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Town With A Mission

Town With A Mission

Travel
By Ken Castle
posted: 11/20/2000

Will the real South Lake Tahoe please stand up? It's not the one that most visitors see first, the six miles of Highway 50 that begin with mom-and-pop motels and culminate with high-rise casinos. Peel away that tourist veneer, and you find a mountain community that reveres family values, nurtures Olympic hopefuls and prefers life in the slow lane.

Everything here is reckoned in "Tahoe time," meaning appointments are made with a fudge factor of 30 minutes to an hour, and folks will call you back next week, not today. Drop into Sprouts, a locals' hangout that serves fruit smoothies and vegetarian burritos, and you might notice that the lone copy of The Wall Street Journal is untouched. "Everyone else in California seems to be riding the new-economy wave, but in South Tahoe we're still riding the ski-bum wave," says Taylor Flynn, 36, editor and publisher of the monthly alternative newspaper, the Tahoe Mountain News. And ski bums come from far and wide to enjoy the area's bounty. On Friday nights, a long line of cars and buses snakes down Echo Summit, following the highway to the gaming shrines of Stateline. While the casinos run full-tilt 24 hours a day, the real South Lake Tahoe exults in the beauty of the great outdoors. It reveres the cobalt-blue lake and sublime powder that layers three of the best ski mountains in the country.

But where the heck is downtown? Funny you should ask. You won't see a quaint main street with antique shops and art galleries. In fact, you won't see anything that resembles a central business district-at least not until American Skiing Company rolls out its new Heavenly base village. And everybody here can hardly wait for that to happen.

Some of the residents swear that the core of South Tahoe is Stateline, because, darn it, that's where the tall buildings are. Others say it's the "Y"-the intersection of highways 50 and 89, where a confluence of four strip malls is dominated by a Raley's supermarket on one corner, a Miller's Outpost on another and a factory-store outlet on a third. With its hodgepodge of natty cafes and shops, the "Y" is the unofficial retail center and gathering place for the townspeople.

If you didn't know where to find South Tahoe's hidden assets, you'd think that this is one confused place. There is a city named South Lake Tahoe, but the "South Lake" community includes unincorporated areas of Douglas County on the Nevada side and the little burgs of Meyers and Tahoe Paradise in Eldorado County on the California side. There are two telephone area codes, two state governments, two county governments, three U.S. Forest Service jurisdictions, a regional bi-state regulatory agency and an assortment of state agencies. In California, the bars close at 2 a.m. In Nevada, they go all night. If you live in California, you pay income taxes. If you live in Nevada, you don't.

Given the sprawling nature of the South Shore, which numbers about 32,000 full-time residents, it's no wonder that the place suffers an identity problem. But nobody here is too worried about it, because the lake ties it all together. It is the lifeblood of the region's tourism economy and a recreational escape valve for its residents. In winter, people flock to the chairlifts at Heavenly, which serves up a big bowl of Tahoe from sugar-coated slopes. In summer, they take to the water in anything that floats.

Hit South Shore on a weekend and you won't rub shoulders with many locals. They're working. Weekends are for out-of-towners; weekdays are for residents. And everyone likes it that way. Monday nights rock at McP's, an Irish pub, where many ski area employees celebrate the beginning of their weekend. By 1 a.m., evening-shift casino workers are pouring into Mott Canyon Tavern & Grill for pizza and drinks, often staying until 4 a.m. What is hard to fathom is that many of these night owls are also Face Rats: On a powder day, they spring out of bed and beeline for the slopes. They're lined up 20 minutebefore the lifts open, waiting to scamper through the fluff on the steep Face of the lower mountain. "I skied 55 days last season," says Chris Mitchell, owner of the Greenstone Bar & Grill, one of the hot new bistros in town. "I get up early on powder days, and if I don't make first chair, I'm disappointed." Like most everyone who lives here, he alternates among the three nearby ski areas-Heavenly, Sierra-at-Tahoe and Kirkwood.

Mitchell and his wife Jody are part of a cadre of young entrepreneurs that has recently infiltrated South Lake. These newcomers have formed enclaves in different parts of town, setting up businesses in little strip malls that few people considered to have much of a future. Next to the Greenstone is Rude Brothers, a bagel bakery; and next to that is Sprouts, the "whole-earth" cafe. The entire block has become a new locals' hangout. Yet another new enclave is a triangular mini-mall sandwiched between Highway 50 and Pioneer Trail. This oasis of locally owned shops includes California Gifts and Wine, Genesis Bed, Body and Bath, a sushi place called The Naked Fish, a second location of the hugely popular Alpen Sierra Coffee Company and Cutting Edge Sports. Many residents consider the "triangle" their one-stop shopping plaza. It certainly reflects the South Tahoe lifestyle.

