One of my favorite stories about Ketchum city government dates to the 1990s. A group of skateboarders approached then-mayor Guy Coles with a wild idea - a skatepark in Ketchum. Their scheme was ambitious - the public park would be the first of its kind in the state, and one of the first in the nation. The residents presented their case. Mayor Coles listened to the presentation, asking questions and providing encouragement. His response? "This is a great idea. What are you going to do about it?"
Having lived here most of my life, I can confidently say that Ketchum is a town full of tenacious dreamers (the slightly less charitable may call us bullheaded, or even ornery eccentrics who refuse to grow up and get real). It's no accident that our history is full of Olympians and record holders, inventors and artists. Tell Ketchumites it can't be done, and we'll prove you wrong. Many of us moved here seeking more: more space, more freedom, more time for testing our mettle against the outdoors. We want more hours to spend in activities that are good for the soul: seeing the aspens quake in the fall, hearing the wind whip through a cathedral of pines, sharing meals with friends and family. We raise our children - and some of us were lucky to be raised here ourselves - in the shadow of big mountains and wild skies.
These are the qualities of place that give us strength and belief. They have helped us weather booms and busts, recessions and bubbles. It's that certain kind of confidence bordering on arrogance that goes into believing you can make a better ski boot than anyone else in the world, be the first to ascend a cliff of sheer granite, or build a world-class restaurant at 7700 feet on the side of a mountain (and then, as my grandfather did, proudly write your initials in the concrete foundation).
This is the kind of can-do, scrappy attitude that we now must harness to solve our communal challenges. In conversations with fellow mayors across the country, I hear the same issues cropping up over and over: no housing for workers, Main Street businesses decimated by the convenience of internet shopping, local children forced to move away and pursue opportunity elsewhere. There are times during snowstorms in the winter when the rest of the world seems impossibly far away, but make no mistake, Ketchum faces the same economic forces that stalk Midwestern towns and coastal cities. We have two options - either fold or fight.
Whenever someone tells me that Ketchum must choose between quality of life for tourists or locals, affordable housing or ambitious architecture, attracting young families or celebrating long-time residents, my first response is that they don't know our town very well. I refuse to believe that Ketchum can't create a new, better way forward. This is a creative, generous town that can blaze new trails together. We don't need to choose from a menu of only bad options.
You don't have to look far to see my evidence for optimism. Just last week the City hosted a Winter Solstice celebration in Town Square. By cosmic synchronicity on this longest night of the year we announced the establishment of the Central Idaho Dark Skies Reserve. It took the combined efforts of local cities, counties, advocates and active citizens two and a half years to get the Reserve officially designated and across the finish line. This reserve is the very first of its kind in the nation, and as a community we will feel its environmental and economic benefits for years to come. This is how we can show the rest of the country how common challenges can be solved by a town used to a sky that has a window on the universe.
I've been spending a lot of time thinking about my eight years as a public servant for Ketchum. Long winter nights help with the reflection. The first thing that comes to mind is the incredible investment the men and women on City Council make for our town. During the next four years, the newly elected Council members can look forward to giving at least 400 hours of their time to the community in public meetings alone. That's enough time to summit Denali and get back down again. Some days the investment in energy can feel every bit as challenging, but without the magnificent views.
Even in a small town, the array of critical and necessary decisions fly at Council and the Mayor. I've had to come up with my own answer to the "What are you going to do about it?" question. Throughout my time as Councilmember and Mayor, I've been guided by the "keep it simple" theory of government. For anything that crosses my desk, from contract negotiations to a request for a new event, I ask two guiding questions: (1) Mission Creep. Does the decision to be made align with our government's mission to provide for the public's health, safety and welfare? and (2) Impact. How will current Ketchum residents feel about this decision? How will this decision look to our residents seven generations out?
I walked into my office in January 2014 prioritizing issues around these guideposts. As I look back on my term, I am proud to report progress on these critical components of city business:
- Restarting strategic capital investment. My priority for infrastructure spending has been to make foundational investments for common uses that benefit everyone. Over the past four years, this has included everything from recreational amenities like tennis courts, requirements for safe pedestrian travel like sidewalks and street lights, and infrastructure improvements in treatment plants and pipe systems that enable water reuse and conservation.
- Getting the city finances in order. I believe it is critical for the City to always maintain a strong fiscal position and protect the interests of Ketchum taxpayers. Over the past four years, we have been vigilant in examining the quality of our contracts to ensure that we get the services we pay for. I have also focused on balancing the budget each year, as well as consistently collecting funds to refill the community housing fund.
- Instilling a culture of stewardship and responsible resource use. For as long as I can remember, I was taught that as a small mountain town, we must always responsibly manage our natural resources. Wherever possible, I have directed City staff to identify municipal projects that prove saving money and preserving resources for future generations can go hand in hand. Recently, the City also supported efforts to preserve our environmental heritage through the permanent establishment of an International Dark Sky Reserve. As a town we are also leading by example with our ambitious energy conservation goals for 2030.
As I wrap up my final newsletter entry to you, I would like to leave you with one request. Think about your own love of the town and the community and why you've chosen to be here rather than anywhere else in the world. Think about the strength and courage and history in our streets. Walk down Main and ask yourself how it could be more beautiful and more welcoming. Watch the lights wink on at the Roundhouse and ask yourself what long-lasting landmark you would like to create. Enjoy the bench at Knob Hill Park, and think about what gift you will give to your community. If you work here, ask yourself how you'd like to help the next generation of business owners. If you live here, ask yourself what future residents will thank you for in your own neighborhood.
There is a lesson that I've taken to heart: you can't defend something unless you love it. Ernest Hemingway said it best in his A Farewell to Arms: "When you love you wish to do things for. You wish to sacrifice for. You wish to serve." Think about what you love most about Ketchum, and then come join in the fray.
And when it feels daunting, or it's difficult to know where to start, or you feel like you should wait until there is someone more knowledgeable and experienced to take the lead, think of the Ketchum Skate Park story's end. It took sweat equity, community fundraisers, and several summers of raising money through concert valet parking (at $1 a car!) but the Guy Coles Skate Park has been up and running for over twenty years. It's been enjoyed by visiting luminaries and multiple generations of locals. Think of those young residents who presented their wild idea and answered that question "What are you going to do about it?" You may know them: Andy Gilbert, Dave Kelso, and current City Council President Jim Slanetz.
If I can think of one thing I want Ketchum to be known for 100 years from now, it's this: we're a town full of big dreamers who fight for those dreams tooth and nail, and then, once they reach the summit, turn around to help the next dreamer in line.
Thank you for the privilege of being able to serve you and the town we all love.