Friday, October 30, 2009

Letís not march blindly into the future

ďThe prevailing sentiment is the more tourists, the better.Ē

Van Gordon Sauter, a freelance writer and retired television news executive, lives south of Ketchum.


One almost presumes that several winter months ago a local visionary, caught in Ketchum traffic on a snowy Friday night while trying to fetch a critical dinner party ingredient from Atkinsons', looked to the sky while offering a prayer for a quick parking slot, and heard in response from on high a single, thundering, prophetic word: "Gondolas!"

Yes! Sleek silver tubes, bearing cheerful tourists and their credit cards, dangling from humming wires, linked by gleaming towers, moving above uncluttered streets between ski slopes, grandiose hotels, stylish restaurants, galleries, saloons, T-shirt shops, fortress banks and real estate offices.

This is the summer when relatively clear pictures of the potential Wood River Valley, circa 2025, heaved into view. Though their ramifications are barely discussed, researched or acknowledged, decisions being made by governments and the private sector will shape this valley and its quality of life well into the future.

While one may cheer or retch, the march to the future is well under way, predicated upon the local establishment's belief in a dramatically escalated volume of tourism and its assumed ability to usher forth an exhilarating era of economic nirvana.

Fairly or not, the gondolas and their conjured benefits will become emblematic of a tourism-based future. But there are passionate dissenters to the concept, people who contend there is a more broadly based economic future available to the valley, one less dominated by tourism and its depredation upon the local quality of life.

But for now, the establishment—the political class, the media, the broad business community—see tourism as the valley's economic driver, the one most available and most reliable. At this stage, the prevailing sentiment is the more tourists, the better.

The motivating force behind this vision is made up of three seeming inevitabilities, one public and two private: first, the new airport, capable of aggregating tourists on nonstop, high-volume flights (the airlines willing) from Chicago, Minneapolis, Denver or the major West Coast cities; second and third, the massive (by local standards) hotel, condo and residential developments at River Run and Warm Springs.

A south-of-Highway-20 airport appears inevitable, though it will be thrust well into the future by the scope of the task, the profoundly time-consuming, bureaucratic machinations and no doubt an inevitable spate of lawsuits, some from environmentalists motivated by a myriad of development-related anxieties. The developers of River Run and Warm Springs have the technical and presumed economic capability of moving forward with the advancing edge of any economic recovery, though one suspects they don't want to get that far head of the parallel march to a new airport and its hoped for revenue.

These three forces, and the comparatively minor development endeavors certain to follow in their wake, will dramatically alter the scale and feel of the valley, and the relationships within it. The tangible changes will be obvious:

· A dramatic increase in the use of rivers and streams, trails, streets, municipal facilities, recreational resources, etc. If the vague, off-the-cuff forecasts of an airport-generated tourism explosion are accurate, this will be a crowded little valley. Its growth will be accompanied by a dazzling construction boom, population expansion and burgeoning governments, services and taxes.

· The landscape itself will be altered by the massive accumulation of condos, hotel space and residences at River Run and Warm Springs, the possible addition of condo/hotels at the south entrance to Ketchum, the inevitable warrens of unsightly worker housing (one developer reportedly proposed 40 living units per acre at a large site near the hospital). The elevated tourism visits will also require a perhaps sizeable increase in service employees, the category now paid about $11 an hour. How these employees can sustain themselves in a pricey valley has yet to be discussed.

· The valley communities will experience a sizeable bloat over the years, and state Highway 75, a local version of the Long Island Freeway—clogged, treacherous and loathed—will run, or crawl, from Shoshone to a huge traffic circle south of Ketchum at River Run, and from there into the bottleneck of Ketchum. Living north of Ketchum will be increasingly attractive.

But make no mistake. If the commercial and political class visionaries are correct, large amounts of money and tax revenue will flow into the valley with this tourism-driven growth. Governments and their services/taxes will expand too, though their ability to anticipate, let alone keep pace with, societal and infrastructure change should be a source of concern.

While the new airport and the major developments are accepted as fact by the local establishment, there has been little public discussion about how this will impact our quality of life. Nor is there discussion of how strained community services will be financed, expanded and managed. Indeed, one doesn't even hear the most basic projections as to how increased tourism will change the valley's population. Or the school population. Or housing prices/availability.

Some dissidents, and there are many, believe this tourism-driven concept for the future is toxic—bad for the residents, bad for the environment. They envision a smaller net growth predicated upon higher-wage businesses that theoretically can be induced to relocate into this valley. They basically doubt the ability of the valley to absorb expanded tourism without a deteriorating quality of life. On the other hand, they are far from identifying with any credibility a feasible alternative to a tourism surge.

That forces now under way will inevitably change this valley is beyond doubt. The challenge will be setting realistic standards for growth and social accommodation, mediating the process and ending up with something resembling the original aspiration. But both sides in this struggle for the soul of the Wood River Valley must share a fundamental belief: The primary task of the government and the community must be protecting the area's traditional beauty, environment and personality, while rejecting, however lucrative, an Aspenization of the Wood River Valley that tangibly devalues the joy of living here.

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