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The Lift Tower Lodge, at the southern entrance to Ketchum, is owned and managed by the Blaine County Housing Authority.

Nearly five years after taking on the Lift Tower Lodge at the entrance to downtown Ketchum, the Blaine County Housing Authority is considering what’s next for the old motel—and, it may be looking at a windfall.

The question is, what kind?

That was the topic when its board convened to discuss the future of the property Thursday in Hailey. Nothing’s decided, but possibilities have boiled down to three leading options.

First, status quo—pay to keep the 14-room building running as a relatively short-term option for seasonal workers, and “transitional” housing for tenants staying less than six months.

Second, they could sell it, and put the proceeds toward adding units to the Housing Authority’s portfolio of deed-restricted homes elsewhere in the valley. Early valuations put the potential price at between $2 million and $5 million, according to informal estimates that real estate agents gave BCHA Executive Director Nathan Harvill. The board authorized him to shop around for an agent to potentially list the 0.68-acre property, and narrow that spread.

But last week, a third option took up most of the conversation at the board’s quarterly meeting. The BCHA could keep the property, level the motel and work with a developer to build a new set of affordable units on the site.

Harvill is quick to say that the board hasn’t made any decisions on the property, but word is getting out. He’s already been approached by real estate agents eyeing the commission. And, Executive Director Michelle Griffith of the ARCH Community Housing Trust attended the meeting to make an aggressive push for redeveloping the land—as well as argue against the other options.

ARCH, a nonprofit affordable housing developer, would have to throw in to a request for proposals against other bidders, but Griffith already brought the board a nascent plan for the site. According to her first draft, it could hold two or three fourplexes—eight to 12 three-bedroom, 2.5-bath units with attached two-car garages. Depending on the specific terms dictated by available funding sources, they’d be earmarked for renters earning less than 80 percent of area median income, roughly $55,000 for a household, or as low as 60 percent, about $45,000.

Griffith lifted much of those plans from ARCH’s completed Shenandoah Homes townhouse project in Hailey. Those three-bedroom, 3.5-bath units are capped at 60 percent of area median income, and rent for $950 per month, Griffith said.

The lot could probably take more units—but, a larger project would become much harder to finance through available grants and programs, according to Griffith. Fourplexes count as single-family housing developments in the eyes of most agencies that fund affordable housing, and money for those is easier to get than the highly competitive tax-credit financing available for large, multifamily developments. Last year, the Wood River Valley was shut out of tax-credit allocations, and Griffith doesn’t expect it to get any easier.

There’s another reason she’s preaching small, too: the neighbors. ARCH is used to dealing with resistance from nearby landowners—right now, a potential project along Buttercup Road is on hold while a legal challenge moves through the courts. Griffith’s idea for the Lift Tower site is to do everything possible to preempt their complaints—including limiting the density, and giving first crack at the finished units to teachers and emergency responders.

“The smoothest path is staying within the four corners of the [zoning] ordinance, and avoiding the typical complaints of neighbors,” like storage, garage space and size, Griffith said. “While a private developer might hire a lawyer and take them on, we may be a little bit tired of that. … Eventually, people will get to the point where they have to say what they’re really upset about, or stop speaking.”

The idea has some appeal to the board.

“It’s a statement,” said Commissioner Chase Hamilton, who lives in Ketchum. “Affordable housing at the gateway to town? That’s cool.”

Griffith’s idea would be one way to do that. Other developers would likely have other plans, and would need to include some affordable concessions to increase the size of the building allowed on the lot. Its zoning is currently split between tourist- and recreational-use designations, according to Blaine County’s mapping. Per Ketchum code, developers can build larger structures if they include affordable-housing units, or pay an in-lieu fee. Plus, if the Housing Authority leases the land, it can negotiate stipulations of its own into the contract.

The BCHA board agreed to let Griffith walk the property with city staff, so her plan has something of a head start.

Still, there are kinks to work out, like the preference for teachers and first responders.

Blaine County public school teachers with a bachelor’s degree start at $45,667 on essentially a nine-month contract—above the 60 percent of area median income. Teachers with a master’s degree start above the 80 percent mark, at $57,084. Add a summer job, or a partner’s salary, and they’d likely earn out of the income category.

“The educators and firefighters that I know who might qualify, they’re single—if they had two incomes, they wouldn’t qualify,” said Vice Chairman Nate Hart of Hailey. “They’d be lost in a house that size, unless they filled it with gear, and that’s not our intent.”

Griffith said her plan is fluid. The BCHA’s is, too—and its board recognizes the stakes.

“This is an asset that dropped in our lap,” said Blaine County representative Sabina Gilbert, the board treasurer. “It needs to be part of a bigger discussion on the future direction of this agency.”

The next step toward that is to get more information on the value of the land, including the motel that occupies it right now.

The board’s next public meeting is scheduled for Sept. 18 at 5:30 p.m. in Ketchum City Hall.

“We need to make it a better asset for the community, and for affordable housing,” Chairman Mason Frederickson said. “We’re all on board with that. But it’s a big decision, and I don’t want to screw it up.

“We’re in a unique situation—we’re in control.”

Email the writer: mdee@mtexpress.com

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