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Is Tahoe Dying?

South Lake's Busted EconomySouth Lake's Busted Economy. Photo Credit: Laketahoenews.net

Editor's Note: Since its initial publishing, this piece has caused a lot of controversy over its use of  a singular personal opinion and outdated imagery. We'd like to thank all of those from the South Shore community who reached out to be a part of this conversation, and also offer an express apology to those that felt this piece was meant to mislead you, the reader—or defame the town that you call home. Thanks again for participating in the discussion!  

By now, it's no secret that Tahoe is hurting. For the past three seasons, the situation in the Tahoe Basin has progressively worsened. To the casual visitor, the obvious indicator is the lack of measurable precipitation, for which the Basin is famous.  

Soul Crushing Menace: Weather & Economics

Snow coverage in the Sierras, January 2013 compared to the following year, and 2013 wasn't even snowy... Photo Credit: NOAA

To the longtime local, or even the twenty-something transplant, the situation has been compounded by more than the lack of snow. Since the 1980's, the local economy in Tahoe—particularly South Shore—has been limping along year after year. It only takes one cruise down the strip (Hwy 50) to realize that a lot of South Lake Tahoe has fallen by the wayside.  

Sodergren's Ski Run at Northstar laid bare, winter 2014. Photo Credit: sfgate.com

Riding the wax and wane of quality snow years, the town of South Lake Tahoe has been crippled by a steady decline in tax dollars. Many point fingers at the casinos, the persistent rise of corporate ski culture (Vail, KSL), and the ubiquitous vacation homes that are owned but not occupied. 

Yet, if you look deeper, you'll find that South Shore's economic woes are much more complicated than one would imagine. Ironically, one of the chief contributors to South Tahoe's dilapidation is the fight for conservation between Nevada and California with the TRPA (Tahoe Regional Planning Agency) caught in the middle. 

The TRPA exists to implement conservation legislation, but in the eyes of many Tahoe locals it has been bought and paid for by the larger ski and casino conglomerates, allowing the easement of large-scale development while simultaneously making it economically unviable for homeowners to make modest improvements to their homes.

BUILDINGS THAT PREDATED THE TWO-STATE COMPACT, LIKE MANY OLDER MOTELS AND STRIP MALLS, COULD BE UPGRADED ONLY IF THE OWNERS ADDED EXPENSIVE ENVIRONMENTAL SAFEGUARDS TO MANAGE RUNOFF AND RESTORE CRUCIAL WETLANDS--PEOPLE WERE NOT UPGRADING THEIR PROPERTIES, BECAUSE THE ENVIRONMENTAL REQUIREMENTS MADE IT TOO EXPENSIVE FOR THE OWNERS OF SMALL, STRUGGLING PROPERTIES.

-Rick Lyman, The New York Times, October 2013

Essentially, the Tahoe Basin has been paralyzed in recent decades by California and Nevada's competing dreams for the future, causing much of South Lake to fall into selective abandonment and stagnance. 

IF YOU PUT THESE FACTORS TOGETHER, THEN COUPLE THEM WITH AN INSANELY STUBBORN HIGH PRESSURE RIDGE, YOU GET A ONCE-GREAT MOUNTAIN COMMUNITY ON THE BRINK OF COLLAPSE.

But at the end of the day—it's the snow. This season in the Tahoe Basin, you could feel the drought's decimation seep into the populace. Friends that in other years were sources of inspiration gradually (around February) turned to despair. The lack of pow seemed to permeate into the social fabric that the town was built on, emanating decay.  

has this become the "I've given up and I'm only gonna ski groomers" thread or the "I've given up and i'm going to Colorado" thread? cause i thought it was the ski pow and take pics and vids thread. wtf?

-Powdork shreds a rocky slope on Carson Pass in mid-January in the video above. Later, he and many other's took to the TGR forums to lament the low morale and low quality of the Sierra snowpack.  

There are those that will always be true believers, even in the face of the worst drought in recent history, but many have given up in search of greener pastures.

