Sun Valley's Slippery Slope 

How nature reveals iteslf in an upside down economy

Bear scat steams in the mountains above Sun Valley as it has after spring snowstorms for millenia on the edge of the largest wilderness area in the lower 48 states. The mountain retreat is also known as the Wood River Valley, named for the Big Wood River that drains the south side of Galena Summit, a viewpoint that is also the headwaters of the Salmon River flowing northward through the Sawtooth Valley.

The bear will continue to go about his business on the periphery of human domain on the valley floor, especially as stewards of the hillsides like former Blaine County Commissioner Len Harlig continue to fight proposed development of the area's wildlife habitat and scenic amenities—amenities that citizens from Carey to Stanley are banking on you visiting.

Like Harlig, the majority of locals and most visitors enjoy the mountains around Sun Valley because the hills don't look much different than they did before the resort's ribbon cutting 75 years ago—Dec. 21, 1936, to be precise. But, economically, Sun Valley is in a pinch. Most workers there now hang their hats on recreation, and they want to be sure that you will not only visit, but return.

Assessed value of all private property in Blaine County based on real estate sales has dropped nearly $2 billion, from a 2008 high of $12.4 billion to just less than $10.6 billion in 2010. In the face of such a dramatic economic turn, the community relies even more heavily on recreation and retail sales, an area where the average traveler has been cutting back during the past two years. In response, locals are looking to revamp Sun Valley's image in order to re-sell the brand around Idaho and away.

As a resort area, Sun Valley has been a family draw for generations—people seeking recreation and the mountain high life—but for those who need to eke out a living from the local economy, the path to sustainability is a challenge, especially if family is part of the plan.

"You have to be a maverick to make it here," said Sarah McLaughlin, a sports nutritionist and mother in Hailey who started Sun Valley Bar, makers of whole food energy snacks.

Aside from some gravel mining and sheep ranching, extractive resource industries have long since fled Blaine County, but the heritage is still a potent part of the Sun Valley picture. It is not uncommon for visitors to seek out the museums in the valley to get a clearer picture of the area's roots. The annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival and Wagon Days are also popular, along with the Fourth of July Parade in Hailey and a multitude of concerts and celebrations like the Heritage Court, an annual gala event honoring five valley women from each Blaine municipality for a lifetime of contributions to the community.

When Averell Harriman plotted to drive traffic to Union Pacific passenger service in the 1930s, building the first destination ski resort in North America with killer snow and terrain and a European flair, it was the beginning of a grand experiment in recreation economics. Providing the first lift-assisted skiing in the country, Harriman also tapped a pioneering spirit that existed in the valley.

Railroad pamphleteer Robert Strahorn, who during boom mining times of the 1860s predicted that Hailey would become the Denver of Idaho, most likely never expected the tracks to be torn up. Today, Sun Valley survives on the beneficence of the R. Earl Holding family, who are also owners of the Sinclair Oil Corporation. Many are wondering what future innovations will sustain the people who are the backbone of the historic area beyond serving a phenomenally wealthy population of largely part-time residents.

The chamber of commerce that represents both Ketchum and Sun Valley is in upheaval as the two cities and many voices seek a new unifying message to export. Sun Valley Company is racing to organize a grand birthday party. Even slower-paced organizations, like the commission for a new airport, share dreams not unlike those of Ecotopia author Ernest Callenbach—a green sustainable economy. All are debating how the community should look in 2020 and beyond.

Steve Hogan, owner of the Wicked Spud sports bar in Hailey is one of the entrepreneurs banking on the expansion plans still under way at the Sun Valley Resort, he said, after completing a new floor installation at his restaurant just in time for the start of the summer in the beer garden.

"When Sun Valley builds that hotel at River Run, it will put this place on the map permanently," Hogan said. "Right now, it's just a gravel parking lot, but you know they will do it right, like they do with everything."

Meanwhile, it is quiet at the Spud. A block away, the new Powerhouse restaurant has been packed since it opened in the fall. Novelty and a focus on imported beers and bikes lend it distinct cache. The business is located in a small historic Hailey building. Its coziness has offered itself as an incubator for the future. Overnight, it became the watering hole for employees of Power Engineers, Smith Optics, Scott, Marketron and the new YMCA in Ketchum. It is also a second home to a number of optimistic entrepreneurs who still hold onto the dream of being pioneers in the West.

