Real Estate Q&A–Zoned for Tourism and the Holy Spirit

The latest edition of Mammoth Real Estate Q&A appeared in this last weekend’s edition of The Sheet. This last weekend was BluesaPalooza, an event that has become so impressive with over 60 microbrewers offering tastings of their latest brew and world class headliner music. Major attendance and deservedly so.

Q: We enjoyed your perspective on doing business in Mammoth. We’ve been second homeowners since the early 90’s and watched the community struggle through the last recession. As we recall many thing were discussed and planned during those hard times to try to make Mammoth better. What things stand out in your mind that didn’t come to fruition?

A: Recently I’ve heard more and more local residents say how “bad” things are in Mammoth. Well, turn on the laugh track for this reality TV show. The early and mid-90’s were challenging to say the least and they didn’t come on the heels of a prolonged era of prosperity, mania, hyperbole, speculation and euphoria like our present time. But when it all went in the tank back then locals didn’t have payments on $500K condos, $10K snowmobiles and lavish water ski boats. Most of us were used to just getting by, but life was full of simple pleasures.

That era was marked by a combination of drought (with no snowmaking), then so much snow that the snow removal bills were crippling, and a deep California recession with high unemployment. The County had a difficult time paying for paramedics––the most basic, primary service to provide. There wasn’t much else. But the pain of that era produced meaningful discussion and planning about the future of Mammoth (and Mammoth was just a newly incorporated Town). Then Intrawest showed up to help us execute the “long-term” goals of the beautiful vision we had created.

Many wonderful things came from all of that work. Far too many to list––from better roads and snow removal to storm drains, bike paths and parks, new schools, and an expanded hospital, a new library and a logical visitor’s center. And on and on, and not all of them are physical, tangible things–––many of the things we just take for granted today.

But what stands out of those that didn’t come to fruition? The first for me would be an organized community buy-in to tourism related service. In the winter of 1991 Rusty Gregory took a handful of public officials to Whistler to study the growing resort. We met with a variety of folks and it was all very enlightening. The most impressive take-away for me was their Ambassador program and the effect it had on the functioning of––and attitude within––the resort. I remember staying up late one night with then ML Planning Director Randy Mellinger and taking our own beer tour. Later on we decided to go out and interview employees who had been through the program. Most were just kids that were cleaning up after a long day of business or doing the graveyard shift in a hotel. I was very impressed and inspired by their responses. (Google “Whistler Spirit Program” and you can see how it has evolved.)

As the vision of the college in Mammoth advanced, many of us saw the opportunity to marry the college to community-wide service education. Some newly arrived Intrawest officials envisioned the college at Mammoth as the “hub of mountain resort community service education.” But it never happened. And it needs to happen today more than ever. A company like Patina can’t execute without a culture of service in place. Today, we have a Tourism Commission trying to influence zoning, condo versus hotel, to improve occupancy. This kind of thing makes me chuckle. Maybe I should be the new cardiologist at the hospital. Trust me, the development pro formas and the investment bankers in the next cycle (?) will dictate what the zoning will be. Go back to 1996-7 for a history lesson. Instead, maybe the Tourism Commission should be focusing on bringing the Ski Resort and the Chamber of Commerce together and finding some way to emulate Whistler’s Spirit Program. Maybe there’s a reason Whistler is always #1 in all the ski resort visitor’s polls. Imitating success can be a good idea.

My second disappointing stand out has to do with developer relations and development agreements. We were coached on much of this during this era. (FYI––I was the first and only Planning Commissioner ever ousted on “term limits”–––in June of 1998. It ended up being a good thing because my business boomed and I wouldn’t have had the time and I would have ultimately had many conflicts of interest. But the Council made it clear my services weren’t wanted any more.) Today’s quandary stems from Mammoth’s leadership falling on their face in the development agreement negotiations with Intrawest. They left an obscene amount of money on the table. So today’s Council is trying to recover that loss by getting it out of the new developers and property owners. The Council has no choice but to buckle at some point in the future. The opportunity to recoup that money is long lost. The community of Mammoth simply needs to be smarter about dealing with developers in the future. It’s a serious leadership issue. And relying on bogus consultants isn’t the answer. As for me, I was told to go fishing, and I am (really).

A small, ironic stand out: we made another run at establishing a central reservation system in Mammoth. We even had Laurie Vance come down from Whistler to spearhead it. She almost got run out of town. Today, we’re more decentralized and fragmented than ever with condo hotel projects and Internet marketing like And almost everyday I hear someone who owns (or wants to own) a single-family home talking about nightly rentals. Burying ones head in the sand is such a time proven way to solve problems. But anybody want to bet that government economics will play a hand?

And finally, the beaten dead horse: the Mammoth Airport. Without all the litigation we could have mature air service by now. But we’re 5 to 10 years behind. Now we are at the dawn of making it happen. The periphery services CANNOT fall down if this is going to be the foundation we’re going to build on. Are they in place? Will we be ready? God only knows. But I don’t think we get a second chance.

In the end there’s plenty of good and bad, but all of the delays and history of litigation impresses one thing upon me. We have the Sierra Club and its battery of attorneys and lobbyists out to do their job. We have the LADWP and Metropolitan Water District’s interests to be met. We are surrounded by Forest Service land and their bureaucratic malaise. We have other groups like the Mono Lake Committee and the Mammoth Advocates. And throw in the small but powerful John Wayne-esque Department of Fish and Game. We have more than enough entities to keep our area undeveloped beyond the private land masses and keep the rest as pristine as possible. And that is exactly what will keep this place so special and desirable. Now if we can keep the air pollution from China from coming across the Pacific and affecting us. And how about a Nordstrom in the Village?

4 thoughts on “Real Estate Q&A–Zoned for Tourism and the Holy Spirit”

  1. mm1968
    Ben, Paul has a Q&A format going here. The question "Q" Paul is responding to was not "How is the housing market?". You gotta read the "Q" to play the game.

    But, since you are a good guy, I will give you an answer you and most people don't give a darn about, mine. That is why this is the "Paul Oster" blog.

    The answer to "how is the housing market" lies in the following:
    How is the credit market?
    How is the job market?
    How is the sweet crude market?
    How many Boomers are still buying expensive second homes?
    How many new rich are being minted and looking for a Mountain Drean Place?
    How many realistic sellers are there with properties someone would really want?

    See how easy that was to answer?

    Just kidding around Ben.

  2. Voluntourism is nowhere more apt than in New Orleans. People can come to have fun (eat good food, hear good music, see good sights), spend needed and much-appreciated money, and do good. In fact, volunteer and use the trip as a charitable deduction.
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