Friday, January 1, 2010

One town, one headache

Van Gordon Sauter, a freelance writer and retired television news executive, lives south of Ketchum and in California. He wrote this essay in the spring of 2009, after an initiative to merge the cities of Ketchum and Sun Valley failed.


What's happened to our serene and benevolent valley? We have become a community ridden by issues and this year we were blanketed by yet another noxious cloud, a debate of "civic uplift and illumination." This time, the concept was the consolidation/merger/shotgun marriage between the towns of Ketchum and Sun Valley.

The "One Community, One Town" illusionists did not succeed, but they did confirm my fear of continuous siege by political-class apparatchiks. What will they do next? Will these soulless servants of mammon redraw this valley in a mirror image of Jackson or Aspen? How about that malignant fungus of development clinging to the hills around Park City? Can we get some of that?

The single-city-seers were indifferent to a town's DNA, a pattern of idiosyncrasies and imperatives that form a common character. You can walk from the heart of Sun Valley to the heart of Ketchum and find yourself in a very different DNA.

Ketchum, for instance, is named after a real person, David Ketchum, a pack train man and adventurer who ended up here after the fractious Indians were frog-walked to less promising locales. He lived in a shanty on Trail Creek and one day found a nugget in the water. Lore indicates it may have underwritten his eventual relocation to Arizona. Smart money roared in behind him and the town grew rambunctious and wealthy in direct proportion to the generosity of the mountains. And they were generous, until the collapse of silver prices in the early 1890s.

Then came the sheep men, and Ketchum emerged as the major sheep-shipping depot in America. The Basques roamed the hills with those ghastly little creatures while the shrewd guys sat around a stove in the old Lane Mercantile, playing checkers, discussing the biz and the unhinged folly of the outside world (i.e., beyond Bellevue).

Now, in a town of tenuous tourism and splendid though rarely occupied second homes, Starbuck's occupies the Lane Mercantile and serves Vanilla Rooibos Tea Lattes to the shiftless young and the recession-resistant dandies from Seattle and Los Angeles.

In sharp contrast, Sun Valley came about in 1936 after Averell Harriman and Bill Paley rolled into town on a private railroad car. Averill wanted to build a ski resort to lure high-end travelers onto his railroad. Bill, who had a day job creating CBS, thought it was a "build it and they will come" situation. So Averill bought the Brass Ranch at an estimated four bucks an acre, put up a resort, invited Hemingway and Cooper and Colbert, and hired a flack to find a name for the place. Voila! Sun Valley. And now it is a town with a huge resort, three golf courses and hundreds of astonishing private homes occasionally housing people who store on their speed dials the numbers for venomous attorneys to fight back the stooges plotting to debase their idyllic community.

So Sun Valley is the Duchin Lounge and Ketchum is the Casino. Sun Valley was Harriman, one of the last century's most urbane human beings. Ketchum took its name from a man who spent his days in the company of mules. Sun Valley reveres open space and corporate retreats. Ketchum wants worker housing, hotels and T-shirt shops. And so it goes.

But this battle is over. The state reasserted that when two towns merge, the community with the largest population keeps the name. Can you imagine Sun Valley Co. stationery identifying the resort as located in Ketchum, Idaho? So the tiny enclave called upon its wealth and power to fight and win. Sun Valley residents, who knew their town has big bucks in the bank, would never merge with the threadbare Ketchum, which has less money than a pre-nugget David Ketchum.

But the name battle of Olympian proportions is still to come. Somebody has to name the proposed new airport, most likely to be plunked down in some colossal sand trap far from the nearest green, or even greenery. Here's a suggestion. Let's haul some of the relocated Native Americans (the original locals) back to the valley. Invite along 50 or so blackjack dealers and some slot machine repairmen and put them into business. Their shamans, teamed with our apparatchiks and mammonites, can create the Timmerman Hill International Aerodrome and Bannock Tribal Casino, Spa and Discount Stores.

Now that is city planning!

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