Two of the heavyweight candidates for Town Council returned to their campaigns this past week, after having missed a combined 33 days of on-the-ground campaigning.
Even so, both Shields Richardson, 60, and Colin Fernie, 30, made headway toward making up for lost time when they returned, with fundraising meet-and-greets and rounds of media interviews.
Both said they would attend the final candidate forum on May 27, which is to be sponsored by the Mammoth Lakes Young Professionals Group and the Mammoth Forward political action group.
“Actually, I think the time away helped me with the focus of what I would bring to the council,” said Richardson, a businessman and entrepreneur who has been represented in his absence by Dion Agee.
Fernie, the co-owner of Black Tie Ski Rentals, made no such claim, but said his 20-day, pre-planned vacation to Turkey and Spain was something he was unwilling to give up.
His on-the-ground representative in Mammoth was Kevin Green, a real-estate businessman who is a co-founder and among the leaders of the Mammoth Forward political action group.
While both Richardson and Fernie appeared at the first Town Council Forum on April 15, neither was in town for the next one, at Cerro Coso Community College on May 6.
Richardson, an avid horseman, took a week off to ride with the “Rancheros Visitadores” on a trip he planned well in advance of the campaign. He also missed one weekend to attend the wedding of a close family friend’s daughter, and missed another to celebrate the 60th birthday of his wife, Kathy.
For both, there was still time to hammer away at their main campaign planks.
Richardson, the owner of the Side Door Café and Village Properties, brings a four-point campaign based on what he identifies as Mammoth’s major priorities. They are community, environment, investment and visitor experience.
Fernie, a member of both the Planning and Economic Development Commission and the Mammoth Lakes Recreation Formation Committee, is an Ohio native and came to Mammoth after college by way of Steamboat, Colorado.
The major theme of his campaign is based on economic diversification.
During an interview in an office featuring 14-foot-high ceilings, Richardson peered at an empty wall space and said,
“Hmm, there’s almost enough room on that wall for the ‘wish list.’ Maybe.”
The trick for the next Town Council, he said, is to identify which wishes are worth the council’s attention, decide how much money to divert to each, and set a time frame to get traction.
“It’s like a kid in a candy store,” he said. “The kid has one dollar. The candy store has hundreds of candies, each priced at 25 cents. The kid has to decide where to best spend that dollar.”
For Richardson, among the top priorities for the next council should certainly involve Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, and establishing an evolving relationship.
“I had a meeting with [MMSA CEO] Rusty Gregory in the second or third year I was here,” Richardson said. “We talked about the Mountain, the town and what we were looking at with the Village. I said, ‘You’re the 800-pound gorilla,’ and he said ‘Yeah, but the town is my Achilles heel.’
“What he meant by that was that he was trying to find a way to get projects through the town.
“That’s why the Mountain and the town have to work together. There are going to be a lot of things going on at the Mountain as we move into the future.”
He said it is not just the Mountain, either, that deserves the council’s attention and cooperation.
“We know investors are going to come here,” he said, “but there are two types.
“One type is to invest in businesses that they will either start, or take over here, and the other is in investment by developers, whether that’s a new hotel or restaurant or new homes, although I don’t see a lot of new homes being built here, quite honestly.
“I look at Community Skis as an example. They decided to make an investment in Mammoth, and we have to support that, and I think we are. People are excited to have them here, and I want to see them get as big as they want to get. That’s exciting and I want to see more of that. So as a town or community, we have to learn to open our arms and ask, ‘How can we help you?’”
The other type of investment has to do with what Richardson calls “The Battleship Group.”
“We have six or seven sites in town, including the land trade that’s going on with the Mountain, where there is space for potential multi-tenant buildings,” he said.
“We have to be proactive. We have to go out and ask people to come and take a look at what Mammoth has to offer. The condo-hotel is a dead program. A thing like the Westin isn’t going to happen anymore.
“It’s going to be more of a traditional hotel or restaurant, and that takes a lot of money. For someone who’s going to spend $150 million, there’s a lot of risk.
“We have to be ready to take on some of those issues and programs, as a community, if we want that type of development here, and I think we do.
“If a developer were to bring in a Four Seasons, for example—I call it the battleship group—we know these people are big, they hire a lot of people here, they bring a lot of marketing dollars that can supplement our tourism and we can piggyback on that.
“But what are they looking at? Do we have incredible space available to put development on? Check. Do we have an airport off a major highway? Check.
