|By Skip Card, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash.|
Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News
Aug. 21, 2003 - As the Cascade crest cities of Roslyn and Cle Elum brace for a posh megaresort and a land rush of affluent new neighbors, uncertainty looms as thick as lodgepole pines.
All agree the 6,225-acre MountainStar Resort -- with up to three golf courses, a 150-room lodge, a conference center, a spa and roughly 3,700 home sites -- will change the character of an area better known for coal and timber. But even supporters of the resort aren't sure all changes will be for the best.
Cle Elum Mayor Gary Berndt admits he "spent a lot of sleepless nights" after he decided fighting the resort made less sense than negotiating with developers. Berndt wrangled millions for his city's infrastructure, but he still frets over decisions that will forever affect his city of 1,775.
"I'm not sure anybody in the state of Washington has been through what we've been through," said Berndt, Cle Elum's mayor for the past 16 years. "I told the council, 'We're writing our legacy. I hope we can stand to read it.'"
Folks are similarly nervous up the road in Roslyn, once the setting for the CBS television series "Northern Exposure." Many of the town's 1,000 residents fear their quiet way of life might soon be usurped by well-heeled newcomers.
"There's going to be a different breed of people hanging around," predicted Roslyn Mayor David Gerth. A local garage owner, Gerth was elected mayor in late 1999 largely because he was skeptical of resort developers' promises.
"There's an awful lot of momentum on these small communities to be modest, middle-class people," Gerth said. "We're sort of proud of our poverty."
Today, what will become MountainStar Resort is still a thinly forested patch of rolling terrain off Interstate 90. Crews are installing water and sewer lines and seeding the greens on a 7,200-yard golf course designed by Arnold Palmer. The course is due to open next summer.
Final designs and a full menu of resort amenities are still being decided, said Bill Hunt, MountainStar's managing director.
Initial plans envisioned a $320 million project with a lodge and a conference hall plus time-share condominiums and vacation homes. Hunt said that dollar figure is now higher, although he would not give a more precise estimate.
By 2010, the resort also could feature a spa, an ice rink, a rock-climbing wall, an amphitheater, a fly-fishing pond, a fitness center and shops. An adjacent 1,200-acre development, separate from the resort, could someday add up to 1,335 homes within the city limits of Cle Elum, likely doubling its population.
Hunt imagines many of the first arrivals at MountainStar will be seasonal residents, retirees, weekend golfers and a few urban castaways willing to commute 90 miles over Snoqualmie Pass to jobs in Seattle.
The newcomers should spur demand for goods and services in Roslyn and Cle Elum, Hunt said.
"We hope that whatever impact we have will be a positive impact," Hunt said. In time, a larger population could support more industry and spark local economic growth, he said, "and hopefully the amount of people commuting to Seattle will diminish."
Cle Elum Mayor Berndt shares those hopes. But even Berndt isn't sure if the future he helped chart for his city will be better than its present or past.
"There doesn't seem to be a measure to how you figure that out," he said.
Complicating such calculations are Roslyn's and Cle Elum's blue-collar roots.
Roslyn boomed after coal was discovered in the area in 1883. Mining that for a time surpassed 1 million tons of coal a year attracted workers of 28 nationalities, creating a rich ethnic patchwork.
Nearby Cle Elum also boomed during coal's heyday. The wife of the town's founder insisted streets be built triple-wide so Cle Elum could become the Pittsburgh of the West.
But coal production petered out as demand declined, and Roslyn's last mine closed in 1963. By the 1970s, Roslyn had a ghost town reputation, and a run-down house could be bought for as little as $1,200.
Timber production also dwindled. Until recently, both towns' only obvious growth came from tourism and recreation as Puget Sound residents passed through on their way to nearby lakes, rivers and foothills.
The land that is now MountainStar had been owned by Plum Creek Timber Co. before it was sold in 1996 to Oregon-based Jeld-Wen Inc., a leading manufacturer of windows and doors and developer of destination resorts in Oregon. Resort development began under Redmond-based Trendwest Resorts, which was then owned by Jeld-Wen.
The sale and plans caught locals by surprise.
"Everyone thought no one would buy that piece of ground," Berndt said. "It sat there for years."
In April, Jeld-Wen announced a partnership with Los Angeles-based Lowe Enterprises, a real estate development firm that operates 29 hotels, resorts and golf clubs.
Plans for a resort and the potential for new jobs and corporate generosity have generated some enthusiasm around Kittitas County. MountainStar has contributed money to local events such as Roslyn's Labor Day Coal Miner Festival.
"There wouldn't be a festival without them," said organizer Bobbi Drier, who moved to Roslyn five years ago from Maple Valley.
Drier believes change was inevitable, and she said a nice resort is better than most alternatives.
"Something was coming. Something had to give," Drier said. "In my opinion, they were the best thing to happen in a long time."
Others agree. Faced with few other prospects of job growth, Mayor Berndt and other Cle Elum leaders decided the MountainStar resort "was an acceptable foundation to build a community on."
Not everyone agreed, and Berndt said debates over the resort "split the community just like a meat cleaver." A citizens group called Ridge spent five years appealing the resort's environmental permits before winning concessions and halting opposition in 2001.
In other areas, prolonged appeals and government opposition have stalled resort development. The 400-acre Park Junction Resort proposed near the Nisqually Valley communities of Ashford and Elbe is on hold following a court ruling that trimmed the size of its conference center.
Park Junction developer Selwyn Bingham is awaiting an appeal hearing and hopes to have the conference center restored to what he considers profitable size. Bingham said officials in Kittitas County apparently welcome opportunities like MountainStar.
"Evidently, that county wants it more than Pierce County wants anything," Bingham said.
MountainStar did make compromises. Developers set aside 1,215 acres along the Cle Elum River as a preserve, and pines that ring the resort will hide most development. At locals' insistence, shops within the resort will be limited so retail opportunities can grow in the adjacent cities.
"They do not need to have grocery stores," Berndt said. "The community is accepting the responsibility to grow and provide those things."
Cle Elum also hired what Berndt called "a very high-priced consultant team" that crafted water, sewer and land-use agreements. Berndt said Cle Elum made MountainStar pay the consultants' salaries.
In the end, the developers agreed to spend roughly $18 million to expand the local sewer treatment plant and $12 million to expand Cle Elum's aging water system. The resort will connect to both systems.
Roslyn is getting comparatively little. In hindsight, Mayor Gerth feels Roslyn missed opportunities "to make some deals."
"I was more interested in the issues that you can't put a price on -- issues like a community's character and a community's history," Gerth said. "I feel like I should have gone for the gold."
Gerth said he considered more environmental appeals, but the city had only about $10,000 budgeted for legal fees -- not enough to fight a developer.
"Most folks are resigned to the fact that it's going to happen and they hope for the best," Gerth said. He said a bigger concern than MountainStar is development in the foothills, and he is running for county commissioner in part to rein in such sprawl.
Townsfolk await looming change with mixed emotions. Many say they are happy to see property values finally increasing, but they worry about losing small-town touches.
"I don't want Roslyn to have to get a stoplight," said Jeri Palmer, owner of the curio shop Lost in Roslyn. "I love living in a town without a stoplight."
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(c) 2003, The News Tribune, Tacoma, Wash. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News. PCL, CD,