Wednesday, August 3, 2005

Is Ketchum's building boom good for business?

Construction brings jobs and some woes to resort city

Express Staff Writer

Construction of a new Wells Fargo bank building on the corner of Main and Fourth streets in Ketchum is one of several large projects under way in the city's core. The building is planned to be approximately 10,000 square feet. Photo by Willy Cook

One might think that plumber Bud Heaney would rejoice at the construction boom thundering through Ketchum.

But a twist of events has made the business owner's prospects take a turn.

"Some of the guys come up here to work and they like it and come back up here and open a business," he said. "Then we've got to compete with them. It's murder on us. (The city) ought to tax the living hell out of the people who come up from out of state. They should stick it to the contractor. (But) I don't think the city does anything."

As Ketchum copes with fast-paced growth and development, business owners are left to either lament or rejoice at the impacts.

"We're in the middle of an age of discovery," said City Administrator Ron LeBlanc. "The city of Ketchum has been discovered by investors and people who see a bright future for Ketchum. They want to build. We're seeing a lot of housing projects and commercial projects."

Indeed, major projects are going up all over the city, particularly in the city center. On Main Street, alone, three substantial residential projects are under construction near the city's south entrance, and a new Wells Fargo bank building is being built at the junction with Fourth Street. Another mixed-use building with a bank has been approved for the adjacent lot.

Besides the larger issues of competition, business owners are dealing with construction-related obstructions and delays.

Jim Funk, owner of Desperado's restaurant in the city's core, said construction managers have been very cooperative, but their activities have disturbed daily life.

The alley behind Desperado's is closed because of work on the Wells Fargo site, causing "extreme" delivery hassles, Funk said.

Delivery trucks that used to park in the alley and distribute goods to five restaurants now park on Fourth Street.

"Now with two banks (going in) and drive-through windows, I don't think the congestion is going away," he said.

"The construction, the dust; every job has an inconvenience to somebody," Heaney said. "Whether you like the looks of it or you don't, that's just a part of building," even if it's bound to make somebody mad.

If Heaney's assumption is correct, there stands to be more angry residents each year.

In July 2003, Ketchum's year-to-date building valuation, or estimated cost of construction, stood at approximately $31 million. By this month last year that number was $44 million. This year the number has already reached $51 million.

Year-end construction totals in 2003 and 2004 were $45.9 million and $70.2 million, respectively.

The city has issued 97 building permits so far this year, according to Jane Jacobus, building office administrator. The 2004 year-to-date figure was 93 permits.

Business at the Building Department has been brisk enough for Ketchum's acting building official, Eric Adams, to request from the City Council another full-time position.

"We are a tourist community," LeBlanc said. "We are also a second-home community and construction is part of the local economy."

Fees and taxes related to building make up over 10 percent of the city's budget, he said.

Included in that tally are local option taxes, building permit fees, planning fees, and building, planning and fire plan check fees, totaling more than $1 million.

"On the positive side, I think the future of Ketchum is very bright," LeBlanc said. "For people on vacation, for folks who want to start a business and for people who are in the building trades, Ketchum is a very good place to be."

Conversely, housing costs, traffic and parking will continue to be challenges.

"The cost of housing has escalated faster than wages, pricing people out," LeBlanc said. "If we are going to maintain a community, we have to get our arms around the issue of providing affordable housing."

Patrons at Baci, a dinner-only restaurant on Main Street on the south end of town, haven't voiced concerns about increased traffic on that end of town, but assistant manager Paul Delgado said a few are simply sad to see the town's popularity increase.

"A stray guest might say they don't like it, maybe just because the town is growing," Delgado said.

Growth is a given, but is all the construction building a more vibrant city?

"It's a mixed feeling," said Zane Levitt, who has both a residence and a business in the downtown core. "The big problem with construction ... is the staging of vehicles. I'm really concerned about parking."

Parking woes are compounded by other, related factors, Levitt said.

"Forget about construction. Occupancy density is the real issue here," he said.

Perhaps the most compelling trend in Ketchum is that of developers building large, high-end residential units that often take years to sell or serve only as part-time residences. Some officials at City Hall have repeatedly bemoaned the fact that new construction often sits empty but have been only moderately successful in promoting smaller, more affordable units.

In 2003, the city issued 49 residential-units permits for all city sections. In 2004, that number jumped to 92. Condominiums and apartments went from 18 in 2003 to 56 a year later, according to annual construction data provided by the Ketchum Building Department. Single family dwellings dropped from 2003 to 2004, from 26 permits to 21, respectively.

More than the lack of adequate parking spaces, Levitt is troubled by the overall direction of the city.

"We're building a town that's a mausoleum," Levitt said, "and the dead don't support businesses."

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