Can a ski town survive its moment of glory?

 

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

PARK CITY, Utah - If it is true that the three keys to real estate are location, location, location, then this town is two-thirds of the way home.

It is only a half-hour's interstate drive east of Salt Lake City, with its airport, hotels and restaurants - so close to a major metropolitan area, and yet a true mountain town, backed into a steep canyon like a stage, with ski slopes rolling down its mountain backdrop.

And quaint - Park City comes by its Victorian look legitimately, thanks to its birth as a mining town. For decades, it was a high-altitude, rough-and-ready, industrial enclave in a mid-elevation, Mormon, agrarian state. Some things haven't changed; the town is still plying a perilous trade subject to the whims of the global economy. The new game is tourism.

The countdown to the Olympics has started, and Park City, this combination ski town and metro area suburb, is psyching up for its biggest performance ever. In 2002, crowds will gather here to watch the slalom races at the Park City Ski Area and the freestyle skiing and aerial jumps at nearby Deer Valley. They'll flock to the Utah Winter Sports Park on the outskirts of town, where the ski jumping, bobsledding and luge competitions will rage.

The world will be watching. And while Park City is no stranger to the spotlight, it stands to win, or lose, a lot more than money on the Olympics. When the curtain goes up in 2002, the community's soul will be on the line.

The world is welcome here

Bring it on, says Park City spokesman Myles Rademan. "Utah certainly needs more advertisement. This is what we do for a living. We're in a dream and entertainment business."

At the peak of ski season, this town of 7,500 sleeps 13,000 more who stay in condos and hotels. The Sundance Film Festival brings 80,000 people over 11 days. And every August, 20,000 people cram Main Street to buy pots and paintings, watch belly dancers and listen to the blues at the Park City Art Festival.

"We've been doing events for years. This is nothing new," says Frank Bell, who is in charge of planning for the Olympics. As Park City sheriff, Bell ran crowd control for years, buzzing around in his official Jeep like a movie director.

It is tourists - 350,000 overnighters each year - that keep this town going. "Tourist dollars are good dollars," says longtime real estate agent Carol Agle. "They come, they leave their money and they go home."

Now, Park City is beefing up for more. The Park City Ski Area is moving its parking underground so it can build condos, a hotel and an eight-story tower. Deer Valley has big plans as well. And the American Ski Company plans to transform Park City's former ragtag local ski resort, The Canyons, into the largest resort in the United States.

Community or colony?

But the tourist trade has taken its toll on Park City, which is set off from the rest of mostly Mormon Utah by a colorful mining-town history that earned it the nickname "Sin City." Some of the old mining and ranching families still live in town, but for the most part, the families that link Park City to its past are disappearing.

Taking their places are the owners of condos and second homes. Park City's hip, hard-playing lifestyle and spectacular setting have brought throngs of well-off lifestyle groupies. Nonresidents own 60 to 75 percent of the property in town, according to Frank Bell.

Keeping the machine running are teachers, fire crews and cops, nomadic ski bums and an increasing number of Hispanic workers. But the pay isn't great and affordable housing is hard to come by, so many of them commute to Park City from Heber or Salt Lake.

On their way to work, they pass a growing number of suburbanites en route to Salt Lake City from the valleys around Park City. Since 1970, Park City's population has risen from just over a thousand to 7,500; the county went from 6,000 to 17,500; and the growth shows no signs of slowing.

The growing population adds pressure to the schools and city and county governments. "We have a hard time getting new blood" involved in the community, says Frank Bell, and convincing people to run for public office and serve on boards and commissions is like pulling teeth.

Who's running the show?

Some critics say 12 days in the Olympic spotlight will only make things worse.

"You're selling your identity," says University of Nevada tourism expert Hal Rothman. Rothman has spent 15 years following towns like Santa Fe and Aspen. At first glance, tourism seems like an economic boon, he says, until it has unexpected consequences.

Olympic publicity will only bring more wealth and more development, he says. Realtors, land owners and restaurateurs will make a killing while the working class will find it harder to live in the town they help support. The colorful locals that make Park City unique will be slowly squeezed out.

Unless Park City decides "the values of the community are more important than some of its members making a lot of money," says Rothman, it may end up like Aspen: "a haven for celebrities, the super-rich, and the mightily trendy."

While some say Park City lost its identity the day the first ski lift went up, a core community has survived here - a community that is pushing for more affordable housing and open space, and trying to hang on to the things that still make the town unique.

When the Olympics arrive, Park City is determined to be prepared. Myles Rademan, Frank Bell and others have visited past Olympic towns and lingered behind the scenes in Atlanta and Nagano. The town has already pulled in federal money to help with a long-range transportation plan. Now it has joined a "Venues Cities' group to help other communities prepare for the big show.

"We've seen what the Olympics look like," says Rademan. "Now it's a matter of defining how we benefit and how we present ourselves to the world. We want to make sure the Olympics don't happen to us."