Friday, September 4, 2009

Should River Run project include employee housing?

Details of project to be determined during review process


By JON DUVAL
Express Staff Writer

Sun Valley Co. is working on details of its plan to develop the River Run base area of Bald Mountain, near Ketchum.

The economic downturn has made the inclusion of employee housing an even more significant problem for Sun Valley Co. to resolve during the process of developing its 140-acre River Run property.

During a meeting Wednesday of the local Go Blaine economic strategy group, Andy Gunion, a project manager for Colorado-based development company East West Partners, said the downturn has made financing any high-end hotel project difficult, let alone one that includes workforce housing.

About 40 people attended the meeting at the Old County Courthouse in Hailey.

East West Partners was hired by the resort in March to review the resort's conceptual plans for its River Run property, as well as the White Clouds residential development on Trail Creek Road in Sun Valley. East West Partners will continue to advise the resort on its development plans.

The River Run project would include a four- to five-star hotel, multi- and single-family residential units, an "ecological park" and underground parking structures.

The resort's planned-unit development application and annexation request, submitted to Ketchum in mid-August, includes mention of employee housing but does not specify a number of proposed units. Hotel developments are required to provide housing at a ratio of 25 percent of the number of hotel rooms or bedrooms.

Chuck Madison, a partner at East West, said the number of employees at the hotel has yet to be determined, but that the new Westin Hotel in Beaver Creek, Colo., which East West Partners developed, has about 300 employees directly related to the operation of the hotel.

Gunion said Sun Valley Co. is considering bringing a major hotel brand in on the hotel project, which could increase visitors through another brand's loyalty reward program.

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George Kirk, a member of the Go Blaine board, said the local community should find an alternative to developers being required to provide on-site housing, which generates no revenue on expensive land.

"The workforce housing issue is an essential leg of the chair on which our economic strategy has to sit," said Kirk, himself a developer. "We need to develop a strategic community solution so when private projects come in, we have a plan in place."

Kirk said that could mean specifying areas where developers could more efficiently build housing for their employees.

Madison said he is aware that not housing employees could cause even more congestion on state Highway 75 and that the resort is continuing to work on a solution.

"The problem all hotel developers are having is how to create a viable project and comply with city codes," Madison said.

Gunion added that no large-scale hotel projects can acquire the necessary funding in today's market, but said that with luck the economy will turn around in time for the resort to stick with its schedule to begin construction in 2012, as noted in the PUD application.

During the meeting, Madison was asked if the River Run project might be tied to the relocation of Friedman Memorial Airport in Hailey. Plans are in development to build a new airport in far southern Blaine County, but completion could be eight to 10 years away.

Madison said the River Run plan is not linked to the airport plan.

"I wouldn't be here if the project wasn't going to start in five to seven years," he said.

Jon Duval: jduval@mtexpress.com




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