Well, it all depends what you mean by the ol’ days. For people like Wally Stevens and Fermin, who were prominent landowners in Truckee when I came to town for the first time in the spring of 1977, the old days were when you could buy a dilapidated house, or a lot near the downtown corridor for under $40,000. Some longtime local friends like Buffalo, Tommy Lippert, Thomas Stokes, Otis Kantz and David Beres, had even, if I remember correctly, bought their fixer-up shacks for under $20,000 in the early ‘70s.

Fermin was a trippy Mexican who owned a cantina across from the Post Office that is now called Casa Baeza. His grandfather would sit in the corner every night getting hammered on tequila and playing accordion while the polyester-wearing Fermin greeted all with a big drunken smile and told you where to sit. The late Anna Hebard, a big-boned wonderful Swedish woman, was the waitress who kept Fermin’s from utter chaos. The food was authentic and the margaritas cheap.

SUVs had not been invented, sushi was unknown and there were few cops. One could rent a monthly room at Big Hermo’s Flop House on High Street, or The Alta and Star Hotels on West River for around $50. I worked at OB’s Board as a 21-year-old prep cook. Anna’s husband, Steve, was a waiter at OB’s and he was able to swing a deal where the workers at our restaurant would trade employee meals with the staff at Fermin’s, which was great fun.

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My lasting image of Truckee back then was a street fight every night typically bursting from the Bar of America on the corner, or the Capital Saloon or Colburn Station. The Tourist Club was the last place a tourist would want to visit.

Commercial Row reminded you of one of those badly maintained fraternity houses. There was no open container law and ruffians, quaffing suds and hard liquor, would hang out in front of the bars catcalling any girl walking by and menacing anyone who caught their eye. Biker gangs such as the Chosen Few or Satan’s Choice frequented the saloons and there were few moral guardians: wet t-shirt contests were more popular than the Super Bowl. Al O’Brien, owner of OB’s, kept a police billyclub behind the bar and he’d used it more than once. Jack Leonasio, owner of B of A liked to crack heads, as did other bartenders throughout town like Tattoo Richard, Kenny Dale, and One-Eyed Jack at the Pastime. Frightening stuff to most of us graying baby boomers of today, but there was also a simplicity to it all, almost an innocence of self-flagellation that, if not a bit open and raw, still had a heart and soul.

For all its rugged pulchritude, the wild west months of the 1960s and 1970s were the heart of a long democratic period where the rich and poor of town, so to speak, joined by a collective independent spirit, happily rubbed shoulders and were OK, if not on dependent terms. Truckee was an asylum unto itself: Exciting, risky and with the self-contained feel of a remote mountain retreat. In some ways the town was like a pretty, rich girl with a reputation for being bad. Though unsuitable for the long term, you might want to go out with a girl like that. Truckee had an overall, if not heated, cool.

Alas, the once naughty girl we adored eventually became potty-trained: The Truckee we know today is a far fling from those roughneck days. Although national magazines such as Outside continue to include it in dreamy articles about the best places in the country to live, don’t be relieved. Truckee’s become connected more and more to the dreaded urban chorus so many of its present populace tried to move away from: competitive, expensive, edgy, with traffic and over-policed. In some ways its saving grace remains in the surviving funkiness such as some of the old-time businesses, ebbing architecture and local personalities that are not on anybody’s endangered list.

‘It blows my mind what has happened to Truckee,’ says Frank Rossbach, owner of Glass Forms, an arty shop he’s owned and made survive through numerous moves around downtown for the last 25 years. ‘I’m not saying it’s all bad. There are a lot of factors at work. But I’m amazed at the amount of businesses that have moved out as newcomers have spent huge amounts of money buying buildings downtown.’

As wealth sought altitude, a Reagan-era leisure class arrived to the North Shore of Lake Tahoe and Truckee in the 1980s with a new vision. They incorporated Truckee’s township, cleaned up the streets, and pursued capitalistic dreams sometimes in sweet oblivion to the world’s struggle. By the 1990s, integral to Tahoe’s bizarre social organism, there was an inexorable shift toward a service economy ruled by rising tourism and an increasing number of moneyed wealthy, either buying up homesteads overnight in Wall Street speculation, or building McMansions so Kong-sized you could land an airplane on their roof.

It was delightful at first to see contractor and realtor friends cash in on the boom and dip into the gold. The smart ones stopped wearing carpenter belts or bartending at night and instead busied themselves by driving around in their new swank trucks, bidding work and writing contracts. Everyone appeared to genuflect into the orgy of land buyout. Nevertheless, a great deal of the native population, spooked by growth, priced out by fantastic real estate inflation and succumbing to a lotus-eater’s fate, either were forced to seek lives outside Tahoe and Truckee’s perimeter, or elsewhere completely. As the arrival of swift and well-to-do furries (frozen urban refugees) sought out scenery ‘medium rural,’ where they could see the cows but not smell them, the downwardly mobile noble mountain residents of yesteryear began not feeling so noble as they were pushed down river. The conflicting attempts to get away from it all, yet still have it all, seemed to be working for only a few. Either way, ordinary citizens lost control of their community’s destiny. By 2000, the Truckee township incorporated 34 square miles of Sierra Nevada real estate. The railroad town’s population swelled to 20,000 with over 6,000 households, many of them second homes, breeding a tragedy of success that modern resort life creates.

