Dealing with change is a popular local topic. In the past two years, wherever people gather the subject will inevitably come up.
For better or worse, Idaho and the Sun Valley area have been discovered. The state has been one of the fastest growing in the nation.
Dealing with new people from other places and the varying attitudes they bring with them is a do-it-yourself project for which there is no handbook, according to Professor Jaap Vos of the University of Idaho, who has a doctorate in regional planning.
Vos is researching how rural places can maintain a unique character in the face of development and external pressures.
His message wasn’t one that anyone in attendance at the Sun Valley Economic Summit wanted to hear. Instead of plans, Vos offered words of solace to let residents know that they are not imagining the frustrations that come with change.
His best piece of advice was that there are no cookie-cutter solutions for overwhelmed mountain towns. Using strategies devised in other places will only lead to homogenization that could leave Blaine County and its towns bland and indistinguishable from other places in the nation.
If Idaho’s small towns are to retain their unique characters, they must be themselves and find their own paths, Vos said. He added that answers don’t lie in data, which is often flawed or outdated.
One of Vos’ surprising insights, nonetheless, was that the change that Idaho towns are experiencing now is the result of population growth that peaked in 2017. The effects weren’t felt fully until years later.
Ski towns like ours have always been different from the average bear. The difference lies in the fact that they attracted residents based on common interests in skiing and outdoor pursuits.
In the 1960s and ’70s, when Baby Boomers gravitated to the mountains, no one moved to ski towns expecting to get rich or to get a job that came with a pension. Ski town inhabitants pieced together incomes that allowed them to ski and hike.
Residents who didn’t have to do that lived on trust funds or were part-time residents or visitors.
No more. Just as the social landscape in ski towns changed when the Boomers rolled in, it is changing again with the arrival of retirees, remote workers and relocated companies with different attitudes and expectations.
The common interest now seems to be to live in a beautiful place with small town vibes. People have come for jobs, good schools and cultural experiences. Some brought jobs with them. For some, access to a world-class ski mountain is important. For others, not so much.
The challenge that faces Blaine County and its mountain towns lies in the questions that long-time residents keep asking. “When I go to the store, I don’t recognize anyone anymore. Who are they? Where did they come from? What are they doing here?”
It may be heard in the comment, “You’ll never believe what I saw today” as the latest story about egregious behavior or dangerous driving begin to unfold. When the stories end, the storyteller often wonders aloud, “How can I continue to live here?”
The way mountain town inhabitants answer that question will determine whether change overwhelms local mores and folkways or whether mountain life transforms the bearers of change.
For Blaine County and its cities in the 1970s, adapting to change was a do-it-yourself project. Unlike nearly any other communities in the nation, they adopted zoning that kept commercial development off the highway, development off its hillsides and protected downtown vitality and livability.
This is why the Sun Valley area is still no ordinary place. Will it remain so? That depends on us and the choices we make.
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Unfortunately, it doesn’t depend on the choices we make, at least not in Ketchum. as one council member noted, it doesn’t matter what the people want, they got elected and get to decide. And so they have. In about 2 years we will see the full impact of their decisions for us. Massive buildings of up to 6 stories, reduction in parking spots (and potentially elimination of parking on Main Street), low income housing in the middle of the commercial core, no more long term rentals for working people, $25mm of debt, etc. No administration in Ketchum’s history will have had more impact in destroying the small town feel of Ketchum.
Another thought….what if a “welcome package” greeted newcomers at new houses or rentals. A package of information about history, culture, where to find help for this or that, places to volunteer, etc. The package could be distributed by real estate agents and property managers. Most of the newcomers probably want to “fit in”. A welcome package could give them some “how to” fit in information.
It would be nice if there was an education campaign for new residents. Maybe explaining driving courtesy. I notice that so many people now are driving dangerously close behind me when I am going the speed limit. I think this is because they come from somewhere where people have to drive very close at high speeds due to high population. So they are comfortable with this unnecessary practice. Also would be nice if newcomers learned how much we value trail courtesy, keeping our trails clean, and about caring for one another.
Once you get out, you can’t get back in, and there’s still no place better than here.
Welcome to the discussion.