By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
We just spent two glorious weeks in Mammoth Lakes, California. Glorious because a) the house we were in was recently refurbished, which was a welcome relief from our TurnKey Nipomo nightmare, and b) Mammoth is one of the most beautiful places on earth. Just ask the Europeans – who were everywhere we went. We thought we had outsmarted the crowds by going when school was back in session but we forgot about August being the “holiday” month for Europeans. We met some delightful people from England, Germany and Holland but the downside was every restaurant, hiking trail and lakeside was packed with people shouting in a cacophony of languages. Still, it is one of our favorite places to visit. My husband has been going there since 1960, when the mountain only had five ski lifts and we’ve been going there together for 30 years. The majesty of the steep mountains and peaceful lakes never fails to make us gape in awe at the gorgeous scenery.
Over the years Mammoth has retained a small town feel. Some might think it too rustic. Mammoth is known for outdoors activities – fishing, mountain biking and hiking in the summer and skiing in the winter. Unlike many other mountain resorts in the West, it has had problems attracting and retaining high-end businesses. For many years the local outlet mall was home to a Polo and Coach store, but both of those establishments have now closed and their spaces remain vacant. The only new store this year was a sporting goods place that had the audacity (or bad luck) to open up directly across the street from Kittredge’s – an outdoorsman’s paradise that has been in business for 44 years. We’ll see how long they last. The largest employer by far is Mammoth Resorts, which runs all activities on the mountain and in the Mammoth Village complex. The rest of the town’s population is made up of small business owners and those who are employed by them. So one does not go to Mammoth to “see and be seen” or to rub elbows with the rich and famous. Frankly, one of my favorite aspects about the town is that I only have to bring a pair of jeans and a casual shirt and I’m dressed to go anywhere. In other words, it’s been a great place for slobs like me. But all that is about to change.
On August 4th a deal was completed for the sale of Mammoth Mountain to the Aspen Company. In addition to Mammoth, Aspen will now own Big Bear, Squaw Valley, Alpine Meadows, as well as some smaller ski resorts in the Sierras. They have big plans for Mammoth, although exactly what changes they’ll make have not been spelled out. We were curious as to how the local population felt about the acquisition so we engaged in some conversations with people who have been around Mammoth a long time. The opinions could not be more diverse. For those who work for Mammoth Resorts – whether on the mountain, the Village stores and hotels or the golf course, they look forward to the infusion of money from Aspen. They cited broken toilets, outdated facilities and general equipment that needs to be replaced. Of course, they acknowledge that all of this “fixing” is going to come at a price and that price is going to be paid by the consumer. But hotel rooms and lift tickets are not the only thing that will be going up. Since the announcement last spring that the deal was being struck, the housing market has gone berserk. Normally one can find a plethora of deals on second homes that owners want to unload. No more. It’s a seller’s market in a big way.
Which brings me to the other side of the coin – the average person who wants to work and raise a family in Mammoth Lakes. Rents have skyrocketed, forcing many people to find housing elsewhere. One guy who manages the pet store said he felt fortunate to sign a three year lease, even if it was for a lot of money. Many workers now are living in their cars. Mammoth has pledged to build more affordable housing, but the sheer geographic limitations make that a remote prospect. We found many people worried about the effect of Aspen marketing to the “rich and famous”, driving out the very people who have made Mammoth such a relaxed and low-key place to visit. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next few years.
I’m hoping that some of our favorite “haunts” will not be affected. Burger’s Restaurant offers the best burger anywhere – it’s always our first dinner when we arrive in town. The Stove is a wonderful place for breakfast – assuming you can get in, as the lines are always long. It’s the type of place that serves your water in a jelly glass and has wooden benches for seating. And then there is Schat’s Bakery. I don’t know how long they’ve been in business but I first salivated at their goodies 30 years ago. They are renowned for their Basque Sheepherder’s bread and the fresh turkey sandwiches they make, carving an average of 19 large turkeys every day. But somehow I’ve always been more attracted to their desserts. To enter their pastry area is to enter Heaven itself. The photo I’ve included is only one of six display cases. I can gain weight just standing in line.
I don’t know how Mammoth is going to change in the coming years but I’ll say this: if they do anything that results in the closure of Schat’s they are going to have a lot of ‘splaining to do.