Most of you have been personally effected by the drought. Whether it closed down the business you worked at, cancelled your travel plans, or perhaps led to the gradual demise of your relationship, everyone in the Sierra has felt the dry onset of what many would call climate change. 

On that note, how has the drought effected you? At what point do you give up on a starving local economy and move on to something better? Is it noble to stick it out in a depressed town during a historically cataclysmic weather pattern? Tell us your side of the story...

Is Tahoe Dying?

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About The Author

TGR Contributor Sam Morse

Writer, editor and creative behind The Bumion — purveyor of ski town satire. For more articles and x-rated editions, check out thebumion.com

Comments (22)

Sam - it’s hard to take you seriously when your picture of Tahoe’s “urban blight” was turned into a beautiful neighborhood park over two years ago. I will concur that the last three years without snow have pressed hard on the community, however there were “help wanted” signs in nearly every business window this past spring/summer season. Hopefully mother nature will help keep those people working this winter. Let’s not forget that the Sierra had 49 FEET of snow in 2011. Complain all you want about the TRPA, but the global recession is more to blame for the economy of the South Shore as reflected by this year’s rebound.

    John, I appreciate your posting. I mean, the snow is certainly a problem, but like I said, there is no “one” reason for this. A tid-bit not included in the article that I find interesting is the relationship that the casinos had with all of the small motels on Hwy 50 before the hotel towers were built. Apparently, the casinos used to send people into California for their beds, but then they built accomodations around stateline, meaning no more dollars for the mom & pop inns down the road.

    I do not doubt that snow will return, but every year that Tahoe has like this, the further down the rabbit hole its economy will go. Regardless if that motel was beautified, the problem remains. Global economy or no, challenges for South Lake exist…

      You are just not “in touch” with the facts..just looking for a reason to validate your concept that South Shore is “too big” to be a ski town.

        Megan, my arguments have very little or nothing at all to do with the size of South Lake Tahoe.  I would push back that the TRPA has done a lot of harm to small and mid-size business owners. In spite of the picture I used being a couple years old, there are still many areas in South Lake that have been allowed to fall apart. This piece was meant to inspire an honest debate.

        You sound like you know the South Shore very well, and I’m sure we cherish many of the same places.  However, after leaving one of these places (Echo, Glen-Alpine, Carson) just out of town, I come into a town that has an obviously dysfunctional local government that has led to many parts of said town being run-down and less than what it could be. Most towns have their share of municipal issues, but South Lake has been paralyzed for a long time.

        Megan, Powdork, John Sills:

        I love Tahoe, but over the course of several years of rigorously discussing it, the best answer I could get from anybody in the South Shore community was that the TRPA was, and is, largely responsible for the common home-owner not being able to make an upgrade, build a new deck, or whatever.

        As for the snow, of course it doesn’t help. I am not a meteorologist, but I don’t have to be one to understand that the local economy is hurting as I watch shops close and droves of people my age lose work because of the situation. I know weather is cyclical—you guys are probably in for a doozy this winter, and I hope it will help to revitalize South Shore’s winter economy. Each bad winter just kicks a community that is already down because of economics.

        What I’m trying to say is that South Lake has several endemic factors that conspire together to make a bad situation worse—the chief among them being poor governance, and dare I say it, not over-regulation, but rigid/dumb regulation that only serves to set up roadblocks for many low/middle income families.

          Thank you for allowing us to discuss our town in an open forum… this is a very healthy discussion.. I spend a lot of time “out-of-town” say in Echo, Glen Alpine, etc)... I think the only point I’m trying to impress in my comments is that (having lived in here in the 90s… and in the 2000s) is that this town is thriving.. the TRPA is not “holding” small business back. And BTW - I am NOT on the side of environmentalism at all costs—no way!! Yes, does TRPA seemingly side with Big Business / Lake Front Homeowners, of course it does. But you paint a picture of the South Shore as a wasteland. Wow. Not true. Soooo last year… Sooo last decade commentary :-) For once, in a long time, we are very proud of what is happening here. People are very engaged in the community. I believe the heavy-handed nature of the TRPA in the late 90s has created a civic mindedness of all South Shore residents to get involved… hence, the rebirth of the South Shore… we are in a good place…please tread lightly….we would like to continue the upswing this town has seen in the past 3-4 years.

