We all have our secret perversions.
And I’m gonna divulge one of mine to you. So you might want to crinkle the edges of the paper inward a bit. Hunch your back. Turn away from the children or from that beautiful, middle-aged fraud who’s been eyeing you at the coffeeshop.
I will sometimes, in the dead of night when I cannot sleep, pour myself a whiskey, wander out to the living room couch … and watch reruns of old Mammoth Town Council meetings.
This week, I watched reruns of the TBID (Tourism Business Improvement District) hearings from ten years ago, when TBID was formally established in Mammoth.
I did so because the TBID is up for renewal this year, and recent events (a state mandate that sales tax be charged on TBID revenue, and a continuing legal challenge from the Main Street Taxpayers Assn.) have prompted calls to perhaps review or reassess the program.
TBID, for the uninitiated, levies an extra 1% tax on lodging, and an extra 1.5% for restaurant and retail purchases in Mammoth. The money collected is dedicated to the local marketing organization, Mammoth Lakes Tourism.
The first four people who made public comment during the July 3, 2013 TBID hearing – they don’t live here anymore. Gregg Simas, Robert Schaubmayer Sr., Rick Phelps, Bob Hutchison.
Simas’s business (Grumpy’s) is gone. As is Hutchison’s (Oak Tree).
Some of the testimony was prescient. Some grandiose. Some naive. Hutchison was fairly relentless. And thought the demarcation (lodging, restaurant, retail) was fairly arbitrary. He asked, Why would real estate be exempt from the TBID? Wouldn’t increased tourism lead to increased sales and higher prices? (It has). Why would gas stations be exempt? Wouldn’t more tourism lead to more fuel sales? (Of course).
He suggested that everyone needed skin in the game. Because if folks like John Lambeth (the consultant for Civitas who advised Mammoth Lakes Tourism in its TBID push) were gonna talk about a rising tide lifting all boats, shouldn’t all boats participate in the cloud-seeding?
Mammoth’s Council at the time was divided on the issue. The motion to ultimately approve the TBID passed by a 3-2 vote. Councilmembers Matthew Lehman, Michael Raimondo and John Eastman voted in favor; Rick Wood and Jo Bacon voted against.
I called each of them this week to ask, in hindsight, if they’d vote the same way again. I also asked if they supported a further extension of TBID.
So let’s play a little then and now.
Matthew Lehman: Then: A yes vote. Now: Would not renew in its current form.
Then – “This is not a forever thing. It’s five years.” Now he said this despite testimony from Lambeth, who said in the entirety of TBID history up to that time (2013), 79 districts had been formed, and only one district had ever been discontinued.
We all know taxes, as a general rule, never sunset, so Lehman suggesting he thought it would sunset in five years is a little rich.
Now, Lehman says, a few developments have given him pause.
1.) The new mandate from the state that tax must be charged on TBID collection (tax upon a tax).
2.) TBID dollars being shipped out of town for air service. “That was never contemplated.”
3.) Commercial air service subsidy remains stubbornly high. Lehman says the thinking in 2013 was that routes would be established and subsidy would decrease over time. This hasn’t happened. And overall enplanement numbers have sagged.
“Should we subsidize planes just because we have the money?” he asks.
If TBID were renewed, Lehman believes the Town should not augment it with any Measure A money (it now contributes more than $2 million out of A to marketing). “I’d also cap the marketing director’s salary and cut the pork out of the [MLT] contract.”
Jo Bacon: Then: A no vote. Now: A no vote.
Then – She agreed with Hutchison. If everyone benefits, then everyone should pay in. She also thought enactment of TBID would be onerous for small business.
Now. She says infrastructure is not keeping pace with marketing. And she does not believe there is strong community support for TBID as a payer of airline subsidy – never mind collecting TBID here and spending it for air service in a different county.
John Eastman. Then. A yes vote. As he said during Council deliberation, “The California Travel Association says we need this just to stay competitive.”
Now. A yes vote. “I would do it the same way,” he said, pointing to the historical context. At the time, he said we had to grow our way out of a debt obligation. But more than that, “If we’re going to be a major resort, we need to market ourselves.”
He added, “I would still look at what our competitors are doing.” If our competitors are aggressively marketing, we need to keep pace.
Michael Raimondo. Then. A yes vote. “It was the right thing to do in 2013 when we had a debt [airport litigation] to pay. And Raimondo notes, he was the lone Councilmember to oppose the litigation settlement.
