By ROCKY BARKER
STANLEY, Idaho— Late last month, Idaho 21 was lined with cars during the arts and craft fair on this town’s biggest weekend of the year, the Mountain Mamas Festival.
Whitewater boaters were gathering for river trips. Motels were full. Live music had the four bars stomping. The line at the popular Stanley Baking Company stretched outside and across Wall Street.
The activity spread to the campgrounds, lakes, and hiking and biking trails of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area, the Delaware-sized outdoor playground that surrounds Stanley.
But come fall and winter, the crowds disappear. Stanley, with 350 acres and a listed population of 63, struggles as year-round employment dries up, the road to Boise sometimes closes and the few high school-age students travel to Challis.
But Stanley’s seasonal isolation could change, say hopeful local residents.
Two Idaho families with longtime ties to Stanley have purchased half of the town’s commercial district, including its main motel-restaurant-bar, its gas and service station, and its grocery - all of which were owned for a long period by an inattentive absentee corporation.
Russell and Mandy Clark and their partners already have made improvements to Mountain Village Resort, the major employer in Stanley. And they have a vision to turn it and the mountain town into a year-round resort community.
Meanwhile, Leon and Judy Jones, owners of the Smiley Creek Lodge on the southern end of the valley, helped the Stanley Library find a new home and developed the Stanley Town Square, including opening a second year-round cafe.
“I think it’s fantastic,” said Keith Reese, owner of Sawtooth Valley Builders and a longtime resident. “It sure has been a long time coming.”
Reno casino millionaire Bill Harrah first came to Stanley in 1946 and fell in love with its freewheeling frontier atmosphere. He began buying up the town with a vision of preserving that frontier spirit while also providing services 365 days a year so people could live there year-round.
“He wanted to buy the town to preserve it,” said Tom Kovalicky, the first administrator of the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and a part-time resident of Stanley today.
Harrah purchased a restaurant, motel, two gas stations and the grocery store. When he died, in 1978 at age 67, he was building a large log lodge with a dining room and a big dance floor on the banks of the Salmon River along Idaho 75.
The lodge burned and the Harrah’s business, focused on its casinos, had little interest in its Stanley holdings.
With neither attention nor investment, the businesses went downhill. Disgusted with the company’s neglect, many locals even boycotted the store and other Harrah’s holdings. Beginning in 2006, Harrah’s sought to sell its 54 acres and the businesses for a price reportedly in excess of $15 million.
Russell Clark grew up in Shoshone and his family has been in Stanley for years. He said he didn’t have to pay $15 million but declined to say how much he and partners Doug and Cheri Blevins, of Jerome, did pay.
Clark, a University of Idaho-trained engineer, said he decided to revive Bill Harrah’s vision of a year-round resort community that caters to both visitors and locals.
“One day I was sitting in the Casino Club (bar and restaurant) and I decided I want to buy that place,” Clark said. “Since then, the thought never left my mind.”
The Blevinses own Giltner Trucking in Jerome and have had a cabin in the Stanley area. Since joining the Clarks, the partners have hired a full-time mechanic in the service station, added fresh produce at the store and installed Russell Clark’s mom, Shellie, as chef in the Stanley Club restaurant connected to the motel.
Clark plans to upgrade the motel rooms with an authentic Western theme, he said, “instead of that 1970s casino look you have now.”
“Our motto is to bring it back to the vision Bill Harrah had,” he said.
Eventually, Clark said, he wants to develop a resort around the natural hot springs behind the motel.
Such a development could be the holy grail for economic development in Stanley, locals say.
“That is the one resource that could be a game-changer,” said Reese.
Clark, 36, is just one of the new generation of entrepreneurs seeking to transform Stanley from a sleepy, seasonal outpost to a year-round community.
Tim and Becky Cron, owners of the Stanley Baking Company & Cafe, have made it a breakfast destination known statewide for its oatmeal pancakes, scones and cinnamon rolls.
With Becky’s sister, Kelli Kerns, they purchased the Sawtooth Hotel, one of the oldest buildings in town, and reopened its lodging, along with dinners five days a week.
At Redfish Lake, the lodge has completed its own makeover and now plans to replace the general store next door.
The Stanley Library used to be in a house on Ace-of-Diamonds Street across from the Casino Club. Its efforts to have a place of its own were realized when the Joneses decided to develop the square around the block. Once the land was secured, library supporters raised $600,000 for the building and furnishings, Reese said.
Reese, the builder and now manager of the square, said a developer simply looking for a profit might have passed up the investment, which today houses The Sluice Ale House, overnight accommodations, business offices and an art gallery.
“I would describe it as a gift to the community from Leon and Judy Jones,” Reese said.
Clark said he needs community support if he is going to achieve success for Stanley. He tells his staff that to visitors, Stanley is a resort, and they have to treat their guests that way.
But Stanley also is a community, he said, and he can’t survive if townspeople don’t shop at the grocery, buy gas and eat at the restaurant.
He said what matters is “what the town will accept.”