But what was once just economic plight for the average citizen has seemingly now trickled down to include business operators and longstanding merchants that once pioneered Truckee’s boom. If, as one local realtor aptly explained, ‘The way to grow old gracefully is to have cosmetic surgery,’ then Truckee has become a slideshow of nose and boob jobs.

As the tinkering of the town’s appearance changed, most of the rowdy haunts that littered Commercial Row became replaced by more upscale businesses. It’s kind of ironic if not downright laughable that the Capitol Saloon now houses a pricey women’s lingerie and pillow shop, or that Colburn‘s became a touchy-feely children’s clothing store. Sidewalks became safe, so safe that now you have to put coins in parking meters to walk them. Even the historic Bar of America, once infamous for fisticuffs, booze and a raucous roaring scene began pouring microbrews, Chardonnay and serving sashimi.

Although luckily people still flock en masse to its downtown corridor, many small businesses have suffered accordingly in the remodeling of Commercial Row. The chuckling stopped when popular landmarks of Truckee distinction, such as the longtime hipster hang Earthsongs, Ponderosa Deli, CB White’s, the Truckee Llama Ranch, Bob Robert’s Jewelry and The Star Hotel began boarding up shop and leaving town. A recent rude awakening turned into unsettling phenomenon when OB’s, a mainstay restaurant of Commercial Row for 39 years, shockingly closed its doors because its owner, Dick Howell, a 40-year resident of Truckee, couldn’t come to a new lease agreement with past and new ownership. The Post Office, a church as well as a downtown bank has announced their future departure for consolidation into cheaper locations within Truckee’s suburbs.

‘It’s like a Charles Dickens’ ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’’ one surviving downtown merchant explains. ‘It isn’t the best of times for a lot of people.’

‘Some of these business owners just couldn’t make a deal with their new landlord. Others felt it was just time to close up shop, retire or try something else,’ says Bryan Smart, owner and operator of the Wagon Train restaurant and a renter for 31 years in downtown Truckee. ‘Some did get screwed, to me there is no doubt about it, but I think rents have topped and now are most likely to come down, mainly because landlords realize they can no longer get what they once wanted. If anything, merchants shouldn’t fear what’s happening downtown, but the proposed developments at Hilltop and the Railyard that are obviously going to take people away from the downtown core.’

Hilltop’s proposed 52,000 square foot commercial development sits on 57 acres near the Cottonwood restaurant above Truckee’s downtown corridor. The proposed Railyard development, once site of a lumbermill, contains 67,000 square feet of retail and commercial space including a shopping center complete with supermarket, theater and hotel.

‘These developments are, of course, full of concerns in regard to commercial competition, traffic and other issues,’ says Tony Lashbrook, Manager for the Town of Truckee. ‘And they’ll be played out with the planning commissions. At the same time they have a commercial side to them in dealing positively with rising prices and increased supply.’

Longtime Truckee resident and commercial realtor Tom Watson stresses the need to react to change not halt it.

‘Economic times have changed some of the landscape in Truckee’s downtown corridor. And let’s face it there is very little inventory left downtown to purchase which has driven prices up,’ says Watson who is in the midst of helping redevelop the former Flying A gas station downtown into retail shopping. ‘It’s been easy for many to vilify some of the new players who are buying up downtown property and renovating storefronts, but I applaud what they are doing. They are showing vision and playing fair besides spending huge amounts of money to upgrade deteriorating buildings in the downtown core.’

It was Watson, along with partner Ciro Mancuso, who built Truckee’s Pioneer Center, a once derelict 60-acre waste dump sprawl, into a burgeoning commercial center. Inventive, budgetary and visionary the industrial center helped save many local businesses from moving into Reno. Watson believes that today’s reality is accepting that change is here to stay. The therapy is accepting it. Watson’s hopes that old-timers and newcomers should work together to guide growth and develop a shared vision of the town’s future.

‘Some of these businesses that moved out had been paying for years below-average rents. It really is a two-sided story. When approached by changes they couldn’t accept the updated appraisals,’ says Watson. ‘As a result they were outbid for their space. Change is no longer a choice.’

At the same time one can’t help but wonder at the price of change. Dick Howell, owner and operator of OB’s Board, was not just some restaurant owner, he was emblematic of the heart and soul of a small town. Dick was a community leader whose restaurant had over the years donated countless money and support to the schools and other charities. Should he somehow been given an opportunity to keep his business if not lifeblood? After all isn’t that the essences of small town life – compromising over dog eat dog business practices?

‘I stayed around because of the people and my belief in Truckee,’ said Howell in the June issue of Moonshine Ink. ‘The recent unattainable rent increase (or selling price) was my final undoing. Continuing to lease or buy from owner Al O’Brien simply wasn’t doable.’