The fact that the county of some 20,000 people is so wealthy (private property value alone is second only to Ada County) adds to the impression that America's Shangri-La is merely a haven for the rich. However, boots on the ground, those who rely on local commerce for survival are taking a deeper look at a place where many find spiritual connection. The valley contains a den of leaders looking to redefine the face of the community. Some have claimed that the Wood River Valley is the birthplace to Sacagawea. Whether that is true is debatable, but there are many guides who call Sun Valley home, who are more than happy to help point visitors in the right direction to help satisfy whatever turns their crank, whether it's yoga, ski racing, music, or all of the above.

However tranquil it might be in the mountains from Bellevue to Stanley, contemporary real estate bankers and the noise of construction that had sustained many a ski bum is all but silent now. Ski passes, new gear and dinners out on the town after enjoying a variety of cultural venues, including the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and Company of Fools, have been de rigueur for sustaining an engaged mountain town lifestyle, but for many locals, such a heavenly experience is largely a thing of the past.

More prevalent are the quiet, painful negotiations of foreclosure. In the past year, the feds shuttered even the last home for the First Bank of Idaho located in a new building on Ketchum's left bank, which is just that: a long string of new banks. At first glance it is hard to understand what is going on in Sun Valley. Some investment choices, like building a new gondola on Bald Mountain in 2009, seem strange given this difficult economic period globally.

Until this year, the sound of whirring saw blades singing through knotty pine at job sites around Sun Valley was as ubiquitous as serenading cicadas. Over the past seven years, approved development projects sprung up all over the mountain district of South-Central Idaho. Housing boomed even at the remote gateway to Craters of the Moon in Carey, where volcanic rock was recently blasted to finally straighten a section of the combined U.S. Highway 20-26-93, also known as the twisting Jeffrey-Goodale Cutoff that westbound Oregon Trail pioneers once crunched through the lava fields.

For some 50 years, beginning in the first half of the 1860s, would-be settlers used the alternate route to avoid skirmishes with the Northern Shoshone and Bannock tribes who fought the settlers' incursion on their homeland. Then, on the heels of miners and the railroad came Sun Valley and a dream to bring recreation to the world. Even the Shah of Iran once skied there. The Kennedy brothers enjoyed it, too. In light of such prestige, only 3.5 percent of skiers come from Boise. Perhaps Sun Valley suffers from a perception of glitz that has turned off the masses.

There do seem to be nuggets of forward thinking that will serve visitors in perpetuity as the community sorts out a new mix of commerce. Sun Valley Company has invested tens of millions of dollars in recent years to expand its infrastructure, including five new lodges. This summer, the company plans to offer gondola rides to mountain bikers and may contribute in an effort to connect Bald Mountain to an ever-expanding trail network in the southern part of the county.

Downstream from the gritty River Run parking lot, where the new hotel is slated, the post-ski season attraction is a glacier of filthy snow and gravel, the plowed remains of winter's road maintenance. The glacier is home to some of the few remaining miners—out-of-work carpenters armed with metal detectors.

"Not a single building permit has been filed in the cities of Ketchum, Sun Valley or Bellevue this year for new construction," reported Trevon Milliard in the April 7 issue of the Idaho Mountain Express, the key newspaper for what's happening in the mountains of South-Central Idaho. "Hailey has received just one application to build a new home. For Blaine County, 20 building permits have been requested for property outside city limits, but none of these are new construction either."

By June, Hailey had a total of three building permits for new structures on the books with a possible fourth on the way. Ketchum had two permits in place for the 2010 summer, and Sun Valley had just one for a new single-family home and another for an 800-square-foot greenhouse planned for a residential property. There were rumors of a third residential project coming online, but for those who rely on the local building trades for survival, rumors are not enough.

"Sun Valley used to be a place for families," said James Foster, a teacher in the Blaine County public schools, who includes economics in his curriculum. "Today, people want to be in many places and yet they want to come here and still feel a strong sense of community."

