Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Sun Valley: Living in the past

On Roger's Quaint-o-meter (patent pending), zero being Baghdad after a car bombing and 10 being Disneyland five minutes before opening, Sun Valley, Idaho is an 11.

Developed beginning in the middle of the Great Depression by Union Pacific Railroad as a destination ski resort, Sun Valley is now an incorporated town near Ketchum, Idaho with about 1,500 residents, and it's just cute as can be -- a little alpine paradise tucked into a corner of central Idaho's Wood River Valley. To be honest, I just love the place and visit as often as I can.

Unfortunately, Sun Valley has a problem. It nearly literally wreaks of ... old. Wherever you look, it feels old. The black and white photos all over the place in the famous (and impossibly quaint) Sun Valley Lodge come from the Forties and Fifties. The bell tower over the Opera House plays really old tunes. The live music played in the Duchin Lounge (which I also dearly love) is usually some sort of jazz from at least half-century ago.

So, young trust funders and other youthful sorts with expendable cash are more likely to head to Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Aspen, Colorado; Lake Tahoe, Nevada-California or elsewhere. It's really too bad, because Sun Valley really is a lovely place. On the other hand, Sun Valley's loss is my gain -- shoulder season lodging rates have become downright cheap (still three figures, but just).

The recent addition of the Sun Valley Pavilion, an indoor-outdoor music venue, could help in the summertime. The 2010 kick-off concert is the way-cool Colbie Callait, but the season also includes, ahem, the latest version of the decidedly uncool Glenn Miller Orchestra. Also on the schedule is the John Denver Band. John Denver, alas, died in 1997.

I'm not a skier, but by all accounts the skiing experience on the famous runs around Sun Valley has never been better, and both Ketchum and Sun Valley continue to have great restaurants and an intriguing nightlife for very small towns. These are not the issues. If you ask me (and you didn't), the issue is that Sun Valley is clinging to a past that was lovely but is, well, history. So, may I propose an idea or two?

1. Get rid of the old pictures, except, perhaps, for those in a restricted area celebrating the resort's illustrious history. The Wood River Valley is crawling with starving artists and photographers -- put them to work.

2. Bring in some entertainment recognizable to people born in the fourth quarter of the 20th Century.

3. Kill the icky recorded bell tones that ring around the shopping area and find some new stuff. And maybe bring in some new and different shops as well.

4. Take some risks. A hookah bar? Sushi? A skateboarding park? Allowing non-wooden rackets on the tennis courts? (That last one is a joke.)

From an outsider's perspective, it appears that Sun Valley faces a classic conundrum -- its marketers don't want to offend their longtime base, and that caution is costing them a whole generation of both skiers and summer visitors. Both the resort and its setting are beautiful and more people need to enjoy it. Meanwhile, Kathleen and I will enjoy the high prices and solitude of the Duchin Lounge all by ourselves.

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