Friday, January 1, 2010

Ketchum ends 2009 bruised but not broken

Express Staff Writer

A group of well-wishers turned up outside of the First Bank of Idaho branch in Ketchum on April 27 after the bank was taken over by the FDIC the previous week. A liquidity problem led to federal intervention and U.S. Bank purchased all retail deposits. Photo by Willy Cook

Ketchum fought fiery forces in 2009 that were much harder to extinguish than the flames engulfing Whiskey Jacques' last year or the encroaching Castle Rock Fire two years ago. The national recession hit Ketchum like a cloud of napalm. And it still burns.

First Bank of Idaho falls

The takeover of First Bank of Idaho cemented the realization that Ketchum, though isolated, is not unaffected by the recession. On April 24, about 50 Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. employees arrived in Ketchum to take over the bank and its $280 million in retail deposits, eventually selling them to U.S. Bank for about $1.5 million. The FDIC stepped in because of concerns over the bank's lack of cash assets.

The FDIC intervention was especially felt by county businesses, several of which had their lines of credit with First Bank of Idaho frozen by the FDIC. Some of these businesses were already hurting, manifested in dwindling local-option taxes collected from sales of hotel rooms, condominium rentals, liquor sold by the drink, retail and building materials. For every month of 2009, the city collected an average of a quarter less in LOT than the 10-year average for those same months.

Hotels on the way, but when?

The city has been rushing hotel projects through the negotiation process in record time, hoping that quick approval from the city would kick-start construction. But developers are still asking for a larger-than-normal window to start construction, citing the recession and cash deficiencies as stalling factors.

Warm Springs Ranch Resort cleared its final hurdle in November, and the city has given developers four years to apply for a building permit and start construction, with a deadline of August 2019 for completion.

Bald Mountain Lodge developers—who are proposing Ketchum's first five-story hotel—wanted a five-year window to start construction because of trouble with financing, but the Planning and Zoning Commission suggested four years, same as Warm Springs. The City Council will take it up in January.

Sun Valley Co.'s base village at River Run should also be approved by the city some time in January, assuming negotiations move along. Even then, construction may take a decade to 15 years, according to company representatives, who say financing during the recession will slow progress.

Election brings city to a boil

The city's two incumbents—Mayor Randy Hall and Council President Baird Gourlay—won enough votes in November to keep their seats, but their confidence was definitely stirred by lost "voter confidence," as Gourlay put it. This lost support was evident in the unusually large pool of seven candidates running for council and three for mayor, many of whom ran on a platform of incumbent disapproval and vowing to undo wrongs made in the last two years.

In the end, voters supported their administration and also chose Nina Jonas, who'd never voiced incumbent disapproval during the campaign, to fill the vacant council seat. Jonas will make her first council appearance on Jan. 4.


Sheriff's office takes over

Halfway through the year, Ketchum handed control of its police department to the Blaine County Sheriff's Office under a contract to be reviewed every fiscal year, a move City Administrator Gary Marks said would save the city $1 million over the next four years.

But an unforeseen complication arose a few months into the change when Ketchum was told it might not receive a $198,000 federal grant that it had already been awarded. The change came because the city applied for the grant before the sheriff's office took over, and the U.S. Department of Justice now thinks Ketchum's police department may not exist at all.

Whether Ketchum will get the $198,000 check is still up in the air as the Justice Department re-reviews the city's new grant application.

Out of the ashes

A reborn Whiskey Jacques' saloon opened its doors for the first time a couple weeks ago, bringing a welcomed addition to downtown after the bar was reduced to ashes in September 2008. The interior was constructed to honor the original layout but with improvements like a state-of-the-art sound system.

Time will only tell if the resurrected watering hole is the first break in the storm clouds for the town surrounding Whiskey Jacques'.

Trevon Milliard:

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