Foster said that vitality comes from the people who work in the valley, those who maintain the infrastructure and serve in a variety of public and private capacities.

"We need jobs and affordable housing," he said.

Much of the old guard prefers the quiet lift lines at the resort, but the Sun Valley Company is now reaching out. A cadre of activists is pushing for food carts al fresco to enliven downtown Ketchum, a city that has turned its attention to resurrecting outdoor gathering spaces. The community is also trying implement safe biking for children and a bike-share program for everyone, locals and visitors alike. Livability is the catchword. In addition to many guided activities provided by outfitters, including fishing, hunting, rafting, skiing and horseback riding, there are free things to do as well, including a picnic with the Sun Valley Symphony at the Sun Valley Pavilion.

Despite economic challenges, the past winter reported the second-highest skier showing in the history of the industry, so the Sun Valley Resort seems to be on the right path by expanding and improving its infrastructure. Managers there believe it is a commodity with high value for everyone, not just the rich and famous. It pumped Costco with discount lift tickets this year and took baby steps into the business of expanding easy bus transportation and benefits for people living in Twin Falls. The local bus service, Mountain Rides, is in the process of connecting its service southward, and Sun Valley hopes to help expand bargains and transportation as far as Pocatello and Boise in the coming years.

Recreation is still the most sustainable economic driver in the area, but where Bogus Basin sells 30,000 season passes a year, Sun Valley sold just less than 1,500. Yes, the price for a season pass is 10 times higher in Sun Valley, but Ketchum's Bald Mountain does have much bigger, faster and longer slopes, a permit to expand one day and probably some of the most dependable grooming in North America, no matter what Mother Nature has in store.

Most agree that Bald Mountain, with its ample facilities, is so expansive that the addition of 1,000 skiers a day would go largely unnoticed on piste. In an economy that is largely retail based, that increase would be weighty on Main Street in Ketchum apres ski. There is potential for much more use of the resort just by Idahoans, said Mike Fitzpatrick, Sun Valley's marketing manager.

Another potential for expansion, only limited by federal regulation, are guide services on public land. Like coveted liquor licenses, there are only so many permits available for guiding and backcountry shelters to currently active and would-be outfitters, professionals who seek to serve a growing demand for adventure.

"I think this place has so much opportunity ... it was heavily tilted to construction and real estate, but we need to make the spread of businesses broader," Fitzpatrick said. "Sun Valley has an incredible history. Our job is to help young people understand that Sun Valley is not just old people here. We are getting the message out that it is big, brawny and fast."

Fitzpatrick, who recently returned to the valley after a long hiatus in Oregon, is working closely with Mountain Manager Tim Silva, who returned to the valley from Lake Tahoe to help revamp Sun Valley Resort's image. End of winter pictures on ESPN showed extreme skier Chris Logan launching 125 feet of air off of a monster jump on the Warm Springs side of Baldy. Next winter, Sun Valley is planning a film festival to feature the Level 1 Productions' world premier and Teton Gravity Research footage, as well as submissions from skiers all over in the world. The company will also offer deals to capitalize on its 75th anniversary.

While on a recent walk in the Boulder Mountains, contemplating the crushing impact of the failing construction and real estate businesses on the recreation-based community and the efficacy of replacing trains with automobiles and airplanes over the long term, close inspection of the trail confirmed that a warm bear specimen, freshly deposited between snow-covered shoots of arrow-leaf balsamroot, lupine and other native plants, was deep green and rather furry—rich fertilizer for a large ponderosa nearby.

News from the hills is that hibernation is over and unrepentant nature is running amok in the mountain ranges surrounding the Wood River Valley. Everyone can thank the bear for a reminder of why many people come to Sun Valley in the first place.

On the same spring weekend as the bear scat discovery, a team of backcountry skiers bagged the summit of the 11,051-foot Devil's Bedstead in the Pioneer Mountains to ski 5,000 feet of powder snow. Also, various mountain bikers trained on miles of single track in the foothills of the Smoky Mountains out Croy Canyon west of Hailey, an amenity that the Bureau of Land Management is actively growing with the help of a platoon of volunteers. And golfers spread across the valley's half-dozen links had their pick of 90 holes of golf. Another plus was a round of miniature golf at the new Sun Valley Club golf and Nordic skiing lodge that hosts 18 holes of putting modeled on a miniature course at St. Andrew's in Scotland, ostensibly the birthplace of golf.

