Who Can Save Ketchum?
An evolving town races to define itself
PHOTOGRAPHY Tal Roberts
(page 2 of 3)
In today’s interconnected America, Ketchum is an island no longer. The issues that shape local development have been handed down by larger national trends. The story is by now familiar. In the past fifteen years, a surging economy (and an all-consuming housing bubble) generated unprecedented wealth, and the Valley’s second homes grew in both number and scale. People still come to Ketchum to get away from it all. They just stay in mansions when they do.
Through the changes, few complained. A boomtown by nature, Ketchum knew what to do with a sudden influx of cash. Local developers, builders, architects, real estate agents, interior designers—i.e., the local economy—were keen to the windfall. By 2006, when a 10,000-square-foot mansion north of Ketchum was, relatively speaking, not that big, the average home price in the area had reached $2.4 million.
George Kirk thinks he has a solution. He wants a more sustainable, year-round community of full-time residents. His vision centers on high-density development. Smaller homes on smaller plots will lower housing prices, which in turn will entice young families and small businesses to move in.
“What’s the largest impediment to affordable housing?” Kirk asked. “It’s the high cost of land.” Decrease the space between them and home prices will drop, triggering a domino effect of common-good.
Kirk moved to central Idaho from San Diego in 1988, and in 1997 he founded The Kirk Group, a real estate investment and development company. He has since been the lead developer on a number of prominent commercial and business projects, including the Smith Optics building on Lewis Street in Ketchum and the Airport West business park in Hailey.
For the developers, builders and architects who believe in the restorative effects of high-density building (and their numbers are legion), the obstacles go beyond prohibitive pricing. Despite his established record of success, several of Kirk’s community-minded efforts have floundered. Even when land can be secured, sound proposals have caved under a barrage of pressures. As Kirk sees it, interests seemingly at odds—environmental, political, social and economic—conspire to obstruct fresh ideas.
“There is a political contingent in our community that the simple word ‘development’ scares tremendously,” Kirk said. “It makes them really, really, really afraid. And that political contingent has done very well in creating enough doubt in the minds of elected officials that oftentimes they simply won’t render a decision.”
Channeling his inner councilman, Kirk ponders the quandary: “If we allow this kind of density in one place, then are there going to be negative impacts that we wish we hadn’t made to legitimate things like water, wildlife, wetlands, hillsides?”
While Kirk agrees that wildlife and water issues are vital to the Valley’s character, he worries that some decisions value environmental preservation to the detriment of the human community.
He has submitted several proposals that resulted in lengthy litigation. A development just south of Ketchum, near St. Luke’s Wood River Medical Center, was tied up in Idaho courtrooms for four years, until spring 2009. At the end of such battles, with money and energy diverted, developers’ options can range from bad to worse. Many, Kirk conceded, settle on something, anything, simply to make a living.
Kirk said that what keeps him going are the young people still working to live in the Valley. When he moved there in 1990, the majority of the town’s workers lived in Ketchum. “Now it’s only 12 percent,” he said, citing a 2006 Blaine County Housing Authority study. “Sure, I have a great business, a family, a home. It’s easy for people to say, ‘What are you bitching about?’ But I think we have lost the young people. I think we lost me twenty years ago. I think we’ve lost Carter [Ramsay], and I think that is a shame.”
While Kirk is acutely concerned with the exodus of the young, others point to Ketchum’s stagnant tourist trade as greater cause for worry. To these town elders, hotels are the answer.
In the past four years, large-scale luxury hotel projects have gained considerable traction. In early 2008, Lisa Horowitz, Ketchum’s community and economic development director, said there had
“been a change in the political and community climate.” There was, she said, “a recognition of a need” for the hotels (Idaho Mountain Express, Feb. 15, 2008). Within just over a year, the Ketchum City Council followed the Ketchum Planning and Zoning Commission’s recommendations and approved plans for three major hotels.
In scope and number, the projects are ambitious and, according to John Sofro, wise. Sofro is a real estate broker and co-founder of the Wood River Economic Partnership, a conglomerate of business owners and residents who lobby on behalf of development.
Sofro is more than just business-oriented. He is heavily involved in Ketchum’s cultural and social worlds. He sits on the boards of the nexStage Theatre and the Sun Valley Wellness Festival. He co-founded the Ketchum Events Planning Committee, a group on a mission “to create a fun and festive atmosphere in the north-Valley.” They promote the popular Ketchum Wide Open miniature golf tournament and various holiday street parties. On his own, Sofro has hosted nightlife events like the Plaza Night Concert Series and the Club 511 parties.
His efforts have not been in vain. Since Ketchum lost its largest nightclub and live-music venue, Whiskey Jacques’, to a September, 2008 fire, social planners have surged to fill the void. For Sofro, an active social world is “what makes a community whole, what makes a community vibrant and vital.”
When it comes to development, he is focused on tourism. “In the last 15 years, most, if not all, of our development was centered on second homes. Based on the amount of time second-home owners spend here—which isn’t much—their presence here alone is not enough to sustain our economy.”
Sofro believes hotels will help reverse the trend. In the jargon of developers and city planners, the key is “hotbeds,” rooms with high turnover that promise a more consistent return than empty mansions. Hotels will open the valve for a steady stream of visitors pouring through a perpetually revolving door. Plus, today’s visitors could be tomorrow’s residents.
Ketchum’s sudden embrace of the hotel mantra has not been timid. The proposed construction is, in fact, unprecedented. The largest of them is the Warm Springs Ranch Resort, a sprawling development centered on a 418,245-square-foot hotel, which would be among the largest in Idaho. To give this number some scale, picture the Cabela’s outdoor retail store in Boise (a former CostCo building)—you could fit three Cabela’s inside the construction slated for Warm Springs Road. Locally speaking, the hotel will be more than 700 percent larger than the Wood River YMCA, one of the biggest buildings in Ketchum.
“That’s a substantial amount of square footage to do in one fell swoop,” said Jennifer Gilliland, buildings division manager for the city of Boise. “For our state, no matter what jurisdiction, that is a good, healthy size project.”
Local architect and former Sun Valley Planning and Zoning commissioner Mark Pynn sees it in starker terms. “I think it’s a mega-structure,” he said.
But Sofro is all in. “There has been no more vocal and outspoken person in support of that project than myself.”
Warm Springs Ranch Resort is the largest of Ketchum’s looming projects, but its projected peers are not meek. Main Street’s Bald Mountain Lodge would be 225,700 square feet, or a little more than twice the size of the Sun Valley Lodge. The Hotel Ketchum (also on Main Street) and the Ketchum Lodge (adjacent to the post office) were submitted at 148,000 and 173,000 square feet, respectively.
All told, the four projects could reach 1.27 million square feet, create 345 hotel rooms, cost over $700 million, and be under construction for the next six years. Factor in the much-anticipated Sun Valley resort hotel at the River Run base area, and Ketchum could witness what would be among the largest building sprees at any one time, in any one place, in Idaho history.
DDRM, the Park City developer behind the Warm Springs Ranch Resort, estimates their project would create an annual city tax revenue of $4.1 million and $389 million in retail sales in a fifteen-year period. The promises are intoxicating, especially to budget-strapped cities eager to fund public projects that will serve both tourists and residents alike. >>>