Sun Valley Mayor Wayne Willich has an imaginary friend who lives in Germany.
"He lives in Hamburg," Willich specified, "where Lufthansa is headquartered." The man works for the airline and can fly his family anywhere for free. He and his wife have a 15-year-old son and a 12-year-old daughter. Some of the couple's friends (also imaginary) advised them to go see Yellowstone National Park in America.
"The man's wife gets on her laptop to check out where to stay," Willich said, filling in his dreamscape. "They can stay in Montana, or maybe in Jackson, Wyo. But Sun Valley is just over here," he said, gesturing with imagined amazement. "How do we get them to know that Sun Valley is here?"
The fantasy gets right at the core of his town's woes. According to Ketchum-based Idaho Mountain Express, sales revenues have fallen by 35 percent in Ketchum and 23 percent in Sun Valley over the past 10 years. If the towns can't draw those Germans to the area--with unlimited Lufthansa miles no less--how will it attract the New Yorkers, Floridians and Texans looking for their next vacation?
Willich is a former marketing director for Boeing, and from near the beginning of his mayoral term in 2008, he saw a lack of a strategic, coherent marketing plan for Sun Valley. Without it, he feared the continued demise of the oldest ski town in America. But rather than fretting, Willich decided to take action. In the spring of 2008, he attended a Sun Valley-Ketchum Chamber and Visitors Bureau board meeting and delivered a bold message. His city was giving the chamber $330,000 annually, and his taxpaying constituents weren't getting their money's worth.
"Being a tell-it-like-it-is guy, I said 'This isn't working for us,'" he recalled.
Willich, 71, has silvery white hair and a ready, gleaming smile to match. As mayor of one of the richest enclaves in America, it seems fitting that he bears a more-than-passing resemblance to Ted Knight's Judge Smails character from Caddyshack. But Willich is no dandy. He grew up on the south side of Chicago--"near the steel mills"--and hasn't lost the sharp vowels of the upper industrial Midwest. Long before he even knew where Idaho was, he earned an aero-engineering degree from Purdue University that helped launch his Boeing career. These days, strolling through the Sun Valley Village in a billowy Hawaiian shirt, he is egregiously friendly, shaking hands and chatting indiscriminately. He also carries the no-bullshit confidence of a self-made man, and has no illusions about his sometimes-gruff manner or the enmity it has earned him.
The day he spoke at the board meeting, his intentions were complex. He shared the board's end goals but not their means of getting there.
"I'd like to see all business people in the city of Ketchum become blindingly wealthy, with enough money running through the streets that they are stuffing $1,000 bills in their pockets," he said. "But with the approach the chamber was taking, I thought there was zero chance that would happen. [chamber members] were, if anything, just dinking around and not getting the job done."
The board members heard him that day, but Willich doesn't think they really listened.
"They took it as verbal abuse, which it probably was." Afterward, the chamber "went back to business as usual," he said, while he moved forward on plans to comprehensively restructure the area's marketing efforts. After Bob Youngman, a Sun Valley city councilman, published a report in early 2010 on just how bad the economic outlook was for the area, Willich went public with his plans. He proposed drastic funding cuts to the chamber--from $320,000 to $60,000 annually--and reallocating that money to either an outside marketing firm or a new independent marketing committee. Unspoken at the time were the jobs that would be eliminated, including that of Carol Waller, the 2009 president of the Western Association of Convention and Visitors Bureaus and the executive director of the SVKCVB for 13 years.
On Aug. 25, after a summer of tension and uncertainty about her organization, Waller announced her resignation, or as she put it: "My position has been eliminated."
In Waller's former office, she had a framed print by the veteran Sun Valley photographer Steve Snyder. The image shows two ferocious dogs held back by chains as they try to attack a cat sitting on a fence post. The dogs are mere inches away, but the cat just gazes back calmly. On the glass covering the photo, someone had written in marker, "Be the cat."
As the fight evolved over how Sun Valley is marketed and who should be paid to do the marketing, a constant theme was the unstated but implied charge that the SVKCVB and, by extension, Waller herself, had failed. They were, as Willich said, "dinking around."
In her final days at the soon-to-be dismantled organization, Waller defended her record.
"I'm very proud of all the things that we accomplished," she said with the tired resignation of someone recently thrown beneath a very large bus. She pointed out several contributing factors to the area's slide: declining local sales tax receipts, recent budget cuts, and perhaps worst of all, the loss of more than 200 hotel rooms after two decades of steady attrition in hotels and bed and breakfasts.
