This Mammoth Real Estate Q&A appears in the Labor Day 2016 issue of The Sheet
Q: Our Mammoth real estate agent told us that “now is the time to buy” because all sorts of exciting things are about to happen in Mammoth and real estate prices will certainly be going up. We’ve watched and read the news and aren’t really sure where all of this is going. What are the chances any of this comes to fruition and will any of it be meaningful?
A: The most recent “news” stories are the convergence of many topics and that I have been covering in my recent columns and newsletters. And now the Whistler Backcomb acquisition by Vail Resorts may have unforeseen consequences for Mammoth. It may be forcing the end of the “Mammoth Malaise” we’ve experienced in the past ten years under the current Ski Area ownership.
There’s also a chance we can have some public planning based on intelligent and experienced planning principles rather than promises and emotion. And coincidentally the Forest Service is now calling for public comment on the Main Lodge Base Exchange. And we’re revisiting the affordable housing needs. And Main St. revitalization could be economically viable because of the “Tech Initiative.” These things are all tied together.
But it will take some true leadership to make anything substantial out of all the opportunities. And like the early 1990’s the parties may once again be willing to cooperate with each other. Pain can be a great motivator. The newer generations of local residents and businessmen and women are tired of all the stagnation. Increased visitor numbers are great but the smart people want something more substantial.
Most of this will mean taking some risks. Maybe those without “vision” can utilize some virtual reality goggles. We’re also about to find out who’s ego or special interest will get in the way. Regardless, Mammoth is in desperate need of leadership at this point in time. There remains a good mix of old-timers with a wealth of experience who still have a stake in the game. And there are plenty of newcomers and younger players. I hope we can find the leadership we need.
All of the parties (and the public) need to recognize the opportunities that exist. The recent planning presentations emphasized “portals” into the Ski Area. This is not new concept. This has been a Forest Service planning concept for the Ski Area for many years. It only makes sense; fewer vehicle trips to the Main Lodge, more even distribution of skiers entering the Mountain, increased viability for the in-town lodging, etc.
The key to making the total concept work is completion of the Village and Eagle gondola system. Intrawest used visual representations (“story boards”) of this proposed gondola system to market and sell the Juniper Springs and Village condo hotel properties. Unfortunately, all of the buyers and investors and their nightly renters have never been able to utilize this system because it was never completed. But now we are being promised that it is in the foreseeable future. And it will need to be if they ever hope to sell any new condo hotel units for substantial prices. The trust is simply broken.
Almost two years ago I wrote a column encouraging public comment to the Forest Service about the Main Lodge Base Exchange. It was my opinion then that the completion of the gondola system must be a contingency of the exchange. The Main Lodge area as we know it today will change dramatically in the future. The portal concept will be essential to the balance of town. We will need access to the core of the ski runs from town even if the snowpack is marginal on the east side of the Ski Area.
So now the Forest Service is officially soliciting comment on the Main Lodge exchange. The finer details of the exchange are available. It is time for the public to comment. The opportunity is upon us to insure that the gondola system is completed.
But there are other forces in action. The sale of the Whistler Blackcomb ski mountains to Vail Resorts has to put some serious pressure on the Mammoth Resorts enterprise. I’m sure there is already some canned rhetoric in place denying that it has any affect at all, or that it is somehow “a positive.” But the reality is that the Vail Resorts Epic Pass is becoming stiff competition for the Mammoth Resorts Pass. Die hard Mammoth pass holders are even more likely to add an Epic Pass to their program. The deal is just too good. Others will certainly be moving to an Epic Pass “for a try” now that the Mammoth Pass can be purchased without continued loyalty. All of this is likely to reduce revenues (and interest) for Mammoth Mtn.
So now Mammoth the ski area is compelled to become more competitive. The annual ski passes are one thing. But the top-tier resorts are adding gondolas and lifts to improve accessibility and convenience and they are becoming a bigger part of the summer draw. All sorts of other resort amenities and services are being added. Mammoth has fallen behind. And Mammoth the town needs to join in. Tourism might be strong in 2016 but it can be fickle. There is an immense amount of quality competition.
The Whistler Blackcomb Vail Resorts deal may have sealed a “compete or sell” fate for Mammoth Mountain. Maybe that will make them a more cooperative partner for the town.
The Tech Initiative and Main St. revitalization are envisioned to work in lockstep. Many have already doubted whether a 1,000 new tech jobs is feasible in the next five years. Most argue that there has to be more than pretty scenery and great recreation to attract such a large number. But the tech growth and Main St. revitalization don’t have to happen in one fell swoop. They can grow and change together.
But hundreds of new tech jobs in Mammoth will create a serious housing shortage. How will we plan for that? Pricing key employees out of housing is already a current challenge. Increased demand could be a disaster. These (substantially paying) jobs could put extra demand on the low end of the “for sale” real estate market and further displace current rentals. And they will compete for ownership properties against other valuable local residents.
And the Main St. revitalization can happen without narrowing Main St.. Or moving the Post Office. This can happen with lots of baby steps. One of the lessons I learned from Mike Vance in the Whistler Village in 1995 was that plazas can be conceived and constructed too expansively. They made that mistake and subsequently allowed changes and encroachments to “tighten” them up. It is more important to create a “processional effect.”
We already have sidewalks and bike paths traversing through most of the area. There is plenty of solar aspect and healthy trees in the zone. And a parking lot. We don’t need “the giant eraser.” We need some creativity and cooperation. There is plenty of vacant commercial space in town. Existing buildings can be repurposed in the short run. The existing commerce must continue to flow. And for now, maybe we can hide the RV Park with a nice fence that ushers the eye towards the mountains or the improved entry to town.
And are the Town fathers ready to move the Ice Rink/MUF into the Shady Rest parcel downtown?? The Council seems wedded to Mammoth Creek Park West. The EIR is in process and may hold some surprises. Or not. And can Mammoth Lakes Housing find a compromise at Shady Rest if they head in this direction? Who will take the leadership role in all of this?
Rusty Gregory says he has the financial commitment to build a hotel facility at Sierra Star. His planners say this is critical component of the resort package. But is this a commitment to build a true hotel with single ownership or a condo hotel facility or some blended hybrid? All three present challenges. A true hotelier will demand high occupancies that may be unobtainable. A condo hotel developer needs to see pro formas with attractive profit margins (that may be unobtainable). So who is going to subsidize this?? Mammoth Resorts? TBID dollars?
And what about creating a real parking lot in the Village. The Town has the land under the old Community Center. Maybe the Town can lease some of the grossly underutilized tennis courts in the local condo projects to pacify that small special interest group (that could actually be a win-win). But how does this parking lot development happen? Who’s going to take the lead on this? And who’s going to pay to make it happen (besides all the future parking lot users)?
There are plenty of ambitious plans. Almost all of it really needs to happen, yesterday. But the dynamics have now changed. If it doesn’t happen soon it may later get rammed down our throats by people we don’t even know. Some people believe that is the only way that it will happen. The opportunity is jut too big. History is rhyming.
And will real estate values be going up? They did the last two times. But it is too early to tell. First, we need to see who is going to be at the helm of this space ship.