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Feature - Dissecting Paradise

Ketchum, Idaho works to involve community in Comprehensive Plan
Sun Valley Day Lodge

Second in a series of articles on community issues in mountain resort towns.

"Seems like everybody is coming. We had our hundred years of solitude, and now the West is turning itself into a make-believe place where celebrities and tourists and retirees roam and find homes. Beverly Hills in the highlands… " —

William Kittredge

The majority of western ski towns were first settled for mining or ranching, rather than for recreation or real estate pursuits. For these pioneers, life in the wilderness was extremely severe with no glamour or riches.

Ketchum, Idaho typified such western towns as from the 1820s to the 1930s it followed a cycle of boom and bust, first with silver and lead mining and later with livestock.

In 1935 the small, struggling town changed forever as W. Averell Harriman of the Union Pacific Railroad created the first rail-accessed destination ski resort in the west. The wealthy entrepreneur sent Austrian Count Schaffgotsch to travel his rails in search of a perfect ski mountain valley and found Ketchum.

Harriman purchased the 4,000 acre Brass Ranch and then set out to create a resort that could rival St. Moritz and other great European mountain destinations. The success of Sun Valley was in part due to the beautiful Wood River Valley and the surrounding Sawtooth Mountains, but it also found its prosperity through an effective marketing campaign. The entire resort was intended to appeal to the movie star set. With the allure of the 250-room Sun Valley Lodge Hollywood celebrities filled the lodge for the inaugural 1936 New Year’s Eve gala.

"If you had the money to ski, you came here." (Dorice Taylor quoted in Hal K. Rothman’s Devil’s Bargain — Tourism in the Twentieth Century American West ).

Sun Valley was initially a popular winter resort for the wealthy, but by the late 1930s, with added summer amenities, Sun Valley became a year round destination. The legacy continued when Ernest Hemmingway arrived in 1939 and made the Wood River Valley his summer home, where it was said that he reviewed For Whom the Bell Tolls on the Lodge’s patio (Rothman).

By the 1940s there was the new and pretentious Sun Valley Resort neighbouring hard working, and hard living Ketchum. Although the two municipalities are just steps away from each other, their origins were miles apart. Ketchum has a historic downtown surrounded by neighbourhoods; Sun Valley has a luxury hotel surrounded by cul de sacs and condominiums. Despite the conflicting ideals of its younger and trendier sister, Ketchum has persevered and adapted to the community’s demographic changes. It has a diverse population with approximately 3,800 permanent residents comprised of generational families, ski bums, second homeowners, celebrities, entrepreneurs and service staff.

The realization that Ketchum is a real town was likely no more apparent than over the past six years as the City of Ketchum has embarked on the development of a new Comprehensive Plan (a.k.a. Official Community Plan). The previous plan had been adopted in 1983, and despite a continued no-growth sentiment, the city needed to respond to more recent social, environmental and economic realities. The major issues identified by the town included:

• Increasing number of residents living from retirement income and sources outside the local economy;

• Many business owners and workers not city residents;

• Escalating land values out of reach from local residents;

• Many existing older buildings, which provided lower cost housing and commercial space as well as a "turn of the century western feel," have been torn down;

• Increased traffic activity into and out of the city;

• Sensitive environmental areas;

• Changing trends in the tourism and ski industry make it more difficult for single, small, stand-alone resorts to compete.

In March 2001, nearly six years after the planning process began, Ketchum adopted its new Comprehensive Plan. Just as interesting as the issues and the final plan is the journey Ketchum took to find the answers. Planning and Zoning Administrator for the City of Ketchum, Lisa Horowitz, indicated that the final plan is a good document but the six-year time period was never contemplated. "The public involvement process went on too long and after 18 months, the public began to lose interest," she said. Nonetheless the outreach methods developed during this period proved to be effective and innovative.

