Friday, January 2, 2009

A year of turmoil and triumph in the south valley

Locals rallied during the downturn

Express Staff Writer

Quigley Canyon developer David Hennesy kept Hailey planners and city leaders hopping with his development proposal for the nearby landmark. Photo by Willy Cook

     Hailey began working through some big issues in 2008, few of which will be resolved as the new year dawns on the biggest town in BlaineCounty. Revenues shrank at City Hall as the economy went into a free fall, residents challenged the collection of development impact fees, and the city was hit with a big bill for emergency dispatch services.

     Bellevue faced many of the same issues, formed citizens’ committees to design new sidewalks, and voted to keep its incumbent council members in office to confront challenges in the new year.

Other towns might have buckled, but Hailey and Bellevue residents and business owners joined together to fight the downswing.

     The economic debacle of 2008 led to budget woes for Hailey, which had to trim its operating budget by cutting staff positions and spending on city equipment to make up for a $500,000 shortfall, due to a sharp reduction in building-permit application fees.

     Bellevue had to choose between fixing its streets or fixing a snowplow to keep them clear in winter.

     City Engineer Tom Hellen doubled up on his duties early in the spring when he assumed the added role of public works director.

     “I’m busy, but it’s going very well,” Hellen said in July. “I have very good superintendents and they keep me out of trouble.”

     The Public Works Department shifted 12 employees to 10-hour, four-day workweeks to save gas money for the commute to Hailey from the south.

     In the merry month of May, Hailey was hit with a $260,000 bill from Blaine County to pay for salaries at a new emergency dispatch center, sparking a countywide fracas over who had to pay what for the new system.

     After county voters passed on a tax-levy override to pay for dispatch, both Hailey and Bellevue settled into a pay-as-you-go monthly agreement, so long as their levels of dispatch services are not reduced. A shaky truce between the county and the municipalities remains in place as 2009 begins.

     In September, Hailey metalworker Bob Wiederrick succeeded in gathering enough signatures from Hailey residents to challenge the city’s collection of development impact fees and business license fees on the November ballot. However, voters turned the measure down. Had it been successful, it would have drained city coffers of an estimated $2.5 million from the city’s five-year, $30 million capital improvement plan. 

     “This is the most pressing issue facing the city,” said Hailey Mayor Rick Davis, who took some heat for his governing style in September. Davis had invited a select group of Hailey residents (known as the Mayor’s Advisory Committee) to his Deerfield home for an information-gathering session over snacks and cocktails.

     A few weeks later he took more criticism from the City Council when he spoke publicly in favor of hotel developments in Ketchum. Council members said Davis should have made it clear that he was speaking as a private citizen.

     Yet the mayor steered a steady course through rough waters in 2008, holding a town hall meeting in October at the Community Campus to discuss some of the issues facing the city before the fall elections. They included the possible repeal of development impact fees, the big bill for dispatch and how the city spends its taxpayers’ money.

     Despite the bleak economic conditions, Hailey struck gold when it closed Main Street and provided an afternoon of entertainment on the Fourth of July that included the Hailey Criterium Bike Race.

     “We always knew we’d get 4,000 to 5,000 people in town,” said Hailey Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Jim Spinelli. “This year we kept them in town by keeping Main Street closed and pedestrian-friendly for five hours.”

     Business owners and  the mayor reported that Hailey had its biggest Fourth of July ever.

     Even after two big real estate developments took turns for the worse in Hailey, city officials are poised to work during the first months of 2009 on the biggest annexation request in the city’s history. The Planning and Zoning Commission plodded through five months of work over the summer in reviewing an annexation request by Quigley Green Owners LLC to bring about 1,100 acres in Quigley Canyon into the city. The firm hopes to build 379 homes, an 18-hole golf course, nordic skiing, biking and hiking trails, and a year-round clubhouse.

     Yet the P&Z recommended that the developer be kept from building in the upper reaches of the canyon, which it deemed too environmentally sensitive for development.

     The City Council will consider the Quigley annexation in months to come, in light of financial busts for both Sweetwater town homes in Woodside and Old Cutter’s subdivision, which was annexed on the east side of town last year.

     Bellevue will likely annex 100 acres for development in SlaughterhouseCanyon during the first few months of 2009.

     The South Valley Merchants Alliance rallied local businesses in 2008 for a series of community events that brought economic vitality to Hailey, including the Hailey Halloween Hoopla, and the Hailey Hometown Holidays events.

     “The alliance approach was working,” Spinelli said in November. “The small-business community is pretty stable in Hailey.”

     Spinelli said the alliance brought more local-option tax revenues to the city in 2008 by giving visitors and second home owners entertainment and other activities.

     “These are good reasons to stay in town,” he  said.

      Grassroots community business efforts worked in Bellevue to keep the town vibrant during the economic downturn. Councilwoman Tammy Eaton initiated “Hot Summer Nights,” showing classic movies during the long summer afternoons, while Bellevue restaurants and businesses stayed open late.

     On Halloween, Bellevue tricked out the Howard Preserve with an extraordinary HauntedForest, scaring the wits out of at least 1,500 people on a half-mile hike past pirates, goblins, hangings and monsters of all kinds.

     And as the north valley held its breath and waited for snow, Hailey brought 300 cheerleaders and their families to Hailey for a weekend competition hosted by the Soldier Mountain All Stars.

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