Finding a place for your workforce to live is one of the penultimate challenges of running a business in the Tahoe region. While a magic wand would be nice, it seems that no grand building scheme can work us out of the problem. Instead, it will take a variety of innovative ideas and small actions.
Larger ski resort employers such as Palisades Tahoe have a special challenge. They need to attract a lot of employees — most of them just for the ski season. For the past two years they have been trying something unique in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service: converting the Granite Flat Campground into a place where ski area employees can live in their vans or RVs during the winter.
Granite Flat Campground is located on California Highway 89 one mile south of Truckee. It’s close to all the amenities of Truckee and just seven miles from the entrance to Olympic Valley. Twenty spots at the campground are regularly plowed, with six currently occupied by Palisades employees residing in small RVs or vans. Before occupying a space, vehicles must be inspected to ensure they are in good working order, and each is provided with smoke detectors and fire extinguishers.
In addition to snow removal the campground has several unheated pit toilets, a gated entry, and garbage services. The campground is certainly no Shangri La of luxury, but it’s a pretty setting along the Truckee River, and the employees have to pay only $250 a month for a space, much less than what they’d pay for regular housing, in general. It’s a great opportunity to live fairly close to Olympic Valley for a reasonable price.
All of the current occupants have RVs except one, who lives in a van: Malte Humpert, a host at Palisades. While he has a heater in his vehicle, he said on a recent, very chilly morning when the temperature was 11 degrees, “It’s tough. My toes are still frozen.” The Truckee River corridor between Tahoe City and Truckee is one of the coldest places in the region.
Humpert appreciates the out-of-the-box thinking that created this opportunity, but says it would help to have a few improvements to make the arrangement more palatable. The biggest of which is electric power at each site. Vans need electricity to run heaters, refrigerators, and stoves. Humpert worries that if he is not driving enough or the solar chargers don’t charge fully, he will run out of power, and thus heat. It would also be nice to have heat in the restrooms, although Humpert usually prefers using the one in his van over tromping through the snow to the public facility.
Humpert said he dealt with the lack of a shower at the campground by joining the Truckee Community Recreation Center. He swims about six days a week and then uses the shower facilities. One great advantage to being in a van, he said, is that he has the ability to easily escape the weather and head to warmer climes when not working.
Aside from the lack of amenities, a concern for those residing at the campground, who spoke to this reporter but declined to be named, is that the program ends in mid-April when the campground begins to transition to summer short-term vacationers. Thus, the campground has fundamental drawbacks, the employees said: It is limited to seasonal workers who own an RV or van and who are willing to relocate at the end of the ski season. In other words, the residents must move out in spring.
There are several ideas that could make this campground experience a more successful effort, whether at this location or another site. Sure, power and heat in the restroom would be important first steps, but this reporter ponders a more permanent solution. Anyone who has traveled to New Zealand and some parts of Europe has probably been to a holiday park. These facilities have small campsites with power. Campers share a communal kitchen with several stoves and large refrigerators and bathrooms with showers.
Some of these parks accommodate long-term users with small RVs and vans, a perfect set up for Tahoe’s workforce. In addition, in my experience the kitchens become great meeting places to make new friends.
“We knew going into it that winter camping is incredibly challenging, we didn’t expect it to be an answer to all of our woes, but this region is struggling with housing and affordability,” said Jonathan Cook-Fisher, the Truckee USFS District Ranger who manages the campground. He said the Forest Service is just one of many parties that can help with the housing crisis, but that, “We are open to new ideas. Some sort of joint effort. We need to work across jurisdictions, a concerted push with the counties, Town of Truckee, ski areas, all of the parties pushing simultaneously.”
Cook-Fisher said the Forest Service will consider providing electricity to the campsites if they can find the funding. The good news is that, “When companies operate on federal property, we can take that fee to use directly on those facilities.” Palisades and the USFS have been in discussion about how to make that happen.