Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Wagon Days goes up in smoke

Most major Labor Day events canceled

Express Staff Writer

Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall speaks at a community meeting Monday night to discuss the Castle Rock Fire. He officially announced the cancellation of Wagon Days. Photo by David N. Seelig

The Castle Rock Fire has changed lives and threatened property in the Wood River Valley for almost two weeks. And now a historic tradition has been derailed. Wagon Days has—one could say—gone up in smoke.

All city-sanctioned events for what would have been the 49th annual Wagon Days are canceled, the city of Ketchum announced in a news release on Monday afternoon.

Despite last week's announcement that all systems were go, the town was rife with speculation that the event could not take place after last weekend's setback in efforts to contain the fire. Dry and windy conditions forced evacuations of an estimated 1,800 people on Saturday afternoon and evening when flames pushed toward Highway 75 from Greenhorn Gulch, south of Ketchum.

For valley merchants, already feeling the sting of reduced visitors and business since the Castle Rock Fire began on Aug. 16, the latest news was the bitterest of medicines.

"It just makes me sick for the small businesses in town that rely on this weekend to help carry them through the fall and winter," said Gail Severn of the Gail Severn Gallery.

Ketchum restaurant owner Tom Nickel said that chamber and business groups need to unite to try and turn the economic ship around in a sea of fall leaves. "We all need to get together ... and make this the best damned September-October we have ever had." Nickel owns the Sawtooth Club and the Roosevelt Tavern and Grill on Ketchum's Main Street.

"We need to get the word out about how wonderful it is in the fall," he said. Nickel said local organizations need to start focusing on marketing and advertising with the fall in mind.

"None of us is in a position to second guess the decision ... we won't know it was the right decision until Wagon Days (Labor Day weekend) has come and gone," Nickel said.

"I totally understand their need to keep the highway clear and it takes a huge amount of police presence," said Severn. "Because of that their resources have to be horribly, horribly stretched." Severn said she would be talking to fellow gallery owners about Friday's scheduled Gallery Walk. "I don't know what we are going to do."

For some in town, like City Councilman Baird Gourlay, who wears the dual hats of decision maker and co-owner of Paul Kenney's Ski and Sports, the decision had to cut both ways. Gourlay was in on the decision that will undoubtedly cost his business and others major bucks. "It's probably a 40 or $50,000 hit for the weekkend" for his business, said Gourlay.

"It's devastating, it really sucks," he said. "I totally understand the decision-making process and we really had no choice."

People are exhausted and it made no sense to be bringing livestock in for the parade while others are removing livestock because of the heavy smoke, said Gourlay. "Life safety issues are more important than economics."

The Wagon Days celebration included the centerpiece parade on Saturday featuring the Big Hitch. The event hearkens back to the halcyon days of the 1880s when huge, narrow wagons pulled by mule teams hauled silver and lead ore out of the mountains to smelters in Ketchum. Muleskinner Bobby Tanner of Bishop, Calif., was to have come out to drive the wagons, as he has for the last six years.

In addition to the parade, most other related events are canceled, including the Great Wagon Days Duck Race, the Coors Light BaseCamp Music Experience concerts and the reincarnation of the Atkinson's Market Ketchum Criterium.

Nickel said he was already thinking about the repercussions of the Wagon Days cancellation when he was contacted by the Mountain Express. "I want to be able to pay everybody on time and I want to be able to pay the rent on time."

With prediction of another weather front headed this way this weekend, the decision to cancel the event was not easy, Ketchum Mayor Randy Hall said in a news release. "I will not compromise the fire-fighting effort nor compromise the safety of our community," he said.

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