Wednesday, September 16, 2009

How does Sun Valley measure up?

Consultants compare the area to 3 successful resort towns

Express Staff Writer

A resort expert told Ketchum city officials last week that the Sun Valley resort area has excellent recreational facilities but needs a vision for the future. Photo by Mountain Express

Consultant Becky Zimmerman has been helping resort towns develop into resort destinations for more than a decade. Last week she brought her expertise to Ketchum and told city leaders what will be needed to push Ketchum and the Wood River Valley up to the next level.

"I think the ingredients are there," she said of the valley's array of four-season recreation opportunities. "That's at the top of the list in all resorts, but the area is without a defined vision. What do they think they are today? What do they want to become?"

A cohesive plan is essential, said Zimmerman, president of Design Workshop, a Colorado-based firm that provides landscape architecture, urban design and strategic services for areas planning on new growth. The firm works with golf courses, college campuses, parks and open space, and resort communities. Zimmerman, who specializes in resort towns, guided Whistler, B.C., through its rebirth into a worldwide destination resort.

Zimmerman has been hired as a consultant for Sun Valley Co. for its River Run project designed to occupy 140 acres at the base of Bald Mountain. The proposed project would include a 150- to 200-room luxury hotel, up to 650 residential units, a spa, restaurants and a parking structure. To explain a course of action for River Run and the entire valley, Zimmerman referred back to her work with Whistler.

Before the leaders of Whistler even took a step toward expansion, they decided exactly what their goal was and devised what came to be called the "Whistler 20/20." The comprehensive plan outlined a desired identity for the town, whether as a resort town capitalizing on its cultural history, a high-class getaway or a world-class destination resort. They decided on the last option and set out a plan looking 20 years into the future to get there. The plan also entailed a 20-year look into the past. The Whistler 20/20.

"That was a huge effort," she said. "It took years to put together."

She said the plan doesn't mean that every choice is already made for 20 years to come. Rather, it's a photo to look at for guiding the town's hand, so that every brush stroke brings the town closer to the same finished painting.

"Whenever a request is made, the plan provides a context in which to make decisions," Zimmerman said. "It says, 'We don't have to get there on the same road, as long as we end up at the same destination."

Zimmerman acknowledged that Sun Valley and Ketchum have comprehensive plans, but they're "without a cohesiveness."

Exactly what kind of resort does the Wood River Valley want to be?

Zimmerman took the Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission on a virtual tour of three successful resort towns last week to help the town answer that question.

"It might not be quite as fun as a real road trip," she said, "but it's more beneficial."

Chuck Madison, a partner in charge of resort development for the firm East West Partners, co-piloted the tour with Zimmerman, describing the successes of resort towns Northstar in Lake Tahoe, Calif., and Beaver Creek, Colo.—along with Whistler.

Madison worked with Beaver Creek since its inception in 1980 and helped Northstar for seven years.

Madison and Zimmerman distilled the success-making attributes of these resorts and looked at the Wood River Valley for a comparison. They pointed out the valley's deficiencies in accessibility and its availability to the younger crowd.

Madison said the permanent population of younger people in the Ketchum/Sun Valley area has been dropping for some time.

"That's not particularly good and needs to change," he said.

Madison added that another key to successful resorts is access to and mobility within them once people arrive. When Beaver Creek started 30 years ago, only small planes came in from Denver to the small airport. Now, he said, 757s fly in nonstop from 14 cities.

In that aspect, the Wood River Valley stands where Beaver Creek began.

"I've been to Sun Valley 60 to 70 times in the past 10 years," Zimmerman said. "And it's not easy to get to."

But does the valley want Beaver Creek's kind of growth? That's something that needs to be decided. And that's where a 20/20 plan is worth the time to write, Zimmerman said.

Trevon Milliard:

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