A Southern California developer has agreed to buy Warm Springs Ranch, the 78-acre former golf course—and current dog park—at the base of the north side of Bald Mountain long subject to a build-out quashed by the Great Recession.
Will Gustafson, of Santa Barbara, has a 90-day due-diligence period from Monday’s announcement to flesh out a workable plan for the site, once slated to become a resort on the scale of Sun Valley itself before the economic downturn pulled the rug on Utah-based Helios Development’s ambitious project more than a decade ago.
Since then, it’s been open space, frequented by dog walkers and Frisbee golfers—but not interested buyers.
Gustafson’s plan would look far different than the 728,000-square-foot project that never broke ground, according to project manager and owner representative Jim Garrison. His team expects to spend the three-month window working with the city to “find the right mix” of uses for the enormous chunk of land on the south side of Warm Springs Road.
It’s too soon to tell what could pencil economically while still remaining palatable to neighbors, said Garrison, who previously spearheaded the Limelight Hotel project in Ketchum. In an interview, he spoke of restoring the quainter aspects of the old resort—its restaurant, ponds, tennis courts, etc. And, he emphasized the developer’s intention to keep an open area for dogs to roam. Longtime resident Jake Moe, a friend of Gustafson advising on the project, said in a separate interview that he expected roughly two-thirds of it remain open.
“The bottom line is, that’s Will’s goal, that’s Jim’s goal, that’s my goal,” Moe said. “We all want it to be a super-pristine place.”
Right now, Garrison said, remnants of the original Warm Springs Ranch that were developed are “blighted” by time and disuse.
“That’s all part of our due diligence,” he said. “I don’t think that’s the spot for a 200-room hotel, I’ll say that. We’re going to try to resurrect what people loved about the property, and make it a viable asset for this community, and that neighborhood.”
Any owner will need to work with the city of Ketchum to get there. The property is currently under a planned-unit development deal and a development agreement struck for the abandoned project. Dating back to 2009, those allow for a mix of uses, including a 122-room high-end hotel, 32 condos, a golf course and other homes.
So far, Ketchum isn’t aware of any plans for the site.
“The only thing that we know here is that the property is on the market,” Assistant City Administrator Lisa Enourato said Tuesday morning.
The property is actually nine lots, pieced together and hooked around federal land on Bald Mountain. Taken together, they reach about as far south as Atkinson Park—about a mile from one tip to another.
They’re worth around $12.5 million total, according to the County Assessor’s Office.
The development deals expire next year. Helios has until 2020 to break ground on the first phase—the hotel. Or, it can submit new studies on traffic, stream health, water and sewer capacity to trigger an extension until 2022.
Not that it wants to anymore.
The property was initially for sale in the mid eight figures, Moe said. Garrison would not disclose the price Gustafson agreed to pay for the acreage. (Ed Lawson, the attorney of record for Helios, could not be reached for comment.)
“We’re in the starting throes of due diligence,” Garrison said. “We don’t have a lot yet—we’re just trying to make sense of what’s there. This is a challenging piece of property—a legacy piece of property. Whatever we do, there has to be a lot of community buy-in.”
Neighbors can expect knocks on their doors to get there, Garrison said. He plans to organize small meetings—five to eight people at a time—for input.
“It needs a lot of reworking to blend with that neighborhood,” he said. “We want to backtrack, and make it more reasonable.”
Gustafson’s vision doesn’t include a golf course, the focus of other projects throughout the West.
“Everything you think about when you think about this valley is on the table—whether it’s cross-country skiing, fly fishing, nature trails,” Moe said. “It’s not going to be a golf course, but it could be everything else.”
One possibility includes a scaled-down “boutique hotel,” Moe said, though nothing on the scale of the Limelight, or the other two hotels under development on Ketchum’s Main Street.
One of those, Jack Bariteau’s 62-room project at River and Main streets, has been stalled for longer than Warm Springs Ranch; it was approved in 2008, but, like Helios’ project a year later, fell victim to dry credit markets.
Even in 2016, years after the formal end of the recession, Lawson told the City Council that money was too tight to revive Ketchum’s stonewalled boom in luxury tourism.
“There’s no possibility for attracting the investors and the lenders for this scale of a project,” Lawson said that June. “It’s a phased development on the scale of the Sun Valley Resort … currently used as a neighborhood dog park.”
Despite its recent troubles, Moe is optimistic about the property’s future.
“The history of that property is so incredible, but it’s checkered,” he said. “It’s a place that’s been kicked around for 15 years. We’re talking about making it something great.”