This Q&A appears in this week’s issue of The Sheet, the annual “Year in Review”/New Year’s edition. The snow conditions are fabulous in Mammoth with large crowds. Next week is booked heavily also.
Happy New Year!!
Q: I see that you were a Planning Commissioner in the 1990’s here in Mammoth Lakes, so what is your take on what is the most significant improvement to the area in the past 20 years?
A: Oh, we take so much for granted these days. And yes, we didn’t get many of things we wanted. But Mammoth accomplished plenty in the past 20 years, and it came with intense planning efforts and considerable funding from the private and/or public sector. I’ll exclude the airport and air service from the discussion because we have beaten that to death.
The obvious improvements that should be in the running include the golf courses, the college/library, the Village, the bed base at Chair 15/Eagle Express, bike trails and trail system, the Ski Area lift system, and Old Mammoth Road re-development. And there are even some subtle ones like all the deed-restricted affordable housing built by Mammoth Lakes Housing, or the massive Water District’s supply and distribution improvements, or the Town’s sign ordinance, or all the new public transportation, or the fact that we can now drive from Snowcreek to the Village or the Main Lodge without driving on Main St. Or we could even be cynical and highlight the Post Office remodel or the new $12 million courthouse that it is so ugly we had to build massive entry signs to try to hide it.
I’m particulary partial to some of these changes because I spent hours and hours in public meetings listening to presentations and public comment (and looking back, most of that seems like wry, small town comedy). The economics of “condo hotels” was new to Mammoth in the 90’s and was very mis-understood and controversial. I was definitely in the middle of that one. Most of Mammoth’s real estate community have no clue why it is the way it is. And 1990 was a profound year for Mammoth planning; the hiring of Randy Mellinger as Planning Director changed the town forever. The newly incorporated town full of “good ‘ol boys” was now being educated by a modern-thinking progressive planner. Mellinger’s history is ultimately like the public planning “hit man” of Mammoth Lakes. He educated all of us. And since those days, Mammoth’s public planning has increasingly mired itself in process and bureaucracy.
One of the improvements that began so simply some 20 years ago achieved crowning moments this past summer. What began with a document known as The Bikeway Plan allowed the Town to begin tapping into state and federal grant dollars to build bike paths. That was one of Mellinger’s fortes, tapping in to grant monies, and it is critical. The planning documents have to be in place and sound so that the municipality can apply for grants. And the grant dollars can be big. The bigger and better the planning documents the more likely the grants can be captured. And it snowballs. So one-by-one the segments of Mammoth’s bike path received grants for construction. And over a couple of decades an impressive system gets built. This past summer the multi-million dollar bike path from the Whiskey Creek corner to Horseshoe Lake was completed. It is the showpiece of the system (and it is an incredible asset to the community in so many ways). And this past summer, recent Stimulus dollars added the most impressive signage to the whole system making it safe and enjoyable for even the novice rider. The Bike Path/Trail system is a significant improvement. But learning how to tap into state and federal grant monies may have been more significant.
The golf courses are a very nice amenity but they really aren’t signifiant. Sure, for some buyers of Mammoth real estate, the presence of golf courses is a make-or-break. But in a sea of summer recreational opportunities, they aren’t so significant. If they were we’d see the back 10 at Snowcreek built. And the college had similarly grand visions (and I’ve beat that dead horse) but that hasn’t panned out anyway that we had hoped.
The sign ordinance changes made in the 1990’s may seem rather mundane but; 1.) it was a war, and 2.) it was badly needed. The Town really didn’t even have any sign controls in 1990. But we came to realize that we desperately needed an ordinance. One theory of resort planning is “making the resort look different from where the visitors came from.” Well, with many of our visitors coming from quality communities in southern California, we realized we DID look different, and it wasn’t for the better. Thankfully, they were busy looking at the gorgeous mountains and forests and crystal blue sky. But the trashy back-lit, oversized and junky signs had to go (some of them are still around). The planners threw in some general building design review too. The aesthetics of the town improved significantly in the 90’s. And there was buy-in from the community. But by the mid-2000’s the town officials caved to whiney businessman and today we have grossly oversized commercial real estate and (aging) development signs and lots of other uncontrolled nausea. And lately, we’ve had Mammoth’s first three-story sign. Has anyone ever noticed that the poorer the neighborhood the bigger the signs? So, the 90’s sign ordinance could have been significant, but like so many things Mammoth, we didn’t fully execute for the long term.
I experienced the initial planning stages of the Old Mammoth Road re-development, but I lived through the re-construction. It was two noisy and dusty summers at the office but the end result is a wonderful improvement. It’s so nice we don’t have to walk in the street anymore, especially in winter. And even better the sidewalks gets plowed and we have decorative lights to show us the way instead of just the stars in the sky. Old Mammoth Road really competes with the Village, both conceptually and in the actual experience; wonderful restaurants and bars, plenty of shopping, theater, etc., and comfortable walking and access even in winter. I only expect it to get better. More viable businesses will help.
And then we have the Village. This was massive re-development project. And it is too bad the “W” and the Ritz Carlton weren’t built. Those two properties would have given the Village real critical mass and incredible branding. But, so be it. The Village is maturing in many ways. The special events are becoming increasingly popular and successful. The “hospitality” component gets better all the time, as does the restaurant and retail. The district produces a large volume of bed tax (and property tax). And the Village is a critical ingredient in a successful air service program. Despite all the noise, these dots have important connections for Mammoth’s future. The Village may be the most significant improvement of the past 20 years. And it would be nothing without the Village Gondola, and I consider it a miracle that was ever completed (and that’s a story for a different day).
But the Village Gondola is a only a small piece of what I think is the most significant change; and that is the improved lift system on Mammoth Mountain. So for you folks who don’t ski or snowboard, you have no clue. This is, after all, a ski (and snowboard) resort. And moving people around the Ski Area and making the experience truly incredible is what it is all about. And like the bike paths, it didn’t happen all at once. The experience on Mammoth Mountain compared to 20 years ago is significantly better (not that it was all that bad before). And quite frankly, it was necessary just to stay competitive in the industry; high speed lifts and precise run contouring have become the norm in major ski resorts. The Village Gondola track DOES need to go higher on the mountain, and someday soon. And we’re hoping for helicopters and snowcats out to San Joaquin and White Wing while we’re still young enough. But in the meantime, putting the re-aligned high speed “expresses” all over Mammoth just made the place even more special. And that gets my vote.