By Pam Cosmo of La Pine, Oregon. Pat describes herself as a "freedom-loving,agri-business hating, ex-newspaper woman."
About five years ago, I moved to Deschutes County from South Lake Tahoe. Lake Tahoe is a world class vacation destination, and I am all too familiar with the unintended consequences that resort development entails. I was the special sections editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune when re-development was just beginning. I used to write about its progress.
I lived in South Lake Tahoe for almost fifteen years. When we got there in 1989, Tahoe was a small town populated for the most part by old hippies from the Bay Area, the offspring of local homesteaders, and Washoe Indians who had been there forever.
It was kind of like here, actually. Lake Tahoe and the mountains and the streams were spectacular and lent themselves to the development of the tourist industry, once the mining of gold and silver in the valley panned out. Family-owned casinos, like Bill Harrah’s, and nice hotels, restaurants, and small ski resorts thrived. They employed local people and they did pretty well. The population grew, a hospital and schools were built and tourists were attracted from all over. It was a nice place to live and raise your kids. The schools were fine, the neighbors were friendly, nobody got rich, but you could go skiing in the winter and fishing in the summer and life was good. Local kids grew up to be teachers, auto mechanics, ski instructors, restaurateurs, store owners, car dealers, and the usual assortment of small town staples.
Time passed, though, and it was the nineties. Money had trickled up. The mega-rich had money to burn and needed to put it somewhere. And, they liked to play – hard. To keep up and compete with Aspen and Vail and other resort areas that were the playgrounds of the privileged, Tahoe had to “re-develop.” We were convinced by the Chamber of Commerce brain trust that it would behoove all of us to tear down all those “unsightly” dumpy little hotels and gift shops and build a massive new complex combining a ski resort, a convention center, a retail complex, huge fancy hotels, timeshares, and a tram going all the way to the top of the mountain. Spectacular!! All those new jobs! All that money flowing in! Everybody had dollar signs in their eyes.
But, here’s what happened: the family owned businesses like Harrah’s got bought out by big international tourist and entertainment conglomerates. The first thing they did was to fire most of the local staff and replace them with an independent housekeeping entity that paid lower wages and provided few benefits. They recruited on a large scale with international employment mills, hiring people from Mexico and the Philippines and the former Soviet Union’s lesser satellite nations. These people proved to be exceptionally fertile, and soon the schools were swamped with students that required English as a Second Language. Since these people had no insurance, they also had to rely on the small hospital’s emergency room for much of their medical care. Now the hospital is perpetually on the brink of bankruptcy. For the first several years, the schools were overwhelmed with all these children. But now families can’t afford to live in Tahoe anymore, so schools are closing due to lack of attendance. My son’s former cute little middle school on the Nevada side, just closed. Sixth graders will attend the high school next year. So did a middle school on the California side. I just found out that the Montessori School is closing as well. The better paying jobs at the college, the City, and the County all have to be staffed with those who are bi-lingual to deal with the fact that the town is now over a third Spanish speaking.
Huge mansions have been built to cater to the rich retiring from Southern California and second homes for those coming in from the East Coast, Asia and Europe. But, they have no interest in investing in the infra-structure, and so they vote “no” on all projects that would involve increasing taxes to fund schools, roads, fire departments, etc. Keep in mind that each rich person requires about ten poor people to attend to him. “Service” implies “servants,” after all. And, they want to keep as much distance from these servants and themselves as possible. A gated community on the North side actually petitioned a Safeway grocery store for their own grocery line so they wouldn’t have to stand in line with the riff-raff from town. Here in Deschutes County, that “riff-raff” would be you.
The financing of these mega developments has been somewhat of a nightmare as well. Projects have been started and halted and re-started depending on the ability to secure and match financing. Resorts and hotels have been sold and re-sold, and many now belong to international corporations whose allegiance is to their stockholders, not the local population. Those initial assurances that all would be well and the locals hired first, the community’s traditions cherished, and all that, have long since disappeared.
Many of those hard-working service workers, who are paid by how many rooms they can clean in a day, fortify themselves with drugs to keep up the pace. So now, there is also the meth problem to deal with. Their children, having no parents at home to supervise them, have formed gangs to give them a sense of “family” and protection, and now big fights break out regularly between rival groups at bus stops and on the school grounds. And, the crime rate has increased dramatically. It’s not the people I blame; it is the corporations that have set up this system of exploitation in both countries that have created this desperate situation. They make money on them from both sides. And, if the workers or their relatives are incarcerated, they make money on that, too, since the prisons have been privatized.
So now, when you go to Tahoe, you’ll see a beautiful, up-scale, world-class resort destination. But, the people working these palaces of privilege are living in barrios and taking the bus. The bus schedules are only printed in Spanish, by the way. There isn’t enough money to print them in English, too. The former local trades people are moving away in droves because the housing costs have gone up so high. People have to jam into apartment slums to live there. Unless you want your kid to grow up dealing Blackjack or carrying the luggage of a fat cat from Shanghai, you must move. The mom and pop places that gave Tahoe its character are now replaced by big franchise stores just like the ones the tourists have at home. The smaller places can’t afford the commercial space. Of course, the fancy new gourmet stores and up-scale theaters are also too expensive for the locals to frequent. They can’t even afford to park downtown. Parking used to be free. It is not their town anymore. The locals now live on the edges.
Another disturbing element is that the tourist trade is ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of the climate, the discretionary income of people from other countries as well as our own - and the price of oil. If many of the airlines fold, and the State workers stop driving the hundred miles to vacation, business will come to a standstill. The town will be crushed under the debt load that it took to re-develop. But, when the citizenry is composed of part-time residents, time-share vacationers, and workers who make subsistence wages and barely speak English, who is going to provide the backbone necessary to pull through hard times? We all need to think seriously of these consequences or blow-back from the big-time tourist trade. It could happen here as well. Once the Resorts are in, “Resistance is Futile”.
I recoiled from living under those circumstances and sought a place far from this “development” nightmare. I moved to La Pine in Deschutes County. And, now, I am hearing the same pitch all over again. But, now we have the additional threats of the end of cheap oil, the financial/credit debacle, water wars, the inflation of food prices and the falling value of the dollar to contend with. That’s in addition to all the inherent damage that resort development accomplishes on its own. I understand that the water level has already dropped 2 feet due to the Thornberg Resort, and it hasn’t even opened yet! They are bringing in over a thousand homes and have built a 26,000 acre lake on land that doesn’t even have a natural stream? What are they thinking??
Trust me, we are looking at a train wreck in slow motion if large scale destination resorts proliferate. In attempting to make more money and increasing the tax base with rich outsiders, we will be destroying the wealth of the community and of the land. Instead, we should be pulling together to work within the limitations we can afford, utilize the talents of our residents, and take care of the people who live here. Think “Bed and Breakfasts” not big hotels. Think Disc Golf, not 18 hole golf courses. Think artist colony, writers workshops, fishing retreats, permaculture seminars, yurt manufacturing, organic farms and specialty produce, ranching and farmer’s markets, pony rides, and trading centers that feature locally made products.
We should be looking to create sustainable communities that localize food production, produce necessities that will no longer be imported due to the rising prices of transportation and manufacture. We should be supporting businesses that create jobs for the families that live here and produce goods and services that are regionally vital in the long term. We should work to make sure that the children who grow up here can find decent jobs and afford homes to live in. We need to focus on quality of life and conservation and preserving the incredible Northwest as we know it. Keep it simple. Keep it wonderful. If we do that, we will continue to be an envy of the world. If we don’t, and we succumb to the Destination Resort siren song, it will be lost. And, it may never come back.