Mammoth Affirmations––Mall or Mountains?

I’m a little overdue on posting this Q&A. The spring real estate pop actually happened but things are quiet now.

Q: I don’t have confidence in Mammoth’s current leadership to prepare for any likely scenario, and now they want to gain control of 203 from Caltrans even though they can’t meet current payroll without layoffs and employee concessions. And the developers are pushing a whole redevelopment plan of Main St., maybe this is a good topic for the Q&A. Paul?

A: I haven’t personally attended any of these meetings but I am watching. (I’ve grown weary of meetings that compromise my sanity.) There are two simultaneous concepts being moved forward for Hwy. 203 (aka Main St.) here in Mammoth. The first is for the Town to take over the snow removal operations (and maybe even more) that Caltrans currently performs. The second is a conceptual redevelopment plan for the Main St. area being spearheaded and pushed forward by MMSA CEO Rusty Gregory. Included in the plan is a gondola running up Main St. from the Old Mammoth Road intersection up to the Village. Now I’m not really sure how the two concepts are connected, but my guess would be it has to do with an easement for the gondola, and Caltrans sees the opportunity to dump the maintenance on the Town. That would be consistent with their history of “quid pro quo” in these matters.

Not everybody has been happy with the job Caltrans has performed on Main St. over the years. The piles of snow tend to hide some Main St. businesses. But nobody can say they’ve done a bad job either. And it’s a big job. The Town Public Works does a great job too, and with added equipment and personnel there is no doubt they could handle it. But who pays? Right now the State shoulders the cost. Can the Town take on this liability? Or can they get a subsidy? (And is the State’s guarantee of funding that comforting?) Modern life seems so full of great ideas minus the logistics to pay for them.

Meanwhile, Rusty has his redevelopment plan for Main St. and the entry to town. It includes relocating gas stations, building soccer fields at the entry to town, more housing for locals (“market rate” and “affordable”), a “feet first” retail district, an upscale hotel district, a condo hotel district, and of course, the gondola. All of this will create “huge stabilization of the local economy” (quote Rusty) as reported in the Mammoth Times. He is pushing for “expeditious approvals” and we better know what we want before “outside capital comes in.” Rusty was also quoted from his presentation that capital will return to Mammoth “faster than we think.” Now these Main St. presentations were last fall before the recent presentations about the Ski Area’s massive debt service concerns and the announcements of their “deed-in-lieu”(of foreclosure) of a $100 million worth of property back to the bank. I guess the capital didn’t come back quite fast enough. (But don’t be surprised when they craftily buy it all back at cents on the dollar at some point in the future.)

Ah, and would somebody nudge the needle on this skipping record?

First of all, let’s have a minor discussion about the entry to town. Thanks to several entities, it looks much better than it did 10 years ago. Those of us who live here seem to lose sight that our visitors drive through 300 miles of desert to get here. And then as they hit our town limits they enter a lovely forest of pines and firs. Talk about the proverbial “not seeing the forest for the trees.” And also, when you arrive the Sierra ridge looks close enough to touch (it still amazes me when I drive into town). Isn’t the forest and the mountains what people come here for? And is it so bad that the first thing is a Visitor’s Center? (We’re still promoting tourism, right?) What do we need to be, Dubai? Or was Barry offended when he pulled into town the first time?

Is this really the highest and best use of our (and our leaders’) time and energy to improve this town? And all in the name of “building community.” Once again, there is no community if the only people who can live here are trust funders and retirees. And has anybody run this by the Sierra Club? All of this sounds like an attempt to bring more people to Mammoth once again and the Club’s attorneys just love suing us for trying that. And didn’t we already lose a redevelopment lawsuit? And, just because I can’t help it, is this Main St. gondola going to resemble the QMC or the People Mover?

But are we really that gullible to keep enabling this? Many are asking if our Town Council is really going along with this? Wasn’t this is all the same rhetoric that moved the North Village forward in the early 90’s? Wasn’t Rusty the shepherd of the flock back then, the champion of the cause, one of the primary property owners in the district, the CEO in the company town and even a corporate officer for the developer that built the Village? Or maybe I’m just confused again? What’s that definition of insanity? Didn’t our mom’s teach us that we have to eat our vegetables before we can have desert? Main St. may be far from perfect but do we want the same dysfunction and incompletion executed there? I don’t.

Why can’t someone ask Rusty to finish (fix) what he started in the Village before moving on? Isn’t this the simple job of our Town Council? (I’m sure his “hands have been tied for many years” for a myriad of reasons.) The Mammoth Times article from last Dec. 4 quoted him as saying “We must pull together on what our ideas are in affirmation, instead of just reacting to what we don’t want.” Well, I hear plenty of affirmation that we don’t want any more development plans devised for carpetbagging hedge funds and guised as “stabilization of the local economy.” Wasn’t it Rusty, who only a few years ago, criticized Mammoth for being “addicted to the heroin of development”? Unfortunately for us, that’s probably the job our fearless leader has signed up for now. I’m seeing people in withdrawals every day. So more development plans are sure to cure the cravings and return the high. But who has the money to buy the dope?