            I had no idea that my diagnosis was so out of style. You’ve been in Tahoe for a lot longer than I’ve been lucky enough to be, and it’s amazing that you feel that sense of resurgence. Up until last spring, it seemed like the only things changing were the parking meters and the new commons in the middle of town (2 years ago).

            I wrote this piece to address the issues with the TRPA— I had no idea it was significantly worse in the 90’s. Not as a challenge or argument, but out of genuine curiosity, I’d love to know how it has, in your eyes, began to upswing. I lived in South Shore (Meyers/Verdon ln.) for the past three years, but I never got the feeling that things were getting better. As your frame of reference is way deeper in context than mine, please let me know what factors you feel are helping this community come up…?

              Now you are being snarky, smug and arrogant…good luck with your open discussion.

              And how did you “address” the issues of the TRPA???????????

              You provide a random quote or two (and out of context)...What issues exactly are you talking about as it relates to the TRPA in terms of the South Shore not being able to grow its economy: BMPs, barriers to opening a new business, City Ordinances (that have little to do with the TRPA);

              Seriously. If you want o get smug and defensive…go for it. You better have some real-time case studies and examples of why this city is so backwards as it realates to the TRPA.

              in other words, what the hell is your article about as it relates t the TRPA and the South Shore’s demise / wastleland / no longer a vital ski economy…

              Yea, we have major issues as it relate to governance. However, we are in a very good place in terms of revitalizing the infastrucure of this town.

              Wow…NEVER in a million years, did I see my self defending the TRPA. NEVER. But you invited the scrutiny due to your lack of research.

              Yes the South Shore is thriving… for all of the empty buildings you see, pay attention to what is happening to the new buildings, the new open spaces… the parks, the bike trails.

              If what you are seeking is perfection, then move to Carmel.

                Megan, forums are tough and text is read out of context. I’m not trying to one-up you. I genuinely feel that you have more reference than I do. My question about your opinions and the ascendence of South Shore was serious…

                I know you think I’m attacking your town, but this is not the case. I love Tahoe—I want what you’re saying to be true.

The picture you used to draw people in on Facebook is intentionally inflammatory. Comparing the early season satellite image from consecutive years is a crapshoot, and the 2012/2013 season had an exceptionally cold and wet start compared to any year, not just 13/14. As John mentioned the area in your picture above on this page is now a park (and you can thank the TRPA regulations for that. Edgewood bought the property in order to gain credits that could be used in their new development, which one of many going in now). There is as much commercial construction going on in South Lake Tahoe now than I ever remember in the 20 years I’ve lived here.
In short, no, Tahoe is not dying. It’s thriving. The climbing, mountain biking, hiking, and water sports are all going off right now. And if we only get 75% of our precipitation this year it will still be more than the average snowfall of 80% of Rocky Mountain resorts.

https://www.facebook.com/MeganMurray55/posts/735407676529925

Samuel Adams Morse - You are so off the mark and not in touch with the South Shore (regardless of how you aesthetically “feel” about the size / sprawl of South Shore)... Tahoe is in a very good place moving into the future from an economic standpoint…you are using old arguments (and photos!!) to try to link a drought to the demise of Tahoe…do your research.

Hey Sam,

First off, the past few winters have been filled with long days of sub par snow and short lived fist fights on powder days. It’s been frustrating, but the bigger picture is the effects on the entire state of California.

I have no doubt that you once lived in South Lake Tahoe, but a lot has changed my friend, South Lake hasn’t “fallen by the wayside”. Haven’t you driven through town lately? probably not…The new South Shore Bike shop/SUP building, new development at the Y, new Brewery at Mid Town, redevelopment facelift at Al Tahoe & Harrison Ave, new lighted bike paths, Lakeview Commons (2 years ago, you should check it out!), new stores at the “hole in the ground”, new Hard Rock Casino…

South Shore is far from “selective abandonment and stagnance”. 