Now. He wouldn’t renew. “A ten-year run is enough.” The bottom line: “I don’t think anyone in the room in 2013 contemplated a $9 million marketing budget … we need to market, but not at this level. Current reality does not reflect the initial intent. It’s become an overhead machine.”
He adds that the Epic and Ikon season pass phenomenon has led our competitors to slash marketing budgets.
And what has left a bad taste in his mouth was losing the revenue from season passes, which are now sold out of Denver and not subject to paying the tax.
Rick Wood. Then. A no vote. At the time, Wood said, “It’s a sense of mine that a $7 million marketing budget in a town with an $18 million general fund budget is not balanced.” Therefore, he thought Measure A contributions to marketing should be capped, and perhaps business license fees pulled back. He was also nervous about the history of town debacles, from redevelopment to the airport litigation to a Village that wasn’t fully built-out. Creating the first TBID in California that included restaurant and retail seemed a bit too novel for Wood’s tastes.
Now. “I would take a middle ground.” He acknowledges straight up that the TBID is a tax. “If the tax is not too burdensome, I’m in favor if the funds are spent wisely … I just don’t know if we have a consensus on that … the way we measure success is numbers, numbers, numbers.”
The story of TBID, ironically, is a story of outsized success. And in some respects, it’s hard to cast blame for an underestimation of its impact.
Alas, the law of unintended consequences
There was a point during the TBID discussion where MLT Executive Director John Urdi made the following argument. He talked about the communal success of a restaurant seating one more table, a server receiving one extra tip ($10) for that table, that server then spending $20 at a different restaurant the next night, and the TBID paid on that $20 being just thirty cents. What he was getting at was increased visitation and increased velocity of money flowing through town benefits everyone.
But what wasn’t contemplated in the equation was the impact Mammoth’s surging popularity would have on cost-of-living, specifically rents, if one can find a place to rent at all. The ‘make an extra $10, spend an extra 30 cents’ equation feels quaint when rent costs you an extra $20/day.
… I feel like stories about treasured places being overrun is a meme at this point. Every week, I run across one of these stories. Question is – what has led to the overrun? Is overrun inevitable?
There was the recent one by Dani Anguiano in The Guardian entitled “Lake Tahoe has a People Problem: How a Resort Town Became Unlivable.”
The article was prompted by Tahoe making Fodor’s “No” list of destinations to avoid.
According to the Tahoe Prosperity Center, median home prices have soared from $345,000 in 2012 to $950,000 in 2021. This has led to a depleted workforce and reduced business/business hours.
The article states, “As Covid surged, new residents have flocked to the towns and cities [surrounding Tahoe].”
To which Michael Raimondo deadpanned, “No mention of a $9 million marketing budget achieving this.”
Then in last week’s New Yorker, there was a story titled “No City Limits” by Lawrence Wright about the explosive growth in Austin, Texas.
The following passage resonated:
“In any city whose identity is changing, it can be hard to avoid the sense that a golden age has slipped away. Newcomers to Austin fall prey to this nostalgia almost instantly – but the feeling is more like watching someone you love become someone you don’t expect. It doesn’t mean that you’re not still in love – just that complexity has entered the relationship.”
That’s really what I sense in town these days. This complexity. This internal debate over making a living v. livability.
I visited June Mountain with my daughter last Sunday. It was a 65-minute wait to board Chair 1. And I thought, well, this is mildly irritating.
But then I observed the other people in line – all tourists. Who were all just damn happy to be there versus sitting in L.A. traffic. And it was a beautiful sunny day and the wait didn’t faze them one bit.
And then we got to the lodge area and skied right onto J6. We were free! And then my daughter said she was hungry. Uggh.
So we skied down to Stewpot Slim’s and spend another 20 minutes in line getting food. Again, everyone in line was in good spirits. I watched the teenage gals in front of us hug their father and thank him for taking them on vacation.
The employee taking orders (nametag Josh) couldn’t have been more pleasant.
And I thought to myself, I suppose I’m the spoiled one. I can share my backyard. I’ve spent my whole life trying to develop greater patience. This is just one more lesson. One more slice of humble pie. The snow is terrific. My daughter is fed and happy. Let it go.
But, if it can be helped, don’t test me further. I don’t need a 75-minute wait for J1 or a 30-minute stop at Stewpot Slim’s. I do think we have enough. Let’s not risk overcooking Lunch.