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Idaho Mountain Express reporter Mark Dee, far right, moderated a Pizza & Politics event for Ketchum City Council candidates at Whiskey Jacques’ on Wednesday. From left are Councilman Michael David, challenger Mickey Garcia, Councilman Jim Slanetz and challenger Jen Smith.

With the enticing smell of pizza wafting through the room, Ketchum residents filed into the upstairs of Whiskey Jacques’ Restaurant and Nightclub on Wednesday night with a similar objective.  They had come out to hear how City Council incumbents Jim Slanetz and Michael David and challengers Jen Smith and Mickey Garcia would tackle Ketchum’s toughest issues, from parking to Airbnbs, if elected this fall.

Moderated by Mountain Express reporter Mark Dee, the event allowed each candidate to share his or her own strategies to usher in more businesses, create more affordable housing and attract more tourists—among other objectives.

One statistic discussed was that almost one in five Ketchum residents are over 65, indicating a significant decline in the town’s working-age population.

“It’s a tough statistic, and we all feel it. The service sector definitely feels it,” Smith said. “I’d like to work to incentivize businesses to come to Ketchum and encourage that growth by way of affordable housing. People need to be able to live and work in town.”

 Councilman Michael David listed a number of ways he hoped to attract younger people to the community.

 “We need to create more housing and create jobs that pay more than $20 an hour,” David said. “We need to create cultural opportunities that cater to a younger demographic. Let’s have a multi-day music festival. Let’s beef up our nightlife.”

David assured the young people in the audience that he valued their involvement.

“You need to know your voices count just as much as that person with a giant bankroll and a lawyer in tow,” he said.

 Smith said engaging young people at the Sawtooth Botanical Garden, where she serves as executive director, has always been a priority. She added that it’s important to reach out to the valley’s growing Hispanic population.

 “We provide many opportunities at the garden for younger folks and multiracial folks. The city needs to do the same on our advisory bodies and councils,” Smith said.

 Councilman Jim Slanetz agreed that engaging Ketchum’s Hispanic population should be a priority.

 “It’s something we need to work on as a city, since our demographics aren’t that broad. The Ketchum Innovation Center is a great place to bring in a younger, more diverse group of entrepreneurs,” he said.

Several audience members asked how candidates planned to address Ketchum’s affordable housing crisis. One was Jima Rice, who asked if each candidate would be willing to release an affordable housing plan to the public.

“You should have an answer to this by now,” she said. “Let’s stop discussing this issue ad nauseam and come up with a plan.”

 David assured Rice that words will be turned into action.

 “It’s time to make bold moves here,” he said. “Everyone can probably agree we’ve been talking about this since the ’80s—my priority is to change some of the underlying zoning regulations to allow for smaller developments.”

 David also addressed Ketchum’s 16 percent decline in population in the past decade and called for better collaboration among valley politicians to address the problem.

 “I think Ketchum’s shrinking demographic is directly related to the lack of inventory of affordable housing. But it’s a regional issue. Ketchum can’t solve the issue by itself,” he said.

All other candidates agreed that affordable housing is a top priority. Like David, Slanetz said the population decline is related to low housing inventory.

 “I don’t think it’s a matter of jobs—we have a lot of people driving up to work here,” he said. “I think a lot of it is about just getting smaller units out there. If everyone added a garage apartment above their house we’d have more options.”

One hot topic that arose during the debate was the Sixth Street and First Avenue complex, which will bring 32 new units to Ketchum when completed but will not provide parking spots for residents.

“It’s maybe not a favored thing for people in the neighborhood, but it is a way to get more affordable housing in town and create units that are smaller and cheaper,” Slanetz said.

He said that for residents forced to forgo a car, some car-share apps may be promising.

“My theory is that apps like Turo could help people make lemonade out of this situation,” he said.

 Smith said many people could still do well in Ketchum without a car. She and her wife, for example, had to swap a car for an e-bike after moving into a home with a one-car garage.

But she said others who want to get out and explore the mountains may feel very limited without a means of transportation.

“I would support Jim’s [car-share] idea,” she said.

For residents with cars but no parking access, David had other ideas.

 “We need to examine our ban on overnight parking in the wintertime and possibly lift that to give people the ability to park on the streets. There are over 1,700 street spaces that could be used for that, but of course we’d need to adapt our snow-removal process,” he said.

David added that if elected, he would work on making the city more walkable.

“I’ve realized in the last year how important it is to deprioritize cars and get people out there, connecting with their fellow citizens. You experience your community in a totally different way when you’re walking around, window-shopping, talking to people,” he said.

Smith turned the conversation back to affordable housing, which she said was at the root of public well-being.

“We need to engage with the Blaine County Housing Authority and ARCH Community Housing on a much more regular basis to see change,” she said. “As an affordable home owner for 13 years, I think it’s important.”

