Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Warm Springs request prompts housing discussion

Meeting, continued to Nov. 29, calls for more input from public

Express Staff Writer

A rendering of the Warm Springs Ranch Resort project shows a building downsized from what was originally approved by the city of Ketchum. The two parties are now trying to work out modifications to the plan in hopes of getting the project started. Courtesy graphic

Developers hoping to create a five-star hotel in the Warm Springs area of Ketchum are asking for changes to an agreement they made with the city two years ago. Ketchum leaders are now left to decide how much to give up in return for construction of the project—with its jobs, infusion of tax revenues and buzz of activity.

The City Council discussed Helios Development's requested amendments during a meeting Nov. 7.

Project representatives say the plan as approved in 2009 is no longer feasible.

"Since then, [there have been] significant changes in the local, national and international economies," said project attorney Ed Lawson. "Because of that, this project could have been shelved. But it has not been shelved."

He said the owners want to move forward, but in a modified way.

"We need your assistance to do that," he said.

Project owners want to downsize the development by about one-third and be excused from certain elements of the agreement, most notably the workforce housing units and some public recreation offerings.

The council is amenable to some changes. The question, however, is what amount of give and what amount of take the city is comfortable with.

Developers have said the workforce-housing component, to the tune of $10 million to $12 million, is not workable. Instead, they propose establishing a fund that would subsidize employees' rent or mortgages. The money would come from half of one percent of gross sales at the hotel, including from rooms, restaurant and gift shop transactions. Lawson estimated that could generate $130,000 per year for the fund.

"It saves a considerable amount of money at the front side of this project and (therefore) makes it more feasible," he said.

Council President Larry Helzel was uncomfortable with a quick decision exchanging "a permanent physical asset versus a flow of funds."

He said the city should take a more deliberate approach.

"The magnitude of the adjustments to the development agreement being sought by (the) developer are quite substantial in the area of employee housing," he told the Idaho Mountain Express in an email. "Ketchum is being asked to essentially 'trade' a new employee housing building on site for a dedicated revenue stream aimed at mitigating employee housing costs off-site."

To better gauge public sentiment on such an agreement, Helzel suggested continuing the meeting to a later date.

"(The) council felt that given the significance of the developers' proposed adjustments, that one more well-advertised public hearing, specifically focused on employee housing, would not only be appropriate, but would be an essential element of good public policy," he stated.

The council will hold a special meeting on the matter Tuesday, Nov. 29, at 5:30 p.m.

Rebecca Meany:

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