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The Tahoe Oligarchy

BY ETHAN INDIGO SMITH

As isolated as we are here in Tahoe, the global trends permeating life elsewhere eventually arrive here, too. The global economic downturn has taken its toll on most every individual I know, wherever they are. Keeping our noses above water is the new norm, it seems.

Although a few people, those with oligarchical corporations as wings, have benefitted in the downturn. As most individuals fell off the boat, the average institution bought the boat and islands for that matter, at fire sale prices.

The word oligarchy is like monarchy, only rule by the few instead of royalty. Increasingly the world stage is an oligarchical one, and Tahoe, sadly, is no exception. Vail Resorts now owns Northstar, Kirkwood, Heavenly and is opening a shop in Tahoe City.

KSL Capital Partners bought all of Squaw Valley and then promptly formed a partnership with Alpine Meadows — laws and ordinances prevented outright purchase. And now Sierra At Tahoe has been thrown into the mix. When KSL bought the mountain and the village they quickly did all they could it seems to remove the mom and pop businesses and move in corporations whose sole interest here is assumedly profit.

KSL made many developments, among them chopping down trees for the new ticket window. Their future plans include building a water park and a roller coaster along with more condominiums. Can the “build it and they will come” theory apply to a waterpark near Lake Tahoe? The relics of failed approaches to this theory dot Squaw already: the former Pulse Lift, the bungee jump tower, and the primarily empty village. Will people bypass Lake Tahoe for the Squaw waterpark?

Homewood is owned by JMA, a Bay Area real estate development firm. The planned Homewood Village is going to drastically alter the West Shore, for good or bad. The global economic downturn allowed some corporations to pluck up property, just as occurred during the Great Depression.

Oligarchical ownership is nothing new here. Downtown Truckee generates an enormous amount of revenue for businesses, the county, and perhaps especially the property owners. Downtown Truckee is owned by about eight entities. There is of course nothing wrong with the oligarchy of property ownership in and of itself, nothing illegal that is.

Rental properties in Tahoe City are owned by a larger number of entities, but the properties for rent are more exorbitantly priced than in Truckee relative to business and potential foot traffic per square footage. There are numerous vacant rental properties in Tahoe City; the owners assumedly would rather keep the rental prices exorbitant instead of compromising to attract business and spur community development.

Perhaps this ski town oligarchy in Tahoe was bound to happen. One of the biggest industries in Nevada is designed to benefit the few in control at the expense of everyone else. The mining industry in Nevada is grandfathered into extreme oligarchy. Laws cap the taxes that can be raised from Nevada mining corporations at 5 percent, minus expenses.

Whether it’s silver, gold, land, or snow, Tahoe and everywhere else is a place where the few benefit because they own the show. Which in and of itself is not wrong. But the fact that the corporations in the area keep wages down, in part by hiring seasonal employees from abroad, the fact that they kick out mom and pop businesses and chop down trees and come up with plans to build plastic roller coasters and water parks is alarming and indicative of at least the possibility that they are only thinking about one thing — profit on investment.

There’s nothing wrong with profit, except perhaps when it’s the only interest. Individuals ask, “How is development influencing the one thing that makes Tahoe, Tahoe?” Our lake and our pristine environment (relative to the rest of the world) should be considered.

Corporations ask about annual visitors and return rate. If this oligarchical trend continues, we will all be working for the same eight or so corporations and pretty soon the only jobs around will be serving dinner or building investment properties.

Wait a second … Tahoe has always leaned toward supporting locals. There was a Starbuck’s in Tahoe City. It didn’t last. Oligarchies essentially mine and extract, leaving nothing but holes and relics behind. Local business owners stay here. I can do one thing to impact the trend. I will support local mom and pop businesses and at the same time refuse the goods and services of megacorporations.

~ Ethan Indigo Smith is the local author of “The Matrix of Four” and other works

About Opinion

The Opinion Page is your place to spout off. This section contains letters to the editor and longer My Shot pieces. Also, the Spout features two bimonthly perspectives — In the Past, delving into Tahoe Truckee history, and In the Moment, an artistic musing of a moment today.

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April 11, 2014