I’ll be hanging out in this “historically cataclysmic weather pattern.” If you ever come to South Lake Tahoe, hit me up. We can go and ski groomers at one of the corporate resorts…on empty runs..for days!!

    Word Pow-Yo…well played!

    It’s funny, I only left last spring, but most of the improvements that you listed must have just gotten underway this summer. To me, it always felt like the California side was hurting in its own way just because so much of the money went to Stateline/Heavenly gondola area. I’m stoked to hear that so many new projects are being conducted—hopefully it’ll be done the right way.

    Empty runs at a corporate Kirkwood still sound real good to me—I’m in!

      No, Mr. Morse, those improvements have been underway and some were completed before you left. You didn’t do your homework on this article, and I take exception to the blame you are now attempting to shift to “an obviously dysfunctional local government.” Public and private entities are partnering more than ever on recreation projects, erosion control projects, lighting, sidewalks, and much more. The City has contributed hundreds of hours and numerous resources to help build and refurbish bike paths. We have partnered to improve fire services, police services, and recreation services. This “dysfunctional government” you wish to blame for your bad writing has developed the best working relationships I have ever seen with Douglas County, El Dorado County, the TRPA, the CTC, the US Forest Service, the college, and the school district, to the definite benefit of business and private citizens. We have revamped our codes and ordinances to make it easier to do business in this town and are still working on that project. This “dysfunctional government” spent five million dollars to improve the Harrison Avenue area, to the benefit of a number of local businesses and our town. Again, how did you miss the Village Center, the Heavenly Village, Van Sickle Park, and the Chateau project, all near the Stateline area? In the past five years, we have attracted no less than six new retail establishments that have significantly reduced our retail leakage and all are mid-town to the Y area. You lived in Meyers, and you did not notice the beautiful little complex built with Century 21 as an anchor? You did not notice the completely renovated CCC building? How about the newly built Bob Dog Pizza and CHP buildings?  The old Road Runner gas station remodel? The beautiful mural on the side of Meeks?  And yes, many of us do feel you are attacking our town, with very little substance to your claims.

    Also, the TRPA has nothing to do with the argument you are trying to make…unless, you are a home owner too cheap to install your BMP’s …or just bummed you can’t ride your 2-stroke stand up jet ski anymore?

I have to agree with everyone who has commented in defense of the South Shore. It is far from dying. This community has come alive and all the blight and issues you are writing about will soon be forced from this town. Members of the community are coming together in amazing ways and pushing projects through that will make this town a truly diverse, year-round economy. The South Shore is more than a ski town and is rising above the bad snow years. Sure, they hurt. They really hurt. But there is more than one season here last time I checked and those other seasons are awesome.

I have to defend the TRPA as well. As an organization they have come a long way since the late 90s in terms of what actually needs to be done to protect our natural assets while promoting good economic development. Agencies are talking to one another and to developers in a way they never did in previous decades. Collaboration, public-private partnerships, and civic engagement have all sky rocketed and its showing when you drive around town. Let me say it again - Tahoe is far from dying.

Sam,

If you look at the last 6 years South Lake Tahoe has had a lot of problems.  The casino’s are dwindling (largely due to competition, and not investing in recreation), and there seemed to be no end to the recession. 

This summer has been the largest summer on record in terms of tourism and capital investment.  From the Hardrock Hotel, to Beverages and More, to the Harrison Avenue Project, money is being invested here at record rates. 

I hear your gripes about the TRPA, but there’s been a crazy amount of collaboration between the TRPA and developers as of late.  (I know because I’m helping to facilitate this process)  Tahoe’s moving forward like never before.  I encourage you to come visit.  If you do, I’d love to walk you around town and show you all the projects going on.  Just swing by Tahoe Mountain Lab at the base of Ski Run.  #OneSouthShore!

