Mammoth Real Estate Q&A — Curing Mammoth Dysfunction

This Mammoth Real Estate Q&A appears in the Labor Day Weekend 2021 issue of The Sheet

Q: We really think you weaseled out of the Mammoth dysfunction discussion. You could have gone much deeper into the subject. But at this point what do you think are some of the steps Mammoth could take to overcome some of this dysfunction? 

A: Assuming we can’t lower the altitude for more oxygen or convince people to stop recreating, there are some things Mammoth could do to become less dysfunctional. The obvious and imperative one is developing more workforce housing. This has been true for decades. The Town built substantial government sponsored housing in the 1990s and 2000s. The Ski Area,  Hospital, Water District and others were also proactive at securing housing for employees. Approximately 10 years ago there were tax law changes and changes to the finance mechanisms for this type of government sponsored housing that slowed this development trend.  The 2008-10 housing crisis didn’t help.

The State has recently restored some of these grants, incentives and mechanisms. But the initial changes 10 years ago compelled the institutions to make changes, and they didn’t. If they were a private business, they would likely be out of business. Some will argue the Town got complacent and/or focused on grander projects. There’s an old business axiom; “take care of the back side and the front side will take care of itself.” The events of the past 18 months have now exposed the inadequate focus on the backside of resort community building; workforce housing. But the blame is really community wide. And some, like the Mammoth Voices group, really tried to wake people up. But here we are. Today the development of workforce housing has returned to a priority position.

Beyond housing, I have my pet peeves. Most of them I’ve talked about before (and many times been laughed at). Others have bounced around inside my brain for years. Some positions I advocated for when I was on the Planning Commission in the 1990s. Overall, I’m not a strong proponent of “big money” projects. To me they are like multi-million dollar second homes that get used very little. They look great but provide very little real utility to the owners, and the majority of the residents and visitors. And they are very expensive to maintain.

A real gripe for me is the curb appeal of our town’s front door. It is Real Estate 101. Elizabeth Tenney did a fantastic job orchestrating the entry signs coming into and out of town. But the entry intersection, Main St. and Old Mammoth Road simply look like crap. The entry to our community looks like a distressed property. A guy like me is looking for the foreclosure notice. It has looked so bad for so long that local residents don’t even process how bad it looks anymore. The visitors must think it is just a construction project in process. And I’m sure the Town has all sorts of excuses as to why it looks so bad (drought, budget, priorities…).

In my profession I would be a fool to spend vast amounts on marketing a property but not insist that the sellers clean up their front yard. It makes no sense. It is a true sign of misplaced values. I’m not looking for lavish landscape either. But why does it have to look like some vacant lot in Palmdale? The entry to town could be a wonderful place for additional hardscape with minor (and intelligent) plantings. The parking lot art shows could spill out into these mini plazas. There could be plenty of opportunities both commercially and for the public. It could be a vibrant place. Certainly there is no reason to reinvent the wheel. Cities and towns all over the world have these public places. Why is it so hard in Mammoth?  

I’ve personally paid into the Old Mammoth Road Assessment District for almost 20 years. Looking out my window I have nothing but some half-dead bushes to show for it. The original narrow sidewalk plantings were poorly conceived. There is an updated plan but no execution. All I know is first impressions are lasting impressions. Again, newcomers must think it is some “temporary” condition. But it has become rather permanent. When they can’t take care of the little projects, we need to question how well they will perform on the larger projects….  

Many years ago I witnessed a local phenomenon and proposed a solution for. Nobody took me seriously. Years ago when I had lots of agents working in my company and had a large physical office, the new second homeowners (clients) would often come in and chat. Some for years after buying. Many were retired and quite frankly, were bored. They retired from successful careers, that is why they could afford a nice second home in the mountains. They had a myriad of skills and knowledge. And free time.

I figured the Town could hire a position (part time? contractor?) who could work with these people and get them to volunteer, especially within their specialty (Sam Walker was in my office recently and even though he is long retired he is still volunteering to help young restaurateurs). I saw this idea as a revved-up version of the Ski Area’s Host program. Imagine what kind of return on investment the Town could make with such a program. We have all this talent, skill and knowledge sitting around in second homes. We just don’t have a mechanism to allow them to really become part of the community on many levels. I’m sure there is some retired Human Resources person sitting around who could give us some real guidance on how to make it happen.    

The problem is the “leaders” don’t want to give up one ounce of their power. They don’t want to be questioned by intelligent and experienced people. They don’t want to hear ideas that aren’t their own.

