Town Shopping

Maintaining karmic balance in the New West’s real estate economy

  • Author John Fayhee searches for a new, undiscovered Western town to call home

    Todd Powell
  • Downtown Silver City, New Mexico, is glowing with the fresh pastels of gentrification, including the local health-food store

    Michael Berman
  • The town of Roslyn, Washington, gained fame as the mythical Cicely, Alaska, in the television series Northern Exposure. The Roslyn Cafe mural and Old West-style Main Street remain

    Joel Rogers
  • Roslyn and its surroundings later caught the eye of the developers of the giant Suncadia resort. Now, large and lavish houses like this one are under construction

    Joel Rogers
  • Jarbidge, Nevada, fixer-upper

    John Fayhee
  • Jarbidge, Nevada's local bar

    Thomas Hallstein/Outsight
  • Signs in downtown Silver City, New Mexico

    Michael Berman
  • In the foothills, new adobes are being set on pads carved into the pino and juniper in the new Dos Griegos subdivision

    Michael Berman
  • Silver's Brewer Hill is one of the last places in town working folks can afford, and likely is next in line for the bulldozers

    Michael Berman

Page 4

Now, in January, I’m telling all this to Gary Clauss as we stroll to the top of Boston Hill, where we can see almost all of Silver City. I know the nooks and crannies of Boston Hill well. Thirty years ago, I hiked all over this mine-pocked ridge many, many times. In those days, Boston Hill was where people went when they wanted a little exercise but lacked the time or (in my case) a vehicle reliable enough to drive to Gila National Forest.

Today, Boston Hill is dedicated open space, 400-plus acres of land protected in perpetuity by the Silver City town government. It boasts a volunteer-built trail system and parking areas replete with interpretive signs.

Though the Boston Hill Open Space is a result of Silver City’s real estate boom (it was established to protect the place from development), now, ironically, it’s another lifestyle "amenity."

Clauss, a member of the town council, is running for mayor in the April election. He emigrated to Gila County from Ridgway, Colo., 11 years ago, mainly because he was tired of all the growth in Ouray County. He bought a little casa (the first he has ever owned) in an old part of Silver City and went about the slow process of integrating his life into his adopted town.

While Clauss points to the single-acre plots, adorned with the latest in single-wide architecture, that form the western and southern peripheries of the town, I look north toward my beloved Gila National Forest, at 3.3 million acres the largest contiguous national forest in the Lower 48. (Now that’s an amenity!) I look at the sea of rooftops extending into the Little Walnut drainage, where I once lived in a $65-a-month trailer. Less than a century ago, this was the home turf of Geronimo and his much-feared Chiricahua Apaches. When I lived here, there were only a few houses out Little Walnut way ... the story of the West.

Clauss seems tired, like a man who has fought too many battles, who now fights as much out of habit as desire. "I find it hard to agree that, just because real estate prices are increasing, that’s good for the town," he says. "Sure, real estate/amenity economies bring new people to town, and some of those people are going to contribute very positively to Silver City, but the basic premise of the pro-real estate argument is that our population has to increase. You can’t have a strong real estate economy based upon long-time locals merely selling their existing houses to each other.

"I don’t mean to diminish the value of the new construction jobs our real estate boom has caused. The locals really need that work. And I don’t want to diminish the importance of the new capital that is coming to town," he adds, like a man being politic. But so far, he says, the boom has benefited the realtors and developers more than the longtime locals. "All we get out of the deal is more houses and higher rents and property taxes. As it is right now, we do not have the economic infrastructure to pay local workers enough to get into the increasingly inflated housing market. How is that good for Silver City?"

His close friend Joe Hutto, who has lived in Silver City for 25 years, agrees. "I understand that many newcomers have become valuable additions to our community. Towns can’t stay culturally isolated; you need new blood to stay healthy," he says. "But I believe we have not only the right, but the obligation, to deny water to new developments. I believe we should make developers pay significant impact fees, and that we should somehow figure out a way for the town to directly benefit from real estate transactions. If we don’t, the things we love about Silver City will die. It’s that simple."