It appears that this column has been written remotely without visiting South Lake Tahoe recently.  The photos are lifted from other sources and the info about TRPA’s role is flat wrong.  Commercial and residential issues are confused.
As a developer and long time investor in the community, I can tell you that there is no better time than now.  the snow will come.  Yes the city does not rely on the casinos so much ( and for the better). The direction is a year round recreation economy and community.
Have you seen the infrastructure improvements lately?  Have you seen the new highway from Reno that allows you to be in Tahoe in one hour? Are you aware of what Tesla’s presence in Reno will mean for South Lake Tahoe?

Tahoe is not dying.  On the contrary, we are at the cusp of a Renaissance in South Lake Tahoe.  I have dealt with all of the agencies over the past 11 years. particularly in the recent past,  they have found ways to temper growth with proper stewardship of the great asset: the lake.  The city council of South Lake Tahoe is intent on promoting growth in the community.  we have one of the most outstanding City Managers (Nancy Kerry) in the states, who is intent on putting the “eco” in the economy of South Lake Tahoe.

i look forward to opportunities to do more within this magnificent community. 
Mr. Morse, you got your code wrong.  i am not sure what your intention must be with such a misleading article, but there is something afoot.

As the City Manager for the City of South Lake Tahoe, I take great exception to this article. Tahoe is alive and well and in fact, bustling with investment and innovation as has not been seen in many years. In July of this year, we had more visitors than we have had since 2005, years before the recession. Businesses are reporting their “best year - ever,” not “best year since recession.”

Our local ski resorts around the basin have been investing in their properties for many years, developing summer amenities as well as improved winter skiing opportunities. While we cannot control the weather, the resorts have taken advantage of this time to invest, upgrade and improve the visitor’s experience. Only a few years ago we had more snow than we had in years, which was great training ground for our many local Olympians.

We probably have more per-capita Olympians from the Tahoe Basin who have represented Lake Tahoe basin community in the Winter Olympics than many other ski resort destinations. In the Sochi Olympics it was reported that our local Olympians won more medals than some other COUNTRIES won (http://snowbrains.com/lake-tahoe-medals-great-britain-countries/?referral=skilaketahoe).

You might ask our Olympic medalists how they feel about Tahoe or ask our community how honored we are to have them represent our Lake Tahoe communities. Thank you again for Sochi medalsists including South Lake Tahoe Gold Medalists, Jamie Anderson - women’s snowboard slopestyle; Maddie Bowman, - women’s skiing halfpipe; and Julia Mancuso of Squaw Valley , Broze Medal for women’s super combined and David Wise of Reno/Tahoe Gold medal in men’s skiing halfpipe and Hannah Teter who won gold in 2006 (Torino) and Silver in 2010 (Vancouver) and the too-numerous-to-list other Olympians including our own local Travis Cabral, now a local police officer for the community.

It’s very common and all too easy to look at “what is not,” “what’s missing” and “what’s wrong,” rather than to notice “what is happening” ” what has improved” and where we are heading?

Your headline should have read, “Tahoe is investing in its future!”

The City of South Lake Tahoe has processed permits for new and remodeling construction in the City totaling over $100 million dollars in investment in just the past three summers. Hard Rock Tahoe just inked a deal to invest about $60 million into the casino for which you your photo was the lead. The Hard Rock Tahoe (#RockTahoe) hotel will create approximately 500 new jobs for the community and improve our built environment.

The City has invested over $30 million in infrastructure improvements in the last couple of years to better protect our precious resource, Lake Tahoe. While most municipal agencies in the country are saddled with tremendous debt and have thrown their hands up, the City of South Lake Tahoe is tackling these issues. We have been restructuring debts that burden the local residents in order to make additional investments in the community. The City is adopting a Recreation Master Plan that indicates investing in recreation is vital to our community’s success; to that end the debt restructuring will enable the City to direct several million to recreation in the next couple of years.

