Friday, April 22, 2011

Starbucks or a community story?


By BOB JONAS

OK, here's the scene: You're a visitor to the Wood River Valley for the first time. You've come to play. Or maybe you're checking the valley out as a place to locate—establish a business, even make a home. You wind up in Ketchum and are cruising downtown. You walk the length of the beautiful Fourth Street Heritage Corridor, then return to the classy Town Square with a drink and snack to refresh. You're impressed, so decide to stroll into the visitor center on the square to learn more about this new world.

And here, my fellow citizens, the drama begins in the latest act of a long-running local play that we can call "The Ketchum Economic Renaissance." As in previous dramas, the principal characters remain the same—agents bearing economic development proposals, the city of Ketchum and the public. They lock horns over the development proposals. But I digress.

Our pumped-up guest(s) are in the visitor center. Who will turn the key for them? Hawk the valley's many virtues and robust lifestyle? Provide our guests even stronger impressions about the beauty of a place for all ages, all seasons? About activities galore, exceptional arts and events? About a unique place to raise and grow families?

Certainly, the newly formed Sun Valley Marketing Alliance needs a place to tell the story and sell the Sun Valley brand. And they've got to have people on the floor who can immediately engage the visitor, move them around the center's story boards and answer questions. They'll need office space, too. Will there be a place for our Arts Alliance to show off the impressive local art scene, to orchestrate the gallery walks from? A place for the outfitter and guide community to represent tours into our Big Country, the vastness and wonder beyond town and the Sun Valley campus? And for our nonprofits, more than 100 strong, working for community sustainability, youth welfare and programming? A Blaine County Rec District booth to guide families into activity and day trips? A place for our Heritage Museum to depict our history, including the nation's first destination ski resort? An indoor area for community meetings and activity to complement the outdoor square? (Yeah, think mini theatre!) A place for a Starbucks coffee business?

And the winner is—Starbucks coffee!

The public bristles. How did this happen; when did it happen? It happened last Monday, April 11, in City Hall chambers. The mayor ran a ham-handed meeting that evaluated three tenant proposals. It was a public process sham. The decision was a slam-dunk. A 6-1 vote. No public input. Looked like they had their minds made up about Starbucks beforehand. One councilman said as much in his April 8 guest opinion in the Express. His opinion there is a blunt vote for Cairde Group/Starbucks before he'd even heard the other proposals.

Who's Cairde Group, the local investors bringing us Starbucks? Good question. Not a single Cairde agent has ever stepped forward in a public forum or local paper to present its proposal. No public face or voice. The city has been doing all the talking for them. So much for Cairde's community outreach from the get-go. You've got to wonder why.

The two proposals that got a summary dismissal from the city are nonprofit, community ventures. They'd occupy the entire visitor center with the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance. One proposal is kind of whimsical, but cool. It basically says, "Let the kids take over the place." The other, called the Ketchum Business Group, is a coalition of business and citizens that creates a "big screen" community story.

This public side has always contended that the development of the square and visitor center should be for public spaces and not commercial. It's an attitude that goes back to 2006 when the city funded consultation for a city/public partnership to create a downtown master plan to revitalize the town core and attract visitors and investment. That's all coming together as the Fourth Street Heritage Corridor, town square and the visitor center.

What will the visitor want? A Ketchum Town Square Starbucks or a Ketchum Town Square that sports and dramatizes our wonderful valley? Which investment will best represent our story and fulfill the downtown master plan vision? Will provide the most marketing value, one that benefits all Ketchum (and valley) business?

Let's table the Starbucks proposal. Let the public proposals combine, develop razzle-dazzle with their partners in the business and citizen community, and prove up this summer. Occupy the visitor center with the Sun Valley Marketing Alliance and pay for it. Put up cool signs that turn the visitor's head. Get innovative with the community story inside the center. Wow the visitors and provide personal service. I'm contributing my dollars and time.

Let's come together on this, demonstrate that we are a community of genius and creativity. Dazzle the visitor. Provide a visitor center experience that convinces our guests that, indeed, the valley is one of the most unusual places in the world. Will turn them on so they'll come back to play, maybe want a piece of the action, become part of a vibrant community? It's a golden opportunity and the best marketing value of all. There are 15,000 Starbucks, but only one Ketchum/Sun Valley.

Try it all for this summer and autumn, then reevaluate. Isn't that a better risk than entitling Cairde Group for five or 10 years, a new business entity with no previous history in Ketchum and one that claims no experience in the food business, to a long-term lease?

Mayor Randy Hall said it best this past autumn when speaking of an updated economic development plan for Ketchum: "The city of Ketchum will be guided by the good work already completed by other stakeholders. We will bring all Blaine County economic development stakeholders' ideas and insights together in a focused five-month process. We will listen, collaborate, engage our citizens and build a comprehensive plan chapter update reflective of the collective wisdom of our community."

Let's do that at Ketchum Town Square.

Bob Jonas is a lifelong resident of the valley. He is the father of Ketchum City Councilwoman Nina Jonas, who sits on the URA board.




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