All told, the four projects could reach 1.27 million square feet, create 345 hotel rooms, cost over $700 million, and be under construction for the next six years. Factor in the much-anticipated Sun Valley resort hotel at the River Run base area, and Ketchum could witness what would be among the largest building sprees at any one time, in any one place, in Idaho history.

DDRM, the Park City developer behind the Warm Springs Ranch Resort, estimates their project would create an annual city tax revenue of $4.1 million and $389 million in retail sales in a fifteen-year period. The promises are intoxicating, especially to budget-strapped cities eager to fund public projects that will serve both tourists and residents alike. >>>

 

 

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall said that smaller hotels are a thing of the past. “There are no more boutique hotels that are viable anywhere in the world,” he said. They need to have several hundred rooms before they can financially pencil out.” Hall has faced criticism for approving so many large projects at once, but stands firm in his support.

Editorials in the Idaho Mountain Express—the dominant media voice in the Valley and throughout central Idaho—have echoed similar sentiments. A Sept. 12, 2008 editorial said, “The valley’s economic future is tied in large part to development of new luxury hotels in the north county.”

“In order to save this community, these are the kinds of decisions the city council has to make.” — Randy Hall

Despite DDRM’s considerable plans for workforce housing at Warm Springs, Michelle Griffith, executive director of ARCH Community Housing Trust, a Ketchum-based organization devoted to providing affordable housing in the Valley, is concerned. “If it makes sense to have a hotel from an economic perspective, we should have a hotel,” she said. But noting the already high numbers of service employees driving fifty-five or eighty miles from Shoshone and Twin Falls to Ketchum, Griffith fears that hotel jobs could exacerbate the Valley’s demographic woes. “We don’t want every worker to be driving miles from Shoshone in order to staff the front desk or prepare the meals,” she said.

Watching the politics come down, some local residents felt like spectators to a pivotal moment that may permanently alter their community.

“The city just sold out to the developers,” said Pynn. “I really think we need hotels. But I think you need to hold [Ketchum City Council’s] feet to the fire to build quality, not quantity. The city council and the mayor just rolled over to get development in here.”

Mayor Hall understands the fear of change, but fears that doing nothing would be worse. He agrees with the historic view—“We are a resort and we need to act like one”—and stands by his decisions.

“I think people are reacting emotionally to a change in their community,” Hall said. “In order to save this community, these are the kinds of decisions the city council has to make."

“We are beginning to look at our community in a different way than ever before,” said John Sofro. “To the extent that the economic  vitality of this community is being addressed—albeit slowly—I believe Ketchum is on the brink of a renaissance.” Compared to the choked suburbs of Southern California or the metropolitan East, developers can be forgiven for seeing Blaine County as something of a blank canvas. Three years ago, a group headed by Kirk and Bob Kantor explored building an entirely new town south of U.S. Highway 20, in a patch of desolate scrub and sage. They called it Spring Creek.

After the group hired consultants from the renowned Urban Land Institute (ULI) to assess the concept’s value, ULI came back with more questions than answers. Spring Creek could be built (those were the heady days of the housing boom, after all), but was not advised before the community established a cogent vision and concrete plans for its economic, transportation, energy and housing needs.

Spring Creek was put on the shelf, but the ULI study and the questions it raised led directly to the formation of Sustain Blaine, an inclusive nonprofit committed to the health and survival of the Wood River Valley. Among its first actions, Sustain Blaine hired yet another consulting firm, TIP Strategies of Austin, Texas, to help answer the questions inherited from ULI.

The endless parade of self-help consultants has typified Ketchum’s ongoing identity crisis. Like an adolescent trying out different hairstyles, the community leadership desperately seeks selfhood. Who are we? What are we doing? No one knows. Hire another consultant.

After their two-year study finished in July, TIP handed over its blueprint for survival. The Valley must maximize its original tourism draw, they said. The Sun Valley brand should be utilized to draw businesses, residents and tourists. Redevelop existing developments, but with higher densities and mixed uses. Balance the economy’s tourism base by attracting and retaining a year-round contingent of young professionals. And, while you’re at it, launch an educational institute, maybe in snow sports design or organic cuisine. 

Sustain Blaine is heeding the advice, or some of it, at least. Their five-year plan calls for yet another body to oversee and implement TIP’s prescribed changes. This organization, which might be an independent nonprofit or a county-wide development corporation, could be formed as early as October, 2009.

In 1993, Kirk had a vision for a high-density development on twenty-three acres just south of Ketchum, near St. Luke’s hospital. From inception, he envisioned Quail Creek as sensible, smaller-scale housing for working families, and in 1995 he proposed a county code amendment that would have allowed the property to be rezoned.

“That attempt was quickly and hastily dismissed,” he said. “Summarily dismissed.” Fourteen years later, the county caught up, and in 2005, county commissioners unanimously approved Quail Creek. Nearby homeowner Deane Johnson filed a lawsuit within weeks.

Johnson and his fellow Broadway Road neighbors filed sixty complaints treading the well-worn paths: traffic congestion, high-density building, water and sewer needs, etc.
Last spring, Johnson lost his final appeal on the case to the Idaho State Supreme Court, and in June, Blaine County re-approved Kirk’s fifteen-year-old idea.

A couple of weeks later, Carter Ramsay called George Kirk. The two had worked together on remodels in Ketchum and Hailey and had become friends over the course of several 6 a.m. mountain bike rides. For Ramsay, the call was well-timed. Kirk had a business opportunity he wanted to discuss.

Seven Quail Creek lots remained vacant. Kirk talked about how Clear Creek LLC (a development group he partially owned) could front Ramsay the cost of those plots and give him the opportunity to build there.

“He told me, ‘Take the dirt, I’m done,’” Ramsay said. “If I make a profit, all I have to do is pay George [Kirk] back the cost of the land.”

“And some share of the profit,” Kirk added. “This is not a Ramsay Solutions charity case.”

As of Labor Day, the deal remained hypothetical. “Like most things in real estate, this will take some time,” Kirk said.

Quail Creek could very well be what makes Ramsay. He could build the basis for a larger, future development. But in a shaky economy, Quail Creek is a gamble for both men.

Kirk’s bet on Ramsay is one part belief, one part business. “Carter [Ramsay] is hungry and that hunger brings innovation. And that is how cultures evolve,” said Kirk, whose faith in the youth is as much a local political statement as a full-blown anthropological thesis.

Kirk thinks the town has failed to attract young professionals in recent years. “If we stagnate that incubator, then the evolution of the species is stunted. If there’s nobody behind me, then what, I’m the last dinosaur? I see that as a sign of a decaying community,” Kirk said.

The truth is that the Wood River Valley is changing. “This notion of static, no change, that everything will remain the same, is a false notion. It will never exist anywhere. You are either growing or you’re dying,” Kirk said. If someone like Ramsay can’t make it here, then few young professionals will ever survive in the Wood River Valley.

For Kirk, it is ultimately a personal wish. “I would like to have an opportunity for my daughters to come back here, should they choose, to reenter our community and our culture and have an opportunity to make a living . . . one that isn’t necessarily working for Daddy.”

Full disclosure: Carter Ramsay is in talks to team up with Ketchum building designer Irwin Sentilles, brother of this article’s co-writer.

 
 

This article appears in the Fall 2009 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.