"The Kentwood [Best Western] is the newest property built in Sun Valley, and that was 16 years ago," she said.
Against these odds, Waller holds up a steady record of area-promotion, largely through the development of festivals. There have been big-ticket successes like the Trailing of the Sheep and the Ernest Hemingway Symposium. Under Waller's direction, the chamber developed the popular Ketch'em Alive summer concert series and creative events like the Ketchum Wide Open mini-golf tournament (and bar crawl). Indeed, life in Ketchum in recent years has been increasingly defined by a non-stop parade of festivals and events. Some were successful, others not so much. Some were poorly attended, and at least one event planned last year, the Winter SOLfest, didn't happen at all. To the chamber's detractors, the relentless planning of festival upon festival lacked strategy and, at times, seemed desperate.
Behind the shrill noise and jangled nerves of the marketing overhaul, a not-so-figurative clock has been ticking toward a more urgent problem: How to celebrate Sun Valley's 75th anniversary season this winter? Area newspapers and magazines plan to commemorate the milestone. Before her unceremonious departure, Waller was meeting with the Sun Valley Company to organize complementary celebrations in Ketchum. With Waller gone, and her chamber gutted, plans to mark the 75th are uncertain.
Willich is "praying that the [Sun Valley] Company has got stuff to unravel that is absolutely wonderful." No one can claim that the anniversary caught them unaware, Willich said. "Five years ago, at the 70th anniversary, we all knew this was coming."
In all of this anniversary talk, there is one confusing factor: Sun Valley opened for business 74 years ago this winter, not 75.
"This December we will enter into our 75th season," said Jack Sibbach, director of marketing for Sun Valley Company. A recent company press release noted that, "As fall approaches, Sun Valley Resort prepares for its landmark 75th winter season celebration."
So what does the fuzzy math mean for next year, the actual anniversary?
"Next year?" Sibbach said. "That just might be a birthday party."
In June, the Mountain Express ran three editorials devoted to the "smashup" at the chamber. "Don't scapegoat the chamber," one editorial said, noting that, "Remodeling a house usually doesn't start with the destruction of the house."
At the time of this finger-wagging, Willich was on a roll. He had the backing of his own city council as well as the mayor and council in Ketchum, which was poised to cut its own $400,000 of chamber funds. The funds would be pooled and redirected to the new committee, which by this point even had a name: Sun Valley Resort Area Marketing Inc.
As for the editorials, Willich was not averse to the fight.
"The only way I can get published in the paper is if I make boorish, insensitive remarks. Then they put me on the front page," he said, referencing the July 30 front-page story in which he made a doozer: "The bottom line is we got the dough, and we're going to make the rules," he said. "My advice to them [the chamber] is to play along and play nicely. And we'll all come out of this."
Several local business owners were not encouraged by the prospect of so much change happening so fast in uncertain times. In the same story, the Express quoted a dissatisfied Bob Rosso, owner of the Elephant's Perch outdoor shop. The chamber, Rosso told the Express, had been labeled as "an evil empire."
Two weeks later, Willich hit a snag. Jim Knight, the acting chair of SVRAMI, resigned, citing the burdensome time-commitment. Willich found a replacement and moved quickly to fill the remaining posts with representatives from both towns and the Sun Valley Company. Tim Silva, the widely admired new general manager at the resort, filled the Sun Valley Company seat. The final at-large seat was filled by Zach Crist, a former X-Games Champion who, at age 37, brought some youthful street cred.
Crist said that SVRAMI's objectives are: "More people, spending more days here, spending more money." But before they are ready to start wooing the tourists with the dollars, SVRAMI still needs a CEO, a salaried position that Willich hopes to fill within 60 to 90 days.
"We could have hired three months ago, but we had nothing in place. Now we're ready," he said.
Willich is still confident, but after recent road bumps, he struck a more modest tone. His bold actions had produced a situation admittedly "a little worse than the status quo," he said. "There's never a good time to do a big move like this, ever. It's always a bad time. You just do what you can."
A couple of days later, Willich was in the Sun Valley-Ketchum visitors' center. A man and his wife were looking at the map of the United States on the wall. Willich introduced himself and asked where the couple was from.
"We are from Liepzig, in Germany," the man replied in hesitant English. The couple was on a driving tour from Seattle to Denver. They saw that Sun Valley was here, so they stopped to see the town where Hemingway once lived. At the visitors' center they asked how to find the famous author's house.
"I'm sorry," the woman working at the chamber that morning told them. "That house is closed to the public."