As for conveniences that make the town livable, there's Lake Tahoe Community College, which lends an aura of culture; a hospital that offers specialties, such as orthopedics; a new performing arts center at the college; and a growing artists' colony centered at the Tallac Historic Site near Camp Richardson. Local stores supply the daily basics, but for big-ticket items, you have to drive 40 minutes to Carson City or 75 to Reno.

Residents grouse about traffic and public transportation, but one thing that most of them brag about is the community's dedication to its children. All three ski areas nurture junior skiers with major development programs. As a result, South Shore has become an incubator for Olympians. The current Tahoe Posse includes U.S. Ski Team downhiller Jonna Mendes and freestylers Brooke Ballachey, Travis Ramos and Travis Cabral. Ramos' younger sister, Amber, 14, is also a freestyler, but shows promise of becoming one of America's best female mountain bike competitors.

"South Shore is a big supporter of youth sports and recreation," says John Rice, general manager of Sierra-at-Tahoe and father of three. "Almost every kid in this town is involved in sports. The area's junior-class snowboarders dominate the national competitions."

Like many mountain communities, South Shore lacks affordable housing, a result of the super-hot real estate market coupled with the skyrocketing demand for minimum-wage workers. The presence of the four major Stateline casino hotels, which maintain huge staffs and experience high turnover, adds to the challenge of finding qualified employees. More and more, ski resorts and lodging properties have been forced to recruit overseas, particularly in Latin America, Australia and New Zealand. Until recently, many of the newcomers rented in the Bijou area, an older neighborhood southwest of Stateline. But as the average price of a home has climbed to $195,000, owners have been removing their properties from the rental market and selling them as second homes to more upscale buyers. Blue-collar service workers have been pushed down to Carson Valley, Nev.-or out of the area entirely. And because of growth restrictions mandated by the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, a bi-state regulatory agency charged with protecting Tahoe's environment, it's tough to get permits for new housing projects.

Despite the challenges of traffic, housing, and air and water pollution, South Tahoe is staking its future on a massive, mile-long redevelopment: a new base area and village for Heavenly, new hotels and a convention center next to Harvey's casino, and myriad smaller projects that are replacing run-down motels and older retail areas along Highway 50. There is also hope that the City of South Lake Tahoe will someday move out of temporary quarters and build a true city hall and community center. Residents hope to add sidewalks and a tree-lined meridian along the highway. Already, ticky-tacky buildings from the Fifties and Sixties are being replaced by structures more appropriate to their environment. "Even the new McDonald's is constructed of river rock and lodge poles," notes newspaper editor Taylor Flynn.

Not so long ago, residents feared that South Shore was in decay, that its status as an appealing resort community was clouded. "Then the region's major interest groups realized we were all in this together-environmentalists, ski areas, casinos and small businesses," says Carl Ribaudo, executive director of Ski Lake Tahoe, a marketing consortium of Tahoe's six largest ski resorts. Every phase of redevelopment, he says, is aimed at improving the quality of life for locals, the experience for guests and the health of Lake Tahoe.

"We've always had cooperation among the major players in terms of supporting education and youth sports, but now we've gone the next step to rebuild South Shore. And the community has really come together. We're a work in progress. But it's now certain that whatever comes in the future will be infinitely better than what has been here in the past."

After all, Ribaudo adds, "We're here because we love this place."otels and older retail areas along Highway 50. There is also hope that the City of South Lake Tahoe will someday move out of temporary quarters and build a true city hall and community center. Residents hope to add sidewalks and a tree-lined meridian along the highway. Already, ticky-tacky buildings from the Fifties and Sixties are being replaced by structures more appropriate to their environment. "Even the new McDonald's is constructed of river rock and lodge poles," notes newspaper editor Taylor Flynn.

Not so long ago, residents feared that South Shore was in decay, that its status as an appealing resort community was clouded. "Then the region's major interest groups realized we were all in this together-environmentalists, ski areas, casinos and small businesses," says Carl Ribaudo, executive director of Ski Lake Tahoe, a marketing consortium of Tahoe's six largest ski resorts. Every phase of redevelopment, he says, is aimed at improving the quality of life for locals, the experience for guests and the health of Lake Tahoe.

"We've always had cooperation among the major players in terms of supporting education and youth sports, but now we've gone the next step to rebuild South Shore. And the community has really come together. We're a work in progress. But it's now certain that whatever comes in the future will be infinitely better than what has been here in the past."

After all, Ribaudo adds, "We're here because we love this place."

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