The Comprehensive Plan rewrite comprised approximately 50 public hearings and meetings leading up to the plan’s adoption (they actually list them all in the plan), nearly half of the sessions within the final six months. Although the amount of public input seems unbelievable, the more interesting aspect of the Ketchum process was the forums which staff developed to ensure participation of all interested factions of the community. In designing the community outreach process city staff truly wanted to ensure participation of a wide range of people from the resident and business community, building trust by sincerely considering and incorporating comments into the planning process. In addition to public forums a telephone survey was commissioned early in the process to add to the background information. Horowitz indicated that the survey proved to provide an accurate representation of the community and a fair assessment of community issues.

The city started with a kick-off event – "Make a Difference" – whereby 200 participants took part in individual and small group activities which traced Ketchum’s history, suggested milestones for the future and worked towards consensus on which issues ought to be addressed in the new Comprehensive Plan.

The next effort involved reaching out to constituents by setting up "Listening Posts." This involved the city setting up office at popular meeting spots to gather input from people too busy to attend a meeting. The initiative clearly respected that if a city really wants input, there are times when it must get out and pursue it.

The creative public input sessions then turned to entertainment with the First Street Fairs. The two fairs in downtown Ketchum provided an opportunity for the city to simulate certain improvements during the events, while also an opportunity to participate in social and commercial activities.

Following the series of public outreach sessions monthly policy forums were held to stimulate discussion on certain issues. The Draft Plan was released at the second First Street Fair, where the community could comment. A more detailed analysis followed when the draft was considered at weekly planning commission meetings. The planning commission conducted 20 public hearings on the plan, followed by city council’s statutory meetings, held prior to adoption.

The city also put effort into ensuring strong and diversified attendance at the forums. In addition to radio campaigns and flyers, the city initiated newspaper ads that rejected the traditional bureaucratic rhetoric in favour of catchy cartoons that poked fun and added light to the difficult process. Meeting venues varied from street corners to the luxurious River Run Lodge (Sun Valley Resort’s base lodge), and provided food to ensure that participants would remain involved. Horowitz indicated that the most successful meetings were those which abandoned the "public hearing format" and encouraged small discussion groups.

At the end of the process 130 pieces of written correspondence were received. Although the planning process carried on too long, the time was well spent as Ketchum now has a truly comprehensive plan that sets out the city’s course for the future.



• For 62 seasons Denver-area skiers have benefited from the Winter Park Ski Train, which for $89 US includes the train and the lift ticket. This year Eastern Colorado skiers have another way to avoid the Interstate and travel in luxury to the slopes. The Aspen Ski Plane has arrived where for just $99 US skiers can fly from Denver International Airport to Aspen, ski for the day and return to Denver for the evening. The lift ticket (which alone sells for $64 US) is included. (Denver Post)

• In the Methow Valley, in eastern Washington State, a sleepy town with incredible natural and recreation amenities (specifically cross country skiing and mountain biking) is being over run by city slickers and second homeowners. In an attempt to ensure that the new arrivals don’t recreate what they were trying to escape, the Methow Conservancy has published the "Good Neighbor Handbook — A Guide to Landowners in the Methow Valley… the Handbook provides a nuts and bolts approach to problems faced by new homeowners, covering everything from wildfire protection to noxious weed removal to energy conservation. It even gives tips on building homes that won’t outrage neighbors." (High Country News)

• On September 25-28, 2002 the University of Denver, University of Colorado and Simon Fraser University are sponsoring a conference titled: Mountain Resort Planning and Development in an Era of Globalization. To be held in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, the conference is being co-ordinated in part by Alison Gill of SFU’s Department of Geography. Part of the conference will examine the contemporary practices and future challenges in designing and planning for mountain resort communities. (For more information see their Web site

• Taking a Family Vacation to Aspen? Better BYOB (Bring Your Own Babysitter). The going rate for child minding in Aspen is $18 US/hour" (That is $26 CDN/hr.) (Aspen Daily News)