After exposure, town is open to new future

From the The Seattle Times, March 28, 1997 • Donated by Eddie.

by Lisa Pemberton-Butler, Seattle Times business reporter

ROSLYN, Kittitas County - Two years ago, this Cascade mountain town was riding an economic boom. Tour buses lined the streets. Hundreds of visitors shopped for T-shirts, hats, magnets, postcards and just about anything else that had a moose or "Northern Exposure" logo on it.

From 1990 to 1995, Roslyn's historical storefronts were the setting for the television show "Northern Exposure." Landmark businesses flourished, and new specialty gift shops opened.

Then the show was canceled and everything changed. Last summer, far fewer tour buses stopped. The businesses that survived are struggling. Some of the shops are open only once or twice a week.

Dennis Sandage, co-owner of Central Sundries, which was filmed as Ruth Ann's General Store in "Northern Exposure," shakes his head and describes what many believe: "You look at Roslyn, and Roslyn is dying. It's hard to make a business here." Sandage and many others say a $350 million destination resort proposed by Trendwest Resorts, a Bellevue development company, could turn things around, not just for a few years but forever. Supporters say it will strengthen the economy of Roslyn and nearby Cle Elum and Ronald, former coal-mining and logging boomtowns nestled in the foothills about 85 miles east of Seattle along Interstate 90.

But others fear a large resort would destroy the area's small-town atmosphere. Trendwest's main opponents, members of a Roslyn-based environmental group called the Ridge Committee, want the site to be kept as commercial forest land, with limited harvesting. Trendwest's plans call for 550 hotel rooms, 800 condominiums, more than 3,000 homes, several golf courses, public parks, hiking, bike and horse trails, campgrounds, a recreational-vehicle park, a restaurant and a conference center to be built over the next 15 to 20 years. The Ridge Committee said it accepts that some development will occur in the area and that some people will benefit economically.

But it wants to protect natural resources and the quality of life. "We think it would be irresponsible to write Trendwest a blank check and support whatever development they have in mind," the group said in a recent letter to residents. "We can't afford the taxes, the housing inflation and the mess that such an unrestricted romp would create."

Once complete, the resort could bring 300,000 to 400,000 additional visitors a year to the area, Trendwest says. Although opponents see that as a problem, many others see it as the last economic hope for an area devastated by the decline in coal mining and logging.

When its last coal mine closed in 1963, Roslyn was on the verge of becoming a ghost town, said longtime resident Mary Andler. Andler, 77, moved to northern Kittitas County in the 1920s, where her father, a Yugoslav immigrant, worked as a miner. She remembers Roslyn's heyday, during the World Wars, when more than 5,000 people lived there and worked in its coal mines. After World War II, demand for coal fell and several mines were closed. Now, the city's population is 936.

In Cle Elum and Roslyn, business is down 12 percent to 20 percent this year for hardware stores, grocery stores and specialty shops, said Ida Knutson, president of the Cle Elum/Roslyn Chamber of Commerce. A clothing store, real-estate office, arcade, gift shop and restaurant have closed in the past two years, she said. Owners of a Cle Elum bowling alley, which collapsed under heavy snow last December, said they will not rebuild. The entire area needs more permanent jobs.

In February, the Kittitas County unemployment rate was 8.9 percent, compared with 6.2 percent for the state. The major employers are Kittitas County, the U.S. Forest Service, the state Department of Transportation, Plum Creek Timber and two manufacturing companies. Many people commute 30 minutes to Ellensburg or about an hour to Yakima. About 600 reportedly drive or carpool to the Seattle area daily; dozens more stay "on the coast" (a local term for anything west of Snoqualmie Pass) during the workweek and come home on weekends.

"We're shipping all the young people off, so you know, it's kind of sad,' said Roslyn Mayor C. Dave Divelbiss. Divelbiss, 62, said any potential problems the town might face because of the resort - such as water, public-safety and traffic concerns - will likely be worked out during the environmental-impact study. As for the rest of Kittitas County, he said, "It's going to be a terrific boom to the county, and the schools will benefit tremendously." "Northern Exposure" didn't just bring in tourists. Its executives also paid for half the downtown garbage pickup, bought the town a new fire truck, hired Roslyn Police officers for security work and spent thousands of dollars on daily permits to film there, Divelbiss said.

Although business owners miss the television fame, they look forward to catering to resort visitors. "I think that Trendwest is going to bring a lot of life to our little town," said Andler, who manages the town's museum. The resort proposal already has ignited a commercial revitalization in Cle Elum, Knutson said. A gas station has added a convenience store. A carwash and an office-supply store have opened. Others are planning to build, expand, remodel or just clean up. For a town with 1,800 residents and only one traffic signal, these are big changes.

"People are thinking about it and starting to make the moves now, so that they're ready when, in fact, Trendwest starts operating," Knutson said. The company's track record is good. Trendwest has already built 19 smaller vacation resorts, marketed under the Worldmark Resort name, at Lake Chelan, Leavenworth, Discovery Bay, Ocean Shores, Long Beach, Birch Bay, Whistler and Lake Tahoe, and in Hawaii and Mexico. It developed the Eagle Crest and the Running Y resorts in Oregon. Worldmark resorts run on a time-share format, where members purchase renewable credits to spend at any of the locations.

In 1996, Trendwest's annual sales hit $100 million, said Mike Moyer, Trendwest spokesman. Moyer said the proposed resort could bring more jobs to the area than the Eagle Crest Resort, near Redmond, Ore., which is almost complete. Eagle Crest provides 380 full-time jobs, with a total annual payroll of more than $11 million. Deschutes, Ore., County Commissioner Linda Swearingen credits the resort, owned by Trendwest's parent company, Jeld-Wen, for bringing a huge boost to the area's sagging economy. Jeld-Wen, the wood and window-manufacturing giant in Klamath Falls, Ore., purchased 7,400 acres along the Cle Elum River last October from Plum Creek Timber.

Kittitas County commissioners are expected to take about a year to review Trendwest's inch-thick book of applications. Meanwhile, the company is in the preliminary stages of its environmental-impact statement. Most people eventually expect the project to be approved in some form. People such as Knutson, Andler and Sandage speak of "when" the resort is built, not "if." County commissioners have described community support as overwhelming, saying about 95 percent of the letters they have received favor Trendwest's proposal.

Andler said she has always known Roslyn would become a destination town. About 30 years ago, she and her husband, Joe, opened The Freezer Shop, which was later sold and renamed the Roslyn Cafe. When they started it, most people told her the landmark business would never survive. Leaning over and lowering her voice as if to tell a secret, Andler recalled the conversations. "They says, 'You are crazy for investing in this town - it's going to be a ghost town.' "I says, `No, it isn't.' "

Copyright 2002 The Seattle Times Company


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