Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Warm Springs: The lonely ‘step child’

Bald Mountain’s northern base area is destined to remain underdeveloped

Express Staff Writer

Snowboarders head toward the lifts at the Warm Springs base area of Bald Mountain. Photo by Willy Cook

Brian Barsotti sits behind an unusually long desk, its wood top paralleling the panoramic windows at his back. Bald Mountain, soaked in sunlight and dotted with zigzagging skiers, fills the panes, apexing out of sight above the edge of the glass. Barsotti, a local attorney and a developer for 34 years, swivels his chair around but doesn't look up to the mountain. He peers down at Warm Springs base village a story below and sighs.

The village is an appendage community of Ketchum, connected to the town's torso by 2.5 miles of narrow valley and one street, Warm Springs Road. The village—tucked away on the far side of Bald Mountain northwest of town—serves as one of two mountain gateways for skiers. The other is the more accessible and expansive River Run, facing Ketchum on the south side of town.

Despite Warm Springs' being the mountain's only other skier portal, it hasn't guaranteed prosperity to village businesses. Barsotti points to Bald Mountain Inn, the only Warm Springs hotel, just 100 yards from the ski lifts.

"We've lost money every year at Bald Mountain Inn," he said of the hotel he owns.

Barsotti's law office is one of the few businesses remaining in the once vibrant Warm Springs base village. The rest—Apple's Bar & Grill, Sturtevants outfitters and Sun Valley Ski Education Foundation—are also huddled into the two-story Greyhawk Alpine Center. The building, long and narrow like Barsotti's desk, is about the last vestige of the village's commercial space. Residences have progressively crowded out businesses, leaving the center as the last commercially leasable building between the neighborhood and ski area.

Sturtevants owner Rob Santa calls it the "residentialization of Warm Springs," which wouldn't be as much of a problem if people lived in the houses, making it a lively neighborhood. But Barsotti points up the street to his condo for rent—it hasn't seen one tenant this ski season. Plus, he said, most of the houses are part-time residences, remaining empty most of the time.

"I know what goes on here because I probably spend more time at Warm Springs than anybody. I'm here every day, and Warm Springs suffers incredibly from 'dark-street syndrome,'" he said, adding that others don't venture into Warm Springs because it's so quiet. "People want to be where there's activity."

The base village buzz has been quieting since the 1980s. However, PK's Ski and Sports co-owner Baird Gourlay argues, it abruptly drew even closer toward silence in October 2007 when Barsotti leveled the Baldy Base Camp. The building housed PK's and WrapCity, among others.

"There was no question, it was much more lively before that," he said. "It was an active spot for PK's. With that building torn down, there was no room and PK's had to leave Warm Springs."

Barsotti agrees that the building's demolition has left a hole. He tore it down with plans of building a hotel on the Picabo Street property, plans that have come to a halt.

"We've designed the hotel," he said, pulling up the design on his computer. "There it is, but it will never get built."

He said investors aren't willing to take the risk, and not just because of the economy.

"Look what's going on outside, nothing," he said. "Would you want to build a hotel here?"

Warm Springs is caught in a conundrum. It needs more businesses to spark activity, but businesses won't come unless there's activity to sustain them.

"We wouldn't build it if we had the money," Barsotti said of his planned hotel. "It wouldn't survive alone."

Barsotti said the Base Camp property would most likely end up housing a single residence, adding to the problem. For now, it will remain a vacant lot.

About the only other holder of undeveloped Warm Springs land is Sun Valley Co., the ski mountain operator, which owns 46 acres between the mountain's base and Warm Springs Creek.

"The commercial future of Warm Springs is dependent on Sun Valley Co.," Barsotti said.


It wasn't always 2nd best

Jack Sibbach, Sun Valley Resort spokesman, said that through the 1980s, 80 percent of skiers ascended Baldy via Warm Springs. With the opening of the River Run Lodge in 1994 came the downfall of Warm Springs. Sibbach said six out of 10 skiers now use River Run.

Santa admitted that River Run is the logical choice: more room for parking and closer to guests, many of whom come from the south. This didn't keep the Ketchum city government from trying to spark development at Warm Springs. It embarked on an effort a few years ago to provide incentives to Warm Springs developers—mostly Sun Valley Resort.

"I think there's a tremendous opportunity there," said City Councilman Gourlay.

He said the city has changed zoning to allow bigger buildings and planned infrastructure projects, an event area and more. However, he and the city discovered that incentives or not, the resort isn't interested. Its sights are steadily set on River Run.

As a result, Gourlay said, the city has lost interest in Warm Springs.

"It's a tough one," he said. "The city has frankly lost its focus. Bottom line, I'd love to see something happen in Warm Springs."

However, he said, the city's efforts would be "totally speculative" without the resort's committing as well.

"Let's go with something we know will actually occur—River Run," he said.

Will Warm Springs recover?

Wally Huffman, Sun Valley Co.'s director of resort development, said the resort is leaning almost entirely on River Run, evident in the 138 acres of River Run property it had annexed into the city late last year. It's now ready for the largest development Ketchum has seen—River Run base village.

"We are focusing on River Run, but not because there's not potential at Warm Springs," he said, though adding, "We haven't been all that excited to take it on."

Even though the resort owns 46 acres at Warm Springs base, he asserts that only 15 are developable, which are currently being used for parking. The remaining 31 acres are on land that's too steep.

"We realize that the land is too valuable to just park on, but River Run will come first," Huffman said, referring to Warm Springs as a "stepchild."

Warm Springs isn't without its potential.

USA Today named Apple's Bar & Grill as one of the "10 great places for post-ski nightlife."

"It has an intimate, local après-ski vibe," the paper wrote.

Apple's owner Hank Minor said the number of his customers has declined, but the vast majority of those who remain are the longtime locals "bummed" about its de-evolution.

"Apple's is the only attraction out here," said Minor, a 41-year-old born and raised in Ketchum. "This certainly is a different place. How the hell did it get here?"

Santa said Warm Springs remains the side for "those who know the difference."

"You're in the sun at the end of the day," he said, adding that River Run skiers are cast in cold shadows all afternoon. "No matter what they do, they can't change that."

Trevon Milliard:

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