Most people that I talk to are unaware that the Mountain still has substantial interest in the Village. It is what Intrawest use to refer as their “long term cash flow position” in the condo hotel developments. It’s often referred to as the “front desk”. Mammoth Hospitality (aka MMSA) has the management contract AND the reservation business in the Village. That means they’re paid to “manage” the common areas but also take 50% of every in-house booking in exchange for marketing and servicing the reservations (the individual owners get the other 50%). This is big business with substantial cash flow and minimal capital outlay. And their customers (owners and visitors alike) can’t be that happy with all the dysfunction. They’re paying to stay in a Village not an empty mall. (And by the way, from a real estate perspective, the (lack of) performance of the Village condo hotel properties has set the stage for the success of all future condo hotel developments in Mammoth, including the ultimate financing for buyers. Talk about shooting oneself in the foot.)

The Village really isn’t that flawed. The people who oversaw the execution of the plan just left out some of the critical elements–––plenty of accessible parking, a real special events venue (not just an open air plaza), a gondola that terminates at a skiable run before skiers are forced to get out, viable rents for the commercial tenants, etc. And Eldon Beck emphasized in the revised North Village plan that if the locals lose interest in going there on a regular basis that it would be a failure. (Can anybody guess who hired Beck?)

While we were spending so much time planning the North Village in the early 90’s, a glaring concern was how the Main St. and Old Mammoth Road corridors would have the life sucked out of them as the Village became so vibrant. It was recognized that these corridors would serve more as the “commercial service districts” in town. The vision was that the Village would be the high energy “fun zone” and Main St. and OMR would be where the hardware stores, gas stations, supermarkets, banks, and other commercial “service” enterprises would be. So now if we’re going to move the gas stations and plan for hotels (and condo hotels) and more retail on the Main St/entry area, what are we going to do with the Village? (Oh, I’m back to my old “capacity” argument again.)

So can we just have some affirmation that we should be utilizing what we already have, finishing what we started, and improving things within our financial means (massive debt is so passé), and get off the heroin. There’s an old axiom in business that if you take care of the back end of your business that the front end will take care of itself. We’ll see who else wants to learn that lesson.

Happy Mother’s Day. And don’t forget to eat your vegetables.

10 thoughts on “Mammoth Affirmations––Mall or Mountains?”

  1. Paul,

    I agree with you 1000%. Finish the Village, leave town as is. How about replacing Rusty, now that is a topic in it’s self!

  2. There you go, making cent$ again. I hope the town council is wise enough to learn from yours- others perspectives and the lessons learned the hard way.
    Is. a 1000% more then 100%?
    Oh yes I almost forgot, I want to be the babies God Father.

  3. Not sure what the answer is, but the town is in a critical mess right now and broke and should be making drastic steps to conserve cash, by trimming staff. To think the re develop of main in the short term is a winner is crazy. What is the catalyst for the big money to come back and how long will it take, so the town can realize some DIF is the real question.

  4. Nice post Paul.

    Enjoy reading about Mammoth from so far away.

    I have always liked the exit off 395 into town (and looked forward to it at midnight or so after the 300 mile drive). Lots of nothing except the GrEaT outdoors.

    re: “an upscale hotel district”. i thought those days were over…

    Motel 6’s isn’t gone is it?

  5. Motel 6 is still around, but it’s gone upscale… or at least the rates have… I guess the Village and The Westin are so successful that Mammoth needs a whole new upscale district… No wonder the Ritz is desperately banging down the door trying to get in… And I suppose the natural beauty of the Eastern Sierra just isn’t enough of an entrance into town… we need a man-made grand “presentation”…

    All kidding aside, isn’t them trying to tell us that in order to “stabilize” the local economy by even more development, is like telling a fat man he needs to eat even more donuts and more pizza in order to lose weight??? This is a great post Paul, keep up the good work.

  6. Question about our current mammoth real estate. I know someone who used to work for the mountain as a supervisor. He bought a 300k two bedroom unit four years ago. His step father gave him the 60k down payment and he walked around mammoth as a success for three years. Now the place is probably worth 190k and still dropping, probably to settle around 90k two years from now. One how does someone afford atleast a 240k morgage with taxes and maintenance. Plus to be that underwater seems like a mistake of a lifetime. What’s the current mood of people in Mammoth facing that reality?

  7. Wow…the supervisor you speak of was exceedingly responsible considering the $60k down payment. If he was a real playyyar he would have instead spent it on a new Escalade with 22″ wheels…yeaayahh! Wilbur


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