Who Can Save Ketchum?
An evolving town races to define itself
PHOTOGRAPHY Tal Roberts
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Thirty-year-old general contractor Carter Ramsay is a modern-day pioneer. The North Carolina native moved to the West in 2002 with little more than his pieced-together diesel pickup and a yen for the mountains. He landed in Ketchum and learned to ski. He married his girlfriend, Margot, and the couple pondered their future. They thought of moving back to the South. He had thoughts of medical school, she of nursing. But they decided to stay in Ketchum, to make a go of it in central Idaho. Today, the Ramsays want the simple things—good friends, a sturdy house, and stable careers to support the lives they chose.
At six-foot-two, Ramsay is a big man. With an unruly mane and bushy brown beard, he looks even larger standing in the Ramsay Solutions office, a ten-by-fifteen-foot walk-up on Ketchum’s Fourth Street. The room is directly above Perry’s, a popular breakfast and lunch spot, and every morning the sweet smell of fresh chocolate chip cookies fills the air.
Ramsay is a fourth-generation builder. His great-grandfather was a surveyor. His father and grandfather were architects. In Ketchum, Ramsay is passionate about his work. Caught in his office late one Friday evening, when most of his peers were either throwing back the first of the weekend’s beers or heading into the mountains on camping trips, he explained his work ethic in terms of ownership: “My name is on the door,” he said.
Ramsay Solutions is a young business, but it has grown quickly. Ramsay has pursued work doggedly, going so far as calling or e-mailing former Sun Valley Company General Manager Wally Huffman every week for more than twenty weeks to place a bid on the resort’s upcoming River Run construction projects. In early September, he was still waiting for a return call. Ramsay said he would build anything that might help his business grow, and he recently secured a bid with Cox, the Omaha-based cable giant, to construct desks for their Ketchum offices.
So far, the scale of Ramsay’s projects has not matched his ambition. He desperately wants to contribute to and benefit from the resort town’s evolving economy. He and Margot want to feel settled, woven into a sturdy community fabric. But in Ketchum, a town in the throes of a volatile identity crisis, Ramsay’s aspirations seem increasingly out of reach.
Since its founding in 1880 by a handful of miners, Ketchum has long attracted an enterprising type of character. Cagey, self-made men were common then and after, when the town morphed into a major sheepherding hub. Evolving through the Union Pacific years and the birth of the star-dusted Sun Valley Resort, Ketchum awarded hungry self-starters—men like Ed Scott, founder of Scott USA and inventor of the aluminum ski pole, and Warren Miller, who launched his storied ski-filming career from a trailer behind his Buick in the River Run parking lot.
As it grew, the town’s isolation was both blessing and curse. Through the end of the twentieth century, more accessible Western ski towns evolved in a hurry. In Park City, Utah, development spread across the rolling, sage-covered hillsides. In Summit County, Colorado, base-area “villages” rose in a blink. But in central Idaho, the Sun Valley Resort changed ownership just three times in seventy years.
The Wood River Valley was a good place for people who didn’t like change. A live-and-let-live attitude took hold, and the community drew an eclectic mix: young ski bums, wealthy hermits, nature fanatics, old ski bums, health gurus, writers, artists and big-city refugees. Locals called the place Ketchum U, an imaginary college town safe from Real World pressures.
Then in a way that seemed both slow and all-at-once, things changed. It was during those years when the West became the New West, when sushi was no longer a luxury. Families moved to Hailey. The mining shacks went down and the galleries went up. The demographics flipped, and the banks opened. On any given Friday night, people walked out of the Pioneer Saloon to an eerie quiet on Main Street.
And so the question, “What is happening to Ketchum?” arises today with startling regularity. Through the steam rising from mugs in Valley coffee shops, across the umbrella-shaded tables of summer barbecues, locals fret and whine. To those who call Ketchum home, uncertainty about their town’s future has become the norm.
Such navel-gazing hasn’t produced many solutions. Instead, a powerful inertia seems to be dragging one of America’s classic ski towns toward a collectively unwanted end—a shut-off enclave, where no middle class can thrive, devoid of youthful vigor, dying on a gilded vine. >>>