“How close are we to a metro airport? We’re a 40-minute flight from San Francisco and an hour away from L.A. and it’s five hours driving, so we have 45 million people within five hours.”
Richardson, in a long interview, said he has other ideas in his sights, two of them environmental.
“I think the ORMAT issue is one of the foremost environmental issues we have now,” he said.
“ORMAT is looking to expand its plant, and there’s a question right now as to how that expansion might affect our water supply and quality, and we have to make sure that negative effects don’t happen, and find ways to somehow mitigate that.
“Water is critically important to us, and I think a good relationship with ORMAT is the way to go. ORMAT has a relationship with the Forest Service and has the right to drill on Forest Service land, so let’s make sure that ORMAT and the town can mitigate any issues we might have.”
Richardson said the other major environmental issue is in resolving the solid waste issue, which has a deadline of 2023.
“We have to look at a solution that is county and regional based, versus just town based,” he said. “Get all the groups together and make this happen properly.
“I’m happy that there’s a discussion with the county on this, but I don’t know that we’ve come up with any solutions yet. I think it is always best when we’re talking. I think the discussions have to involve everybody because it affects everybody.”
At 30, Fernie is the youngest of the council candidates, but his credentials belie his youth.
Having started Black Tie Ski Rentals with Jeremy Goico, the business has prospered, even through three straight low-snow winters.
But it is in his involvement with the planning commission, his easy-going personality, and his commitment to recreation that give his campaign strength, particularly in his commitment to creating a business climate that welcomes new businesses.
“I would like to see this become a more vibrant, year-round resort,” he said, “and there are a lot of factors to changing that. But I think resting on our weekend, drive-dominated model hasn’t worked at this point and it won’t work in the future.
“There are a lot of components that go into that change.
“Right now, what we’re suffering from is a brain drain here. This isn’t completely accurate in all cases, but the majority of people I see coming here are either the 18-to-25 year olds, who come here after high school or college graduation, and they just want to enjoy a couple of years living paycheck to paycheck and spending a lot of time on the hill.
“But when they’re faced with a point in their life to make a career decision, they feel they need to go elsewhere to do that.
“At the other end of the spectrum are people who have made themselves elsewhere, and are coming here to moonlight or retire.
“What we’re missing is a huge portion of the middle, where people who would like to stay and have a career here are unable to do that.
“That stems back to the fact that a large portion of our economy is tourism-dependent and if we can have some diversity of economy, some diversity of careers and options out there, it will give people more of an opportunity to make this place a home.”
Everything, Fernie said, is recreation-dependent, however, and that includes adopting the proposed Mammoth Lakes Recreation (MLR) non-governmental organization (NGO).
“MLR has merit for me,” he said, “and I don’t agree with the argument that this has been rushed through and crammed down people’s throats. I personally have been working on this for 11 months. If we as a community cannot make decisions in 12 months, we’re in trouble.
“It’s been a very public process and people feel like it’s being crammed down their throats only because they’ve gotten into it so late in the game.
“I am supportive of MLR and it ties back to a lot of things we’re talking about. We passed a TBID to drive marketing, to drive visitation to Mammoth, and we have a pool of money to do that now.
“But if we bring people here based on a false premise, and they don’t have the experience they hoped to have when they get here, they’re not going to be repeat visitors, and that money was poorly spent.
“I look for ways to enhance the experience for our locals who live here and guests coming here—and we’re all here for the same reason.
“MLR can enhance the product offering we’re giving here and ties back to the Chamber’s Ambassador Program. We want to have a customer service level they’re satisfied with, and those things all are tied together.”
Fernie said he also is a strong supporter of attracting businesses here to take advantage of broadband digital access (Digital 395), putting in motion existing plans for the re-making of Main Street, and tying it together with a new, community gestalt.
“I think historically we’ve had an obstructionist attitude as a community with regard to development and change. In all development you have to be very careful with it, and we need to be cognizant of the fact that we are a really small and constrained landmass, and that we have only a certain amount of available space, so we have to make sure we’re making smart uses of that space.
“A whole lot of people allude to the ‘bird houses’ on Main Street and if that was a good utilization of that space, or have we made good decisions with the utilizing the Four Corners.
“If we develop those areas in a manner that’s beneficial to the community, that’s going to be a whole different story than if we make decisions that ultimately are not going to be a benefit to the community.”