 Garcia said that overall, he supports affordable housing, but was dismayed by public backlash over the proposed Marriott Tribute hotel.

“The plan was to have 30 units of affordable housing. I thought, ‘Great, housing on site!’—but then the rich geezers came out to say, ‘The hotel is too big, it’s too ugly,’” Garcia said. “That’s baloney. We used to have buildings on Main Street that were 50 feet tall, so what’s the issue?”

Smith, Slanetz and David all said they were in favor of hotels as long as the approval process is kept open and transparent to the public.

“I’m in favor of [hotels], but I think there need to be limits on waivers and size,” Slanetz said. “The way the community feels as a whole is also very important—I don’t have all the answers, so I’m taking a lot of information from our constituents on this one.”

David agreed.

“When an application comes in, we need to look at it very carefully to understand the public benefit to make sure [developers] follow our zoning rules,” he said.

David also spoke about the importance of regulating Airbnbs.

“Other cities in Idaho, like Coeur d’Alene, are looking at ways to implement some sort of regulation, and we need to look at what they’re doing. We also need to incentivize long-term housing, so people make that choice over short-term housing,” he said.

 Smith agreed that addressing the current increase in Airbnbs in the valley will require creativity and breaking out of a local mindset.

“This is a nationwide problem. We need to work with state legislators and explain that as a major economic engine of Idaho, we are having a very difficult time with Airbnbs,” she said.

Even though Slanetz owns short-term rental properties, he said Airbnbs should be restricted in residential neighborhoods.

“Right now I’m trying to find the balance between keeping our town liveable, without too much growth, and also bringing in new units,” he said.

Garcia said a bigger priority should be tourism marketing—and Ketchum lags behind other resort towns.

“Bozeman is the easiest place to get to in the whole West, with the most flights there. We’re competing for business with other cities and we’re not doing well,” he said.

As a member of the Visit Sun Valley Advisory Committee, Smith said she was privy to the conversations that came up after Ketchum cut the organization’s funding by 9 percent.

“[Visit Sun Valley] is making strides on moving away from city funding,” she said.

David said that even though he had somewhat reluctantly approved the marketing cut this fall, he felt that the city had only so many resources.

“While marketing is essential to this tourist-based economy, we need a bigger, wider group supporting it financially. I think we need to look into expanding efforts to relieve some of the burden from the city,” he said.

Slanetz agreed

“I supported the cut,” he said. “It was a tough decision, but we were also in a tough financial position, and Visit Sun Valley did get quite a bit of money from the 1 Percent for Air local-option tax.”

Addressing Slanetz’s and David’s track records, Garcia steered the conversation to what he considered a gross failure on their part—the loss of Ketchum Rural’s $327,851 contract this year—and demanded an explanation.

“I don’t understand how you didn’t see the Fire Department fiasco coming. How did you not know that the Rural Fire District believed Ketchum was freeloading?” he asked.

In response, David said that he thought everyone would benefit from the changes that Ketchum was forced to make on the contract, and consolidation was still in the forefront.

Smith agreed.

“[The loss of the contract] was a big blow. But one thing I hope to help with is creating a north valley fire district,” she said.

Other questions that came in from the audience touched on recycling and education.

Smith said recycling efforts in Ketchum are inadequate.

“Unfortunately, we are subject to what’s happening around the world with recycling. We need to work with the ERC and Clear Creek to figure out more ways to repurpose items and reduce waste,” she said.

Garcia said he didn’t believe in recycling.

“It doesn’t work because it doesn’t pay. And most plastics in the ocean are coming out of Asiatic rivers—it ain’t us,” he said.

Slanetz firmly disagreed.

“We are making a difference by recycling, and it’s on all of our shoulders to reduce waste,” he said. “Right now we’re having some struggles with glass, since the closest processing plant is in Colorado—maybe we should be drinking beer out of cans.”

The audience laughed.

When candidates were asked how they would improve education in the valley, David said teachers and parents should pay more attention to mental health in young people.

“We need to use a more holistic model,” he said.

Slanetz voiced support of parents sending their children to local schools, which he said contributes to well-being in youth.

 “Stats show that students fare much better at local schools, opposed to having long commutes,” he said.

Over the course of the hour, all candidates pledged to listen to constituents if elected.

“Ketchum is a nuanced community that likes to be heard and be a part of solutions. It was so encouraging to see the crowd at the Limelight,” Smith said of an Oct. 7 City Council meeting. “I’m running for council because I love Ketchum and I plan to offer pragmatic, inclusive and creative solutions.”

Slanetz and David said they would make sure every resident has an equal voice.

“I want to hear everyone’s concerns and ideas and use those to the benefit of our community,” Slanetz said.            

Email the writer: ejones@mtexpress.com

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