Years ago (2006) I wrote the column “A Long Road To Aspen” where I tried to spell-out why Mammoth would never become another Aspen. The reason comes down to philanthropy. Aspen has been propelled by serious philanthropy for decades. And the philanthropists know how to attract other philanthropists. I see this with a well known hospital in Orange County. They’ve saved my life (probably twice) so I make a nice donation to them every year. I get a quarterly magazine from them that is focused on one thing; philanthropy. Wealthy families are constantly donating $10s of millions. It is almost like a competition. And their names end up on the specialty-care buildings. The volume of donations is staggering. Philanthropy is the foundation of Aspen’s success and international prominence.

Today, this lack of success in generating philanthropy is why the new ice rink ends up in a tent, why the Performing Arts Theatre is stagnated (and the performances are held in the dirt), why the Wounded Warrior Center isn’t proceeding, and plenty more. Like I said in the last column, we’ve seen so many proposed projects on paper but they never come to fruition. For private developers it is all about having solid profit projections. For glamorous public projects it takes philanthropy. And it is far more than buildings. 

Admittedly, Dave McCoy tried developing a philanthropic culture by establishing the Mammoth Lakes Foundation. They were recently pushing the development of the ~$25M Performing Arts Theatre. Then they decided their focus needed to be on education and the college. Couldn’t they do both? Or did they just fail at not raising enough money for the Theatre? Regardless, expanding the philanthropic environment here in Mammoth should be a priority for our leaders. It is dysfunctional not to. An experienced, aggressive professional needs to drive it. With all of the luxury homes sold in the past 15 months to new second homeowners (let alone all of the private jets at the airport) there has never been a better time to advance this agenda.

And how would I discuss my wishlist for Mammoth’s future without discussing marketing. The Town needs to cure its addiction to big budget marketing. When half the vehicles on the road in SoCal have Mammoth stickers on them, what’s the point? And today we have Facebook and Instagram and Airbnb. I grew up in the era guerrilla marketing. It was way before social media. We didn’t have any real money for marketing, but we got the word out there (does anybody remember the original issues of The Sheet were produced on a copy machine?). This big budget marketing is archaic, and horribly dysfunctional. Again, back end/front end. Maybe what we need is a small legion of local influencers on social media. We could buy them beer. And help them upgrade their favorite devices. It isn’t difficult. They will tell you what they need (besides a place to live). But they don’t need a big budget. The Town’s marketing is so yesterday.

And one question that should be asked; Do we need to restructure our local form of governance? The current form of government looked sound in 1984. Is it appropriate in 2021 and beyond? Our elected and appointed officials have become yes-men who simply rubber stamp whatever the staff puts out. And many local residents believe some of the current staff members have been around way-too-long. In the past many of these positions were revolving doors because past leaders ferreted them out for being incompetent or unmotivated or unwilling to take direction. Maybe it has just become too politically incorrect to challenge public officials and employees in this day and age? Or even ask them good questions? 

I have argued for decades that our Town Council positions should be paid a real wage. To do the job right it really is a full-time job. This limits who can even consider the position. We could easily fit this into our bloated budget. Imagine the characters that could run! (channeling Jack Winkler.) But imagine the ideas, debate and positions that would be put on the table. Local politics today is like watching paint dry and the results are marginal at best. Change would be good. And maybe it would attract some younger blood who could “afford” to be on the Council. Some will buckle under this, but a bureaucratic mentality in a resort town is so counter productive. We truly need some “Bleep Holes” on Council. And they need to be paid. Otherwise we will continue to muddle through.

Another missing piece to ponder; think about the leadership roles Dave McCoy and Rusty Gregory played in the years before. Dave was like the patron saint. He wasn’t at meetings at the podium or trying to drive some political agenda. But you knew he was there. He was the motivation to not only survive but to thrive. That is irreplaceable. 

And then there was Rusty Gregory. Somewhat the opposite. But he brought real leadership. Right or wrong, he was always communicating the goals and the agendas. Many people questioned what he had to say simply because he was saying it. And many public officials considered him to be a bully. He was. But plenty of progress happened as a result of his actions. Today, the Ski Area provides no real leadership to the community. It is a large void in this era of dysfunction. So who are the new leaders going to be? Are they here already? Can they find a place to live? Are they living in the forest? Maybe there is hope.

All things to consider. But maybe it is just an expression of my dysfunction.

Happy Labor Day!

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