That argument — often framed by pro-development people as "anti-growth" or "close-the-door-behind-you" — is hard for someone like me to hear, mainly because I want very badly for the door to be left open, at least until I decide if Silver City is where I want to hang my hat. The sad fact is that I have been making the exact same argument in the Colorado high country for almost two decades. And, in places like Aspen and Boulder, where close-the-door attitudes have spawned strict limits on building, the results, however well-intentioned, have been increased sprawl just outside the town limits, and higher housing prices inside. When it comes to karmic wrestling matches, sometimes you can’t win for losing.

There is no way to come out of this feeling good about selling my house in Colorado for as much money as I can possibly get, and moving to Silver City — or anywhere else, for that matter. As Carl Franz says in The People’s Guide to Mexico, "No matter where you go, there you are." And with you comes all your baggage.

So what’s a Westerner to do? An honorable man would take the advice of longtime Colorado writer Hal Clifford, who wrote the following in an essay in the Mountain Gazette: "This is perhaps the only answer to the paradox of the West. Be here. Not only now, but for a long time. Long enough for our kids to be here, and our grandkids. Long enough for the little fruit tree we planted in our front yard to grow and fatten until it overspreads the whole yard, the sidewalk and this old, old house we have just built. Until we decide the West is home, and not just another bonanza, another place to cash in and clear out on the way to somewhere else, we’ll never get the West right."

In other words, find your place, raise your flag and stand your ground, come hell, high water, or population increases and development pressures so severe they make your head spin. (The fact that Clifford sold his newly built house in Telluride and moved to Massachusetts to take a job with Orion magazine shortly after his essay saw print diminishes this sentiment not in the least. Well, OK, maybe a little, but only a little.)

But not all of us are cut from that holy cloth. Some of us get irredeemably tired of the constant growth-related battles and the defeats and the new shopping centers and the new this and that. Some of us just have to lower our flag and move on.

I know, I know; if I were honorable, I would sell my house in Frisco for just what I paid for it, plus what I’ve spent to spruce the place up, and the price of one final beer at my local pub. But there is nothing I could do without shooting myself in the foot. Even if I sold that house at a price acceptable to all my granola-crunchy amigos (none of whom own real estate), what would stop the purchaser from selling it to someone else for a horrendous profit two days later? This is Summit County, Colo., after all — the nation’s largest ski/real estate emporium; such things have happened.

"Become the change you want to see," Gandhi supposedly said, or something along those finger-wagging lines. It is my guess that the Mahatma never owned any real estate, or, if he did, it was not in the heart of Colorado’s ski country.

So I turn for guidance to Spenser Havlick, professor emeritus in architecture and planning at the University of Colorado-Boulder, and a man I have known and respected for some years. (For what it’s worth, he owns a second home in Summit County, Colo., near where I live.) First, he echoes Clifford’s sentiments: "Stay where you are. Run for town council. Fight for your town!" Then he surprises me.

"If you are absolutely overwhelmed by what has happened in the Colorado high country … move to one of the many dead and dying places in the West, to Medicine Bow or Saguache, places that have been missed by the boom. Then, make certain no one is ever allowed to write anything about those places. Let no one come in and argue in favor of growth as salvation. Raise your flag in a place off the map, and stand your ground!"

Havlick is a wise man, and he makes a good point. There is no way for me to relocate to Silver City without helping to kill the thing I love, no matter how hard I try to convince myself that the good I would bring with me (including my ill-gotten real estate money) would more than balance the bad. We all think that about ourselves, all of us who, as this magazine’s slogan says, care about the West.

I still plan to hightail it out of the overdeveloped Colorado high country. But I’ve factored Havlick’s off-the-map comment into my relocation search. I’m now looking hard up a lonesome desert highway, toward a little-known town called ...

A long-time contributing editor at Backpacker magazine, M. John Fayhee helped resurrect the Mountain Gazette in 2000. He is the author of eight books, including A Colorado Winter and Along the Colorado Trail. His next book is tentatively titled, Searching for Cicely, Alaska.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Blowing bubbles

- Is everyone a Realtor?

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