Friday, April 6, 2007

Consultant stirs the pot in Ketchum

New nonprofit corporation poised to make a difference, despite naysayers

Express Staff Writer

Tom Hudson is the executive director of the Ketchum Community Development Corporation, a recently-created nonprofit entity designed to help infuse community back into the community. Photo by Mountain Express

It's the first time in 30 years Ketchum has had significant drive toward solving many longstanding social and economic conundrums, but there are still dissenting voices that threaten to derail this mounting momentum.

For Ketchum Community Development Corporation Executive Director Tom Hudson, who has been working as a consultant in Ketchum for two years, it's been a matter of stirring the pot while maintaining above-board discourse that has helped poise the community for productive change.

"You start stirring the water, start heating it up, and you can get people to come out," he said. "You were suffering a few years ago from a lack of action, and shame on this community for so much inaction for such a long time. We need to celebrate these changes, not criticize them."

Under Hudson's leadership the city has completed a downtown master revitalization plan, initiated a Warm Springs master planning process, instituted the Community Development Corporation and an Urban Renewal Agency, and helped get many smaller projects off the ground.

The city hired Hudson on a contract basis, and his current annual contract—which pays $175,000 plus $25,000 in living and travel expenses—will expire in September. City leaders have invited Hudson to propose a new contract for up to three years. He is uncertain, however, about whether or not he will keep working in Ketchum.

"One of my few concerns with Ketchum is the substantial amount of negativism that has been paralyzing the community for decades," he said. "That's the fundamental rub. I'm seeing a substantial resurgence of positive collaboration in town, which I believe is coming from our community-based approach of outreach.

"The question is whether this positive energy can overcome the naysayers and those who don't want to see such changes as more affordable workforce housing and an improved downtown economy. Many people around here can just say what they've stopped, a minority rules kind of thing."

Hudson will make a decision about whether or not to propose a new contract in the next three weeks.

That said, he said he is excited about the positive changes afoot in Ketchum. He said he believes in this community and is passionate about what he does.

"For 30 years there's been relative inaction in the community. Now I'm seeing positive community activism coming out."

At the core of the issue is a town that has shriveled noticeably in the last several years, although Hudson pointed out that the core of the community—its middle class—has been dying for decades. As executive director of the CDC, it is his job to help re-instill community to the community, and that means targeting Ketchum's egalitarian, middle-class roots.

"What's community in a place like Warm Springs, where only 10 percent of the houses are year-round residential?" he asked. "What's community when you can walk blocks and not find a house with a child in it? And what is community where a significant portion of the population doesn't want other people to come and disturb their peace and tranquility."

Asked why local residents and government have not been more proactive in confronting many of these issues, Hudson qualified that he can only speculate and that long-term residents might be better able to answer.

That said, he surmised that the 1970s in Ketchum were a time of a strong community bond that was egalitarian in nature and brought a strong sense of ownership to residents. In the ensuing 30 years there was a "dynamic shift" that took youth, young people and the middle class away.

"It has almost entirely removed the egalitarian feel," he said. "You've got to pay to play here, and the middle class started leaving. That exodus, I think, cut the heart out of the community. So, it wasn't only losing its egalitarian feel, it was losing a whole class—the people who do the bake sales and go to PTA meetings. We're trying to change that."

The issue of change is an interesting topic in this regard because Ketchum—and Blaine County as a whole—has been changing dramatically. The pace of commercial and residential construction, particularly from the late-1990s through mid-2000s, scared many people. The physical community was built up while the social community silently crumbled.

"I think it's colored people's thinking about change," Hudson said. "Suddenly it says to people, this is change, and change is bad. We're trying to change change."

And changing change—or effecting change—is what the nonprofit Community Development Corporation is all about. The corporation was formed last winter to work on downtown revitalization, create affordable housing, collaborate with other political and quasi-political entities, provide and support creation of retail space, among a myriad of other community-enhancement-specific goals.

The nine-member board of directors held its third meeting on Wednesday, April 4.

"Being so new, a lot of what we're doing is just getting organized," Hudson said. The board is composed of two Ketchum City Council members, Baird Gourlay and Ron Parsons; Ketchum City Administrator Ron LeBlanc; and six volunteers from the community. The six volunteers also head six program areas, each with a group of volunteers who work in specialized arenas.

Hudson stressed that this corporation is above-board.

"I'm not rigid about much, but I'm rigid on the issue of this being a highly professional entity," he said. "We're a corporation, and we're in business."

Hudson is a true facilitator, and he said individual politics and views are all welcome.

"I'm not a Republican or a Democrat. My politics are community-based politics," he said. "You have to be open and respectful to what everyone says. You don't want to put people into a corner. You want to give them the opportunity to change.

"A fundamental ingredient to community is dialogue, and that's why I try to make our public process one of dialogue."

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