“Local government doesn’t work without public engagement,” Mono County Supervisor Stacey Corless told a Mammoth Town Hall meeting held at the U.S. Forest Service Welcome Center auditorium on April 28.
Corless and Mammoth Councilmembers Colin Fernie and John Wentworth briefly presented the opportunities and pitfalls of recreation, technology, and regional air service, the chosen topics of the meeting. Kevin Green of Mammoth Forward moderated community discussion afterwards.
Corless started with a presentation on recreation—“why we’re all here,” she said, despite smaller fish, shrinking snowpacks, and the tightening budgets of the agencies that govern our public lands. Building an outdoor recreation economy is essential to Mammoth and Mono County, as it is to the rest of America, she argued, since outdoor recreation brings in over $600 billion in consumer spending nationally— a larger revenue stream than pharmaceutical companies. Plus, it sustained an annual growth of 5 percent between 2005 and 2011 when many other sectors were shrinking.
“If we get it right we will be the California’s Eastern Sierra—a region with a shared vision, including and beyond snow. And that shared vision needs to be part of our adopted policy in government. We need to think across administrative boundaries,” Corless concluded. “If we get it wrong, our recreation infrastructure will crumble and decay, or we’ll be the circular firing squad competing for the same resources, or we’ll just keep arguing over where to start and not get anything done.”
Wentworth then presented the opportunities in technology that Digital 395 brings to the region. He likened the fiber optic cable, funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment act, to the connection of the intercontinental railroad. “Digital 395 makes it possible to transform our community,” he said.
Digital 395 creates the possibility for Mammoth to become a gigabit community sponsored by Google, like a growing number of cities and towns around the nation, Wentworth said. The technology can also be used to grow our recreation and better public safety.
“If we get it right we … will grow our local economy and technology will be a pillar of our regional brand,” Wentworth concluded. “If we get it wrong, we will squander this opportunity, squander the entire region’s economic future and continue to confuse our brand with chaotic information.”
Lastly, Fernie presented on the “most controversial topic,” regional air service. Although the Eastern Sierra is “beautiful and pristine,” Fernie said. “We are in the middle of nowhere … Studies prove that rural airports improve quality of life.”
Fernie emphasized that Mammoth as a whole is competing with other resort destinations around the country. Fernie contended that Mammoth only ranks 22 in Ski Magazine’s list of top resorts in the west because of lack of air service. He compared Mammoth to Jackson Hole, which has an airport with daily flights from 13 cities through four air carriers.
Building air service in Mammoth is contingent upon regional community buy in, he continued. The issue with the current model of air service isn’t that it relies heavily on subsidies, as this is a normal occurrence for most rural airports. Rather, the issue is that Mammoth Mountain Ski Area and Mammoth Lakes Tourism are the only community partners putting money into the subsidies. “The few are controlling the fate of the region,” Fernie said.
“If we get it right we will connect the world to the Eastern Sierra and the Eastern Sierra to the world,” he concluded. “If we don’t we will create a barrier to the entry of our region which is remote enough already.”
The night then moved into questions from the audience and discussion.
“We have dynamite government institutions,” Paul Rudder told the crowd. “But I don’t think the government creates economic opportunity.” He said it’s up to the younger generation to create a sustainable economy and attract people to come here. “You young folks will have to create that, the government won’t do it.”
Tom Cage had a different opinion: “We have to follow the local government because they are collecting the money. We want to follow some vision, some guideline,” he said. “Then we can decide; I agree or I don’t, but at least I can position myself for [the vision] whatever that might be. To date, I haven’t seen that vision clearly spelled out.”
Wentworth responded, “We are embarking on this visioning process with these opportunities that are right in front of us.”
Camille Miller of Mammoth Fun Shop told the elected officials, “It’s not easy to implement things in Mammoth Lakes. That’s the overarching issue—are we making it easier to start, maintain or relocate a business? Personally, I’ve seen Mammoth make it very hard.”
Robin Roberts, Director of Mono County Behavioral Health, wondered why people leave Mammoth. Can people make a livable wage here? “We don’t build young people into our community,” she said. “We keep chasing tourists and the money they bring in, but we have to start building from within.”
After the meeting, Corless said although there will be future town hall meetings, the focus will remain on recreation, technology, and regional air service as pillars to build the community around through inter-governmental cooperation. “Once we’ve addressed these topics, we will move to different topics. But I don’t just want to move from topic to topic without follow through,” she said. “Some great direction came out of the discussion…the challenge for us now is follow through, honestly.”