Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Ketchum candidates agree on many issues

Politics forum highlights challenges facing resort city

Express Staff Writer

Candidate Deborah Burns shares a hug with Jay Emmer, after Emmer announced he was withdrawing from the race for two Ketchum City Council seats. Photo by David N. Seelig

Candidates for two open seats on the Ketchum City Council squared off before voters last week and outlined their experience and visions for the north-valley city.

The political forum, sponsored by the Idaho Mountain Express and Smoky Mountain Pizza, featured candidates Rich Fabiano, owner of Fabiano Construction; Mickey Garcia, a circulation employee with the Mountain Express; Curtis Kemp, a local architect; Deborah Burns, owner of Burnsie's Boca; Greg Strong, owner of a local construction company; and Larry Helzel, an investment specialist.

The candidates appeared to achieve consensus on many issues, foremost among them that Ketchum is not the place it used to be.

"The dusty little town that captured my heart in the 1970s no longer exists," Kemp said. "But I think it's a more wonderful place to live now than it was back then."

Helzel put it this way: "Our local economy has changed. We can no longer kick back and expect that two feet of new snow is going to solve all our economic problems. We need to invest in Ketchum. Our top priority should be bringing people back to town. Tourism is key."

Helzel's comment might as well have come from any of the candidates on the panel. They said it different ways and advocated different mechanisms and specific priorities, but the perception that Ketchum's economy and social fabric are waning pervaded much of the two-hour political forum.

"Look, if you're losing friends, make friends with some of these geezers in here," Garcia said in response to a question from a woman who was lamenting that many of her friends have left town.

Issues at the forum included the extent of a mayor's responsibilities, the Ketchum Urban Renewal Agency and Ketchum Community Development Corporation, the Fourth Street Heritage Corridor, new hotel construction, affordable housing and the economy at large.

But more than that, the candidates' answers to questions offered a portrait of a resort town in transition.

"We need more people living here full time," Strong said. "We need more people living at the northern end of the valley. I think the council should take a more active role."

Many of the candidates' answers to various questions returned to two central themes, and those were construction of a new luxury hotel and affordable workforce housing.

"There are 18,000 retiring baby boomers per day," Fabiano said. "There's no way a young person can move into this community and set up a home the way your family did or I did. It just doesn't work. We have to supply affordable housing. It's the only way we're going to have a true community."

Hotel discussions dominated much of the two-hour forum.

"We've made some mistakes," Burns said in regard to the city's quest to solicit a successful hotel application. "We learn from them. I think at the P&Z process there's a simple process that needs to happen there, a little more professionalism. We will be breaking ground with a hotel here within the next year."

Garcia, though he supports a new hotel and condemned previous elected officials for obstructing the process of approving one, said the city must learn that it can no longer support itself on tourism.

"Face the facts folks. There's nothing we can do about it. Tourism is going to decline," he said. "We need to diversify our economy. We need an education campus at the airport site in Hailey. We need a five-lane highway from here to the county line."

While Fabiano said the city needs a hotel, he stressed the permanence of such a structure and the importance of carefully deliberating about proposals.

Helzel, on the other hand, said the city should evaluate projects on the total potential impacts to the city.

"We're so preoccupied with the total square feet, total height and so-on," he said. "Shouldn't we really be concerned with whether it's going to be a hotel with hot beds or if it's a condo or housing project with a hotel tag in front of it?"

Kemp said simply:

"I want to do everything possible to reduce the uncertainty" for prospective hotel developers.

Finally, in response to a question regarding the size of the field for this year's election, the candidates resoundingly said it is a sign of health, not dissatisfaction.

"I think that it's a sign of a healthy electorate," Kemp said. "I am involved because I see the future of Ketchum to be very exciting."

Burns said, "people are here because they have passion, and they're motivated. Having this many candidates want to participate is a sign of vitality and health."

Garcia was the only dissenting voice in that regard. He termed himself the "angry electorate" because the city had turned down two previous hotel proposals and bungled projects that cost the Wood River Community YMCA additional cash.

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