The local school system has invested over $100 million to improve the schools system, new technology and options for high school students to equip them with excellent job training skills and resources.

We are investing in our future and that is the key. We cannot control the weather, but we are working together throughout the community for a better future.

Next time you visit Lake Tahoe, please reach and let us show you how bright the future is of Tahoe.

 

Sam- clearly you hit a few nerves on this one with your glass half-empty view point! There is an enormous amount of positive energy and financial capital pouring into the Tahoe basin, on all shores, and more to come over the next decade. It is tragic that you would write such an uninformed article and a little surprising that Teton Gravity did not do a better job of proofing the submissions of its contributors. The doom that you portray is nothing more than cliche cynicism left over from the past and spouted by those that love Tahoe “the way it was”. Your “corporate Kirkwood” remark shows your bias.

 

Wow. Just straight click-bait with no real reporting. Why did anyone pay you to write something that you clearly didn’t research? And, no, spending 15 minutes on Google searching for things that support your already established position and cherry-picking information (even if it’s outdated) is not research. Weak sauce.

Mr. Morse, I am both saddened and surprised at your writing. If you only left South Lake Tahoe last spring, how is it that you did not notice our revitalized, state of the art, nationally recognized high school? Barton Hospital, South Tahoe Middle School, and Fire Station One (at the top of Ski Run) were all newly renovated. The Aspens, a beautiful affordable housing project was nearly completed. The Recreation Complex experienced upgrades, and we purchased a property in the industrial area to move our public works operations, thereby allowing us to pursue building an addition to our recreation complex. Lakeview Commons was a smashing success. The work on the Chateau project was progressing nicely, and Heavenly Village and the Village Center were already vibrant and fresh. Van Sickle Park was just finished when you left. TJ Maxx and Big 5, with appropriate upgrades were open for business. Grocery Outlet arrived in the past few years, and Grass Roots moved into a bigger building they remodeled at the Y. The Bijou erosion project was underway, as well as a storm water mitigation project in Sierra Tract. Blue Dog Pizza bought and revamped the old Sportsman at the corner of Sierra Blvd and Lake Tahoe Blvd. A pocket park for the neighborhood replaced the old CM Lodge, the Linear Park was finished, and sidewalks and street lights were added along Highway 50 and down Pioneer Trail.
Since you left, we have completed the Harrison Avenue project, spruced up several playing fields, and added miles of new and revitalized bike paths. I cut the ribbon for 2.5 miles of refurbished bike paths just today. Cal Trans is widening the highway near the airport and adding bike paths. Since you left, the old Alta Mira building has been demolished, a new Stand Up Paddle and Bike shop has been built, and their old building demolished to make way for a new Beverage and More. A new parking area was built next to the Tribune building. Base Camp Motel and a youth hostel have replaced old motels at the Stateline area.  An Auto Zone and paved parking for Izzy’s Burgers are being built as I write. The old Swiss Chalet Restaurant is morphing into a modern mountain brewery.
We are home to several Olympic medalists, the World’s Most Beautiful Bike Ride, the Lake Tahoe Marathon, the Great Gatsby Festival, Wa She Shu Et Dah, the Great Sternwheeler Race, the Stand Up Paddle Races, Celebrity Golf, SnowGlobe, and music and sporting events for virtually every weekend.
I own and operate two businesses here in South Lake Tahoe, one of which is a special events company. My most recent event, a Fall Festival and Chili Cook Off that was born just three years ago, was a success with locals and visitors alike.
I have lived here nearly thirty-four years and have seen the cycle of weather go from extreme snow to sparsely covered slopes and short seasons. This is normal, it is not the beginning of the end.
I also serve on the South Lake Tahoe City Council, and I take exception to your comments that our town is “dying.” It is more vibrant than ever and the attitude of “yes we can” is overtaking the naysayers, such as yourself. I encourage you to come back for a vacation, and let us show you the real South Lake Tahoe.

A rebuttal
http://www.powdork.com/2014/is-tahoe-dying-hell-no/