Western mountain towns, perhaps more than any other small towns in the United States, are relentlessly introspective. They are forever assessing their image, wondering what outsiders might be thinking or saying about them. They embark on quests and fact-finding missions, trying to understand what they're doing right and doing wrong. And, in an atmosphere of fierce competition, they are seemingly always comparing themselves to other mountain towns, seeking to see how they measure up.
Ketchum and Sun Valley—a pair of cities that essentially comprise one destination mountain resort—are no exception. Residents and city leaders often wonder how their community compares to places such as Jackson, Wyo., Telluride, Colo., and the patriarch of grand destination ski resorts, Aspen, Colo.
The reasons for the comparison with Aspen are obvious. Both places feature a quaint former mining village at the base of a photogenic world-class ski mountain. Both are near the end of a long river valley dotted with small towns and ranches that are forever giving way to growth, which is driven in part by stratospheric "up-valley" real estate prices. And both have seen drastic changes in the last 20 years, as many of the last remnants of the Old West faded in favor of the new and the chic, and the true ski bums of old became an endangered species.
With notable regularity, sometimes with hope and other times with despair, the question is asked, "Are we becoming Aspen?"
Christopher Simms, executive director of Hailey-based Citizens for Smart Growth, a group that monitors and tries to guide growth in Blaine County, said the answer seems to be a qualified, perhaps even restrained, "Yes."
"I think there are all kinds of parallels," he said. "But it seems Aspen had a higher profile in the 1970s and 80s, so I think their growth occurred faster."
Indeed, many of the facts and numbers suggest that the Sun Valley area, along with the surrounding Wood River Valley, is surprisingly similar to Aspen and its surrounding area, the Roaring Fork River Valley.
Aspen's population is estimated to be around 9,000. While Ketchum has a population of less than 4,000, when combined with Sun Valley it is closer to 6,000. Aspen has a median income of about $65,000, while Ketchum's is about $53,000.
However, a comparison of annual skier numbers at Aspen and Sun Valley indicates that Aspen's winter tourism economy, which attracts people with four separate ski mountains, is significantly broader. Last season, Sun Valley recorded approximately 387,000 skier visits, while Aspen in recent years has eclipsed the 1.3 million mark.
To Ford Frick, one of the leading authorities on the development and evolution of Western mountain resorts, the real similarities come in more general terms.
"I would lump Sun Valley in with a half-dozen or so true destination resorts, including Aspen, Telluride and Jackson," said Frick, managing director of the Denver-based planning firm BBC Research and Consulting. "They are places marked by tradition, summer and winter tourism, a scarcity of land, an expensive real estate market and isolation."
Perhaps the most obvious similarities, Frick said, are in the challenges that Sun Valley, Aspen and other true destination resorts face.
They are all confronted with the dire social consequences of escalating real estate values, which tend to drive working-class residents and families "down valley" to more affordable communities. That, in turn, has caused traffic congestion on highways, changed how locals go about their day-to-day lives, and drawn vitality from downtown business districts. And, at the same time, Sun Valley, Aspen and other communities have seen vast changes in demographics; second-home owners, part-time timeshare visitors and financially independent residents have taken the place of many traditional destination travelers.
"They all kind of suffer from the same sorts of problems," Frick said. "Everybody is sort of saying, 'What do we do next here?' They're saying, 'We would like it to be different, but we don't want to change.'"
Other similarities, Frick said, are aging populations and dramatic increases in regional Hispanic populations.
In comparing Aspen and Sun Valley, some planning professionals and casual observers alike have said Sun Valley is "like Aspen was 20 years ago." The Wood River Valley is on a similar track to Aspen's, they have said, but is evolving at a slower pace.
Frick does not necessarily agree.
"You can't really follow the same curve they did 20 years ago, because the curve exists in the present," he said.
Sun Valley, he said, is perhaps in a more "fortuitous" situation than many other mountain resorts. "I don't think it's so much that you're behind, but that the problems seem to manifest themselves more quickly in other areas."
Sun Valley's slower pace of growth, more modest skier numbers and geographical isolation seem to have "bought the area a little time," Frick said. "You were able to get by a little longer."
Baird Gourlay, a 25-year Ketchum resident who is about to commence his second term on the Ketchum City Council, expressed similar thoughts on the matter.
"I think you look at all the resort areas and we're dealing with the same sorts of things," he said. "Aspen might have been ahead of us, but unfortunately, we've caught up extremely fast."
The changes Gourlay said he's seen in Ketchum in the last quarter century read like a laundry list of headlines from mountain town newspapers. Ski bums have become a dying breed. Construction is a constant fact of life. Vehicle traffic is increasing. Places where young people once lived have been replaced by luxurious part-time residences.
The same issues have all surfaced in Aspen, at one time or another.
Dick Fenton, a 31-year Ketchum resident who has spent numerous vacations in Aspen, said he thinks the two places are very similar, but with one big difference.
"Aspen has a more ostentatious feel to it," said Fenton, a real estate broker. "Sun Valley is a little smaller and is not as high end. I think it's nice that we have a little more local character."
That local character, Fenton said, comes in part with how people, including Hollywood icons, display their money.
"Sun Valley has more 'quiet money,'" he said. "Here you have Clint Eastwood walking through Atkinsons' Market in his sweats and nobody bothers him. In Aspen, it's Sylvester Stallone walking around with the paparazzi following him, flashing their cameras."
Simms, Frick and Gourlay all said Aspen has provided several good examples of how to meet some of the common problems head on. The Aspen region's number of deed-restricted affordable housing units is in the thousands, while the Wood River Valley's is less than 50. The Roaring Fork Valley has a new, expanded highway, and a vast public bus system. And, the city took the bold step of employing paid parking to mitigate traffic issues and encourage carpooling.
Frick said Aspen's problems are hardly solved, though. The city, like Ketchum, is trying to bring new vitality to the downtown, after many residents and businesses fled to other nearby cities. The next city down valley from Aspen and nearby Snowmass, Basalt, is flourishing and growing, much like Hailey is in the Wood River Valley.
"What's interesting is the 'next town down' is becoming interesting in itself because of new vitality," Frick said.
Meanwhile, retail business in Aspen, as well as Ketchum and other mountain towns, is "suffering," he said. Restaurants and businesses that cater to wealthy homeowners are doing well, but retail shops that cater to tourists and bars that cater to young people are not.
To the credit of the Wood River Valley, Simms said, it has already avoided some of Aspen's shortfalls. It has fewer "super-high-end homes" and more pristine hillsides, protected in part by forward-thinking ordinances that limit development.
Nonetheless, Frick gives Aspen solid credit for showing a willingness to change in response to new trends in tourism and development.
"Twenty years ago, 15 years ago, Aspen just said, 'No," he said. "Now, they might say, 'Let's take a look at this (new type of project).'"
For Frick, the true challenge that faces Aspen and Sun Valley, as well as other mountain communities, is finding the courage to change while maintaining some elements of the past, some of the small-town charm. Growth is happening. What might ultimately define whether Sun Valley becomes Aspen, or Telluride or Jackson or some other ski town, he said, is how well it can manage the inevitable changes that are coming its way.
"To me, the solution is finding ways to get greater density in the downtown areas, with greater heights and densities," Frick said. "Maybe, we need to urbanize a little bit and get people living in the downtowns.
"What you can't do is lock a place in time. The paralysis that comes from saying, 'No,' is not a healthy thing."