Friday, December 23, 2005

Single mountain town seeks identity, please

Guest opinion by Michael Ames


Michael Ames, a staff writer for the Mountain Express, enjoys a good scramble.


For Christmas this year, Ketchum is asking for an identity. These days, the town seems to be having some sort of identity crisis.

At odds in this crisis are competing ideas—with extremists present on both ends—of what Ketchum should be.

Some hold Ketchum to the mirror and see a resort community, pure and simple. These Resort Extremists (or Extreme Resortists) see a community defined by how successfully the Sun Valley experience is marketed to visitors and part-time residents, outsiders whose primary worth is gauged in dollars and cents. Resort Extremists tend to be skeptical when talk turns to the "soul" of Ketchum; such dreamy notions are quickly dismissed.

Others searching for Ketchum's identity are after a more esoteric reading. They spill the tea leaves, scatter the bones and see an Eden facing imminent ruin. They support the idea of a livable community, but are wary of growth. These Soulful Extremists have trouble articulating new ideas, since the glory of Ketchum as they know it is past. They bemoan the loss of the good old days, while rarely setting out on paths of progress. Soulful Extremists tend to be skeptical of developers and incapable of accepting the inevitability of change.

This past summer, these two camps clashed over the proposed annexation and development of Warm Springs Ranch. A conflict erupted, the public was abuzz and then, with the City Council at the helm, Ketchum rejected the plan and promptly had a bit of a nervous breakdown. A moratorium was announced in early October, giving city government a much-needed time-out to catch up with an eight-ball enjoying a sizable lead.

Henry Dean, manager of the Warm Springs project, had presented a bold plan, one seemingly destined to succeed. Many local businesses, the editorial board of the Mountain Express, and even the Environmental Resource Center lined up behind the proposal.

Across the aisle of a crowded meeting hall, though, a strong opposing voice rallied around a vocal core of recreational golfers. It was a motley crew, a hodgepodge of interests including: 1) Warm Springs area homeowners likely to reject any development in their bucolic neighborhood, 2) fans of the local elk population and, 3) golfers, who, it seemed, had found the meaning of life at weekly scrambles.

Though the City Council sent the Dean Team back to the drawing board, it did not capitulate to any one group. Not the golfers, nor the homeowners and not even the elk. Rather, they represented an abstract, but vital sentiment shared among many: The Warm Springs Ranch project never felt right. Promises of "Creating the future, Respecting the past," never rang true.

How could they, when exactly a year ago today, Dean told the Express that Noble House Hotels, the project's would-be hotel managers, was considering maintaining slack-season revenue by creating a plastic surgery recuperation getaway on the site of the former golf course?

After watching West Ketchum, the once groovy first home to countless imports, be carved into a cold maze of river-rock condos, it's easy to see why for many people, change and development had become synonymous with selling our soul.

Although the project offered a potential financial boon, the council seemed to think that what is good for wallets is not always good for a town's character.

With fresh ideas—for downtown at least—finally pouring in from development consultants, the council is starting to clear a path through the brush. By proactively seeking out designs from progressive architects and planners, by encouraging compromise between the Resortists and the Spiritualists, Ketchum need not simply avoid becoming Aspen or Jackson. One day, it might actually stand in the mirror, proud to be itself, comfortable in its own identity.

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