Sunday, October 10, 2010
Nothing Stays the Same
I left home yesterday. I’m visiting some friends in the Treasure Valley area for a few days, and then on Saturday I will be flying to Washington, D.C. When I was in school I could be away for up to six months at a time, but I was always home for summer and Christmas break. This time I do not know when I'll be back, nor under what circumstances. Nor do I know what McCall will look like when I return, for it is a very different McCall than it was twenty, ten, even five years ago.
In 1990, when I was five years old, my family came to Valley County. It was and is a sleepy resort town, with a couple ski hills for the winter sporters and a lake that is wonderfully small enough that one can see ant-sized cars cruising around on the other side. Back then I was too busy pretending I was a velociraptor and doing other things kids do to take much note of the town as it was. But I can recall its broad contours: it was a laid back community; buildings and businesses came and went, the tourist seasons--Winter Carnival in late January and early February, and the Fourth of July most especially--instilled a provincial distaste for tourists, and everyone knew or knew of nearly everyone else. All of these are still true, but there is much that has changed in the meantime.
It began while I was in high school. A wine bar opened in 2001. The next year a coffee shop that specialized in music opened not far from my house. A few years into its existence its proprietors built an outdoor stage and started having bands from all over the U.S., and sometimes other countries, play. A pizza place that had started in the back of the breakfast-lunch cafe I worked at moved into its own space and started also having bands. Not all the change was good. The bowling alley closed. My then-boss decided not to renew her lease on the breakfast-lunch café I worked at. The movie theater’s lease was up as well, but they—and the town—did want to renew. The lumber company that owned the building that housed it, however, had plans to expand their business and refused. Construction was on the upswing, with new houses and condos going up all over town. Before I left for school I spent a couple weeks painting and staining boards for a house that was being built in a subdivision experiencing particularly explosive growth; I would pass eight or nine other houses being constructed on my way to work every day. This was alarming, but on the other hand McCall was a much more interesting place than it had been growing up.
While I was gone Tamarack Resort opened in Donnelly, and the resulting attention drew speculators like blood brings sharks. I returned the next summer to three story "cabins," open spaces and forest land ripped up for new developments, and ostentatious condominia that dwarfed the modest twenty-feet-or-so buildings surrounding them. The following year the City Council updated the building code, changing the height limit from 35 feet to 50 feet. This was extremely unpopular, and an attempt to build a five-story hotel on the lake provoked a protracted fight that was itself a proxy for the broader struggle to keep business interests from making housing even less affordable. The frenzied construction and speculation led to a rise in property values, and therefore property taxes, which climbed precipitously. I have no figures for Valley County available, but they were well in line with the rest of the nation.
As this was happening, artists and musicians continued to thrive. New restaurants were opening, many of them booking bands on a regular basis. It was not uncommon for several groups to be playing at the same time in a single night. There was also good money to be made, even for us grunts. At the wine bar, where I was now working, everyone went home on a Saturday night with no less than $70 in tips, and often over a hundred. One night, as we were about to close, the son of Tamarack owner Alfredo Miguel came in with his friend and some women and ordered nearly $450 in wine, from three bottles of steeply escalating prices (the most expensive was a large bottle that cost $250). He shared his wine with us and tipped me and my co-worker $20 each.
In 2009 Alfredo Miguel and the other Tamerack owners were sued for lack of repayment on loans and interest totaling $3.5 million.
McCall’s day of reckoning did not come unheralded. The customers of summer 2008 were stingy with their tips, as if they knew they couldn’t really afford to eat out but wanted to pretend that they could. It was the beginning of the collective realization that our raging housing market had been growing atop illusions. And so, consequences: Tamarack, in the midst of further construction, shut its doors and declared bankruptcy. Construction ceased, and the drinking class of McCall was no longer flush with disposable income. Unemployment in the off-season rose to 20%, second in the state only to Adams county.
There are signs of continuing vitality. Several restaurants—a coffee shop on the highway (which I worked at until the move), a brewery, a sushi bar—opened in the teeth of the recession, and the holidays are still typically a nightmare to navigate. But the damage to the town has been immense. The largest stretch of resort condos in the middle of town sits mostly uninhabited. A short walk away another such building is completely uninhabitable, having never opened, with water leaking its way through several incomplete floors. Many residents have moved to Boise, where job prospects are better. The music and coffee shop that opened in ‘02 closed its doors just last month, and restaurants that opened in the boom years are struggling to compete, with a diminished base and fresh competition, castaways caught in a receding economic tide. And there is still no movie theater.
Before I left for my second year of college I wrote a letter to the editor for the local paper, the Star News, about how much McCall had changed just in the year I'd been gone, and I wondered aloud what would be left of my hometown when I returned.
Even then it was obvious the construction boom was unsustainable, and so I made the (obvious) observation that when it went bust "there won't be a booming construction industry to accommodate the workers who are right now resorting to camping out all summer to make ends meet." McCall is still McCall in spite of its changes, but it is in an awkward state of transition, and the temptation to chase easy profits remains. Thus I will end this piece the same way I did the letter to the editor five years ago (with caveats on when I actually will come back):
"When I return for my Christmas and summer vacations, I want to have an easily available place to take my dogs out for a run where I won't be bothered. I want to still be able to recognize the town I grew up in. I don't want to come back to some empty second-home ghost town, devoid of an actual community and bereft of the natural beauty that made it attractive to begin with.”