Friday, March 2, 2007

Citizens weigh in on Warm Springs? future

Hotels, amenities among topics at packed meeting

Express Staff Writer

Tom Hudson, executive director of the Ketchum Community Development Corporation, speaks to a crowd at the Warm Springs Lodge Wednesday evening. The city is soliciting public input on a master plan for the economically depressed Warm Springs Village at the base of Bald Mountain. Photo by David N. Seelig

Two popular topics of conversation in Ketchum cropped up again Thursday night at a meeting about rejuvenating Warm Springs Village: parking and hotels.

Those issues are certainly going to be part of the larger discussion on a master plan for the area at the Warm Springs base of Bald Mountain—an area that has seen its fortunes wax and wane, then wane some more, over the decades.

Sun Valley Co. hopes to increase yearly skier-day counts from approximately 400,000 to 600,000.

"All that increase cannot happen at River Run," said Ketchum Planning Director Harold Moniz. "Some of that has to happen at Warm Springs."

"We're not a world-class resort here," he added. "We can do better as a community. That's our challenge."

Approximately 170 people attended a town hall meeting Wednesday, Feb. 28, at Warm Springs Lodge.

Presented to them were photos of the village's heyday—with food and drink vendors, locals and visitors mixing it up in the streets après ski, and general revelry for no reason other than life was good. Then, attendees were treated to a slide show of the current Warm Springs Village: one-way streets, "do not enter" and "no parking" signs, and lack of direction and lack of sense of place for outsiders.

"This is a very hard place to get around," said meeting facilitator Tom Hudson, executive director of the Ketchum Community Development Corporation. "It's very difficult to see this place as a whole. It's like this is your own private fishing hole.

"It may be one of the most underdeveloped ski bases in the United States—maybe in the Western world."

Shaking the dust off the village will help bring back the old atmosphere, he said.

"There was a vibrancy that was here," Hudson said. "We have tremendous latent capacity. It's critical to consider. What are the opportunities?"

The city has ideas for a new Warm Springs, and it has reached preliminary agreements with Sun Valley Co., the Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation, and The Water Co., to move forward on some of them.

The Ciminos, a local philanthropic family, are on board for development of geothermal resources on their property. Geothermal energy could be tapped for a hot springs spa, snowmelting on sidewalks, fountains and other uses.

"The first thing I ask as an outsider is, 'Where is the warm springs?'" said Hudson, who hails from Moscow, Idaho. "I think locals stopped asking that a long time ago."

The Ski Education Foundation hopes to expand its operations by creating a nationally recognized winter sports education and training institute on Sun Valley Co. property.

The work will focus on Picabo Street and Sun Valley Co. land on the south side of Warm Springs Creek.

Other ideas include a track and field arena, which could be flooded in the winter to make an ice rink, space for ultimate Frisbee, year-round dorms for students, youth or elder hostels for low-cost visitor accommodations, enhanced retail space, a plaza and a river walk.

While the notion of an expanded ski education institute was exciting to many, others said that shouldn't be the only focus.

"What we need is amenities," said Ketchum real estate agent Jed Gray. He proposed alpine slides or a year-round luge run. "Not everybody who comes here is a jock. We need to get people started on their recreation."

With more amenities come more visitors, the theory goes. More visitors create demand for hotels, which in turn create more vibrancy.

"The only people who live in Ketchum are in this room," said business owner Michel Rudigoz. "The reality is we have no (hotel) beds in this town."

Hudson estimated that only 10 percent of Warm Springs Village residences are occupied year-round.

City staff wrote down people's ideas. Then participants were given sticky dots to place next to their top few priorities for the village.

High on the list were promoting youth activities, tapping into geothermal and other "green" resources, night skiing and hotel development.

Participants were also given the chance to view a computer graphic rendering of a conceptual five-story hotel on Picabo Street and Skiway Drive.

After scrutinizing the hotel from multiple sides, attendees were asked to give the thumbs-up, thumbs-sideways or thumbs-down to the idea of such a building.

The overwhelming majority of participants gave a thumbs-up, while only a few people expressed uncertainty or disapproval of the building's height.

Five-story hotels have been a major source of consternation for city officials.

A segment of the population has come out swinging against the city, saying their claim to be "open for business" has been overshadowed by recent decisions. The City Council last week approved a transfer of development rights system that precludes five-story hotels on Main Street between Rivers and Sixth streets. Developers such as Steve Burnstead have said five floors are necessary for an economically viable hotel project.

Other residents, however, are opposed to any building higher than three floors. City officials, meanwhile, say they are trying to find balance.

"We have to be very careful," Councilman Baird Gourlay told the crowd. "Hotels are a huge priority for us. Don't let one man (Burnstead) divide us."

According to an unscientific online poll conducted by the Idaho Mountain Express, 62.4 percent of 237 respondents said the city should not allow a five-story hotel on Ketchum's Main Street. The other 37.6 percent said it should.

Wednesday's meeting attendees, however, indicated a different attitude toward development at Warm Springs, where Ketchum attorney and developer Brian Barsotti is hoping to build a hotel at Picabo Street and Skiway Drive.

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