Wednesday, February 2, 2005

Wanted: More TLC for Warm Springs Village

As evolution brings quiet, stakeholders call for revival effort

Express Staff Writer

On a weekend afternoon at Warm Springs Village in northwest Ketchum, groups of smiling skiers congregate at Apple's Bar & Grill and The Outabounds Lounge, sipping beers and swapping stories about their day on the slopes of Bald Mountain.

Just a few feet away, a rush of business is in full swing at Paul Kenny's Ski and Sports and Sturtevants Mountain Sports, as visitors return rented ski and snowboard equipment.

The lively atmosphere is somewhat timeless, emblematic of après-ski scenes that have transpired across the Rocky Mountain West for decades.

Nevertheless, time has brought substantial change to Warm Springs, and to some Ketchum residents the village is today just a pale shadow of its former self.

There are fewer skiers using the area to access Bald Mountain. There are fewer people engaging in après-ski gatherings to eat, drink and socialize. And there are fewer businesses finding success amid declining visitation and an increase in residential developments, many of which are occupied only a fraction of the year.

"At one point in time, in the 1970s, it was a booming little village out there," said David Barovetto, a Hailey resident who previously lived in Warm Springs for 15 years. "We had a liquor store, a post office and four or five bars."

The decline of Warm Springs as a bustling base area has left some Ketchum residents pining for the past.

At the same time, many stakeholders maintain that Warm Springs is a viable business district that can be revitalized, despite a barrage of influences that discourage visitation and hinder commercial activities.

"Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s, things were so different," said attorney Brian Barsotti, a Ketchum resident for 28 years. "Warm Springs was the main entrance to the mountain. There was a lot more après-skiing, a lot more partying. This area grew up around that."

Calming influences converge

Barsotti, who maintains an office and owns several properties in Warm Springs Village, said he believes the decline of activity there can be attributed to a combination of changes in the ski industry and several major decisions made by Sun Valley Co., the resort owner.

The increasing cost of skiing, he said, has made it a sport that is out of reach for many young people who might otherwise become the next generation of Warm Springs "ski bums."

Moreover, as the costs of skiing went up, Barsotti said, the resort installed a pair of high-speed chair lifts to the top of Bald Mountain and built three state-of-the-art day lodges to serve on-mountain guests. Suddenly, skiers could cover terrain more quickly and were less inclined to venture off mountain to eat lunch or shop.

"It used to take all day to get in the same number of runs it does now before noon," he said. "Now, people don't shop. They're not around all day."

However, the biggest factor, according to Barsotti and several Warm Springs merchants, is that Sun Valley Co has been outwardly directing skiers to the River Run base area—immediately southwest of downtown Ketchum—where hundreds of parking spaces are made available free of charge.

In Warm Springs, parking is very limited. A Sun Valley-operated paid parking lot adjacent to the ski area costs $5 per vehicle, per day. Otherwise, skiers must seek out a small number of long-term spaces or use the city's Park and Ride lot and take a public bus to Warm Springs.

And in summer, Barsotti and some business owners noted, Sun Valley operates lifts from River Run to the Bald Mountain summit, but does not run the Challenger lift from the base of Warm Springs. With little activity to attract visitors, the village through most of the summer resembles a ghost town.

"There are all these forces that have made Warm Springs less and less viable over the years," Barsotti said. "The business just isn't here anymore."

Barovetto added: "Now, everybody just languishes. They say it would just be great to have a place to buy some milk or rent a movie. It's a bit of an embarrassment for a world-class ski resort to have a base village like this."

Merchants chime in

Warm Springs merchants are quick to agree that the village has seen better times.

"If I think about it too much, it depresses me," said Rob Santa, owner of Sturtevants. "Warm Springs has always been the better side of the mountain."

When Sturtevants opened its Warm Springs store in 1987, Santa said, "it was a given" that it "was the place to be." Today, he said, Warm Springs is instead a place "for people who know better."

Barovetto, Barsotti and Santa have all wondered how much livelier Warm Springs would be if a proposal some 25 years ago to build a sizable ski-in, ski-out hotel on the edge of the village had been approved and completed. One plan had to be abandoned and a follow-up plan was denied by the city of Ketchum.

However, despite the fact that Warm Springs has become quieter, merchants are reporting that business is undeniably strong in the winter months and can be sustained in future years.

Hank Minor, owner of Apple's, Baird Gourlay, co-owner of Paul Kenny's, and Janet Appleton, co-owner of The Outabounds Lounge—as well as Santa—all said business is "booming" or at least holding steady this year.

"It's been awesome," Minor said. "We have a great group of locals that supports us."

Gourlay said: "The only reason commercial is dying is that it's being forced out."

The lack of public parking is routinely identified as the primary problem, although some business owners also blame the stratospheric prices commanded for residential real estate, which is gradually encroaching into areas intended mainly for service-oriented businesses. Minor also cites a lack of special events planned for the Warm Springs area, by Sun Valley Co. or the city.

Area brings spotlight

The parking issue has become so notorious that The New York Times last month published an article analyzing a new trend in Warm Springs: wealthy residents and celebrities are paying lofty six-figure sums for condominium units in the Edelweiss building—on Picabo Street—mainly to gain a convenient private parking space.

Gourlay, a Ketchum City Council member, maintains that Sun Valley Co. should provide additional parking at Warm Springs Village.

"If they're going to provide recreation, I think they're going to have to provide some type of parking for it."

For its part, Sun Valley Co. does admit it is deliberately directing guests to River Run, where it intends to eventually develop a new luxury hotel, a multi-level parking structure and scores of residences around the existing River Run Lodge.

Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley director of marketing and public relations, said the company is doing so because Warm Springs is harder to get to from Sun Valley Village, where resort guests spend the night.

"The only problem with Warm Springs is that it's at Warm Springs," Sibbach said. "We're trying to focus our guests to River Run because it's closer to our resort."

The River Run base area offers a more complete set of guest services and amenities, Sibbach said, particularly parking.

"More parking is the main issue."

Can events bring people?

Minor said he believes small changes can be made to help revive Warm Springs. The first step, he suggested, is planning more events that attract people.

Last year, Minor said, he proposed an outdoor concert for 1,000 people in the village core but city officials rejected the plan.

"The heartbeat is going away," Minor said. "This village is an asset to the Ketchum community. It should be protected."

The issues at Warm Springs have not gone completely unnoticed by the city. At one time or another, members of the City Council have expressed an interest in taking action to bring new life to the village.

Ketchum Planning Director Harold Moniz said market forces are allowing residential developments to dominate the area—which is zoned for a multitude of uses—but said the city could draft a master plan for the village to guide future land-use decisions.

"I think we need a community-visioning process to see what the residents want there," Moniz said.

Regardless of what the future brings, most major merchants have said they are committed to maintaining a presence in Warm Springs.

"I think only time will tell whether any blame, or even credit, is given to what becomes of Warm Springs," Santa said.

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