Recreation is understood as the principle driver of all commerce in the valley, mining having mostly gone the way of the dodo and Superfund. However, considering the rising price of precious metals and the potential of remaining natural resources—most hard rock mining in the area was done by hand and without any modern equipment—it is conceivable that natural resource extraction could return as a catalyst for the entire state economy.

Although in a community chock full of health-conscious citizens who attend local wellness and spiritual festivals, who then farm out their brain trust to help improve health and the environment through a number of nonprofits, both locally and around the world, the more likely scenario is that the community will simply assess their precious resources and let the bears and the trees watch over them in perpetuity. It's better to lend against proven reserves than on consolidated debt. That's the lesson learned over the past two years, right?

As the bear begins to roam again, the spring slack season is considered by worker bees as a time to recharge the batteries. Rolling into summer 2010, however, the human population of Sun Valley is still looking quite subdued in its comparatively urban habitat. The slack season was so dead, in fact, it looked like a throwback to an earlier time, perhaps as far back as the 1970s. It was certainly on par with some of the vintage threads on the racks at Ketchum's Gold Mine Thrift Shop, the repository of unwanted excess and the main funding source for the Community Library, where plenty of people have been hunched over the free computers seeking greener pastures through the Web and ordering things on eBay that will eventually help restock the Gold Mine.

However, some see a hint of reprieve on the economic horizon.

"Tough economic times have seen the Wood River Valley embark on a renaissance, which is positively affecting the quality of life here and helping secure the area's future. Sun Valley Resort is actively reinventing their brand, putting an emphasis on being relevant to today's market ... expanding their appeal with amenities and overall personality and hospitality," said Greg Randolph, a Smith Optics employee with a regular bar stool at the Powerhouse.

"We have seen enthusiastic support for expanded mountain bike trail networks, walking and biking paths, new events, enhanced Community Campus and Blaine County Recreation District offerings and, most of all, an open mind toward building a desirable community in which to live, not just visit. This is truly an amazing time to be here and I couldn't imagine a better place for Smith Optics or myself to call home."

Many at the Powerhouse gather to plot their summer mountain-biking plans, and like people do all along the "culinary corridor" of Highway 75 from Bellevue to Stanley, they come to brag about epic turns on Baldy and in the vast backcountry, describing the same elements that convinced Austrian skiing consultant Count Felix Schaffgotsch that the Wood River Valley was the spot for Harriman's dreams.

Blaine County bureaucrats will have to wait yet another year for the chance at a raise, but Ketchum staff is seeing a surprising increase to the bottom line after local option taxes boosted city coffers unexpectedly to the tune of nearly $1 million this year. There are other sparks of light in the wilderness of the economic downturn. Sun Valley boasted a record year for skier user days of 400,023, despite a relatively poor snow pack.

The Gold Mine is still abuzz during business hours, but down valley, the U-Haul vehicles that once crowded a lot at the tip of the Bellevue Triangle at the "Gateway to the Sawtooths" are as absent now as the Oregon Trail wagons that disappeared with the advent of the train. Although the spirit remains, it is clear that much human cargo has recently slipped away.

For those in the Wood River Valley who don't live the posh lifestyle of the rich, which is still what makes Sun Valley famous, the quest for renewal is imperative. Humongous gap jumps are great, but most agree that the future enjoyment of Sun Valley will also rely on the leaps of entrepreneurs like McLaughlin of Sun Valley Bar, Mike Herlinger who, despite, the economy just launched his casual bicycle clothing line, Club Ride, and Cygnia Rapp, who recently gained a $200,000 influx of support from investors, including members of the Boise Angel Alliance for her Hailey-based company, Prosperity Organic Foods Inc., which sells a tasty butter substitute.

That's the news from the valley floor. Remember, this isn't just Arnold Schwarzenegger's back yard. It's your public domain. The bear doesn't care who comes to visit. He already has a fur coat.

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