It’s a no better situation for merchants in the other nearby North Shore communities of Lake Tahoe. Although Tahoe City, gateway to Lake Tahoe, was recently redeveloped beautifully and retains plenty of retail power, its main street is punctuated with empty lakefront restaurants and spaces for rent in its primary shopping areas. Visitors are greeted at its entrance off Highway 89 at the Wye by 64 acres that once housed a quarter of its population in a trailer court, but for the last 30 years has housed nothing but a few parked cars and port-o-potties. Past the stoplight, a huge two-storied building that resembles an old motel adjacent to the half-rented Bechdolt Building lies ugly, dormant and derelict. Close to 75 percent of the town’s housing is now classified as second homes. Less than 350 families populate a once blossoming community that stretches over 3.4 square miles. Less than 20 percent of those households contain children 18 and under.

To some, Tahoe City, once known as the ‘Paris of Lake Tahoe’ because of its creative eateries, art galleries and culture, is not a bustling mountain community as much as a playground for the elite: a WASP Disneyland set against unbelievably ravishing vistas, luxurious lakefront homes and shrinking infrastructure.

Further east towards the Nevada border Kings Beach remains a land that time forgot described recently by travel writer Michael Leccese in the national Metropolis Magazine as ‘A classic 1950s burg. Just across from the lake, rows of shops sell t-shirts, ski gear and chain-saw-sculpted bears…Stores and motels are fronted by sprawling asphalt lots with an urban environment of traffic, blighted buildings, and vacant lots.’ The town needs a little TLC, a fact many recognize, but the key will be heeding the lessons learned from other communities.

‘Anytime you have change a shift in a new order of players and rents follow,’ explains Cheri Sprenger, Executive Director of the North Lake Tahoe Business Association, an organization made up of 140 businesses stretching from Carnelian Bay to Crystal Bay.

Sprenger cites her experience in Martinez, California that underwent a huge downtown business transformation during the 1990s.

‘New buildings mean high end stores because new rents demand more money. Our focus in Martinez was to try to attract upscale businesses that still were mom and pop and not brand names,’ she says.

Sprenger describes Kings Beach as being the last North Shore community to undergo any redevelopments.

‘We need something including sidewalks. Kings Beach is not a pedestrian-friendly area, something vital for any district,’ says Sprenger a North Shore resident for three years. ‘There are a lot of tentative plans to revitalize the area, but nothing more than in the planning stages. Our focus, and what I think the focus for North Shore communities must be as they change, is doing a lot of research and being smart as to who they bring in to occupy renovations.’

The newly constructed villages at Northstar and Squaw Valley that at first pulled some merchants away from Tahoe City and Truckee, and were once trumpeted so loudly by their corporate developers as future Meccas of free enterprise and economic growth, instead appear at times to house few money-making operations. Lavishly bloated, nevertheless these brave new worlds are embroiled in tenant complaints and intermittent tourist visits. Off-season their village avenues are nearly deserted. The quiet is soothing, their richly constructed water features so peaceful it’s hypnotic. Wandering down the granite walled structures one senses an otherworldly feel. It’s both mysterious and playful, as if the Jetsons had met the Flintstones to design a funhouse. But just where is everybody?

Has the awe that the mountains once inspired to its populace turned to awful? In some ways it’s easy to feel helpless. A fledgling economy with the williwaws, a national debt the size of the Crab Nebula and currency that the Japanese use to blow their nose hasn’t helped. But there also seems something more at play. Is it a clash between arthritic gout-stricken old guard battling against heartless robber barrens? Has the North Shore’s social contract turned into social cleavage?

As we sit on the barstools of our last remaining favorite watering hole nursing cocktails and muckraking about sly business deals and taxidermy past should we be concerned about all this unprecedented weirdness? What’s gone wrong? What’s up? Are we headed up creek without a paddle?

Maybe. Maybe not. Let’s consider Tahoe City again.

‘Things are far from shrinking in Tahoe City. It’s way overplayed that the town is dying,’ explains Steve Teshara, Director of the North Lake Tahoe Resort Association and Advisory Board. ‘We are the number one tax producer by far in Placer County and on the rise. Commercial rents might go up but they also come down. Nothing is falling by the wayside. I think, if anything, Tahoe City needs more contemporary lodging to keep the town vibrant and sustainable.’

Although parts of the North shore community still resemble suburbs of burnt out Kuwait City, Tahoe City began revitalizing itself several years ago with the installation of sidewalks. Since that time a park at the Gatekeeper’s Dam, additional parking and Heritage Plaza have added to sprucing up the lakefront village. At the same time, as the beautification of downtown improved, there became a noticeable exodus of businesses that sometimes resembled the retreat from Moscow. Some blamed September 11, 2001 for severely depressing the tourist trade. Others blamed the new projects at Squaw Valley, Northstar and in Truckee that began to capture more of the tourism dollars.

‘I don’t see it as a crisis in Tahoe City, but a change,’ says Dave Wilderotter, owner for 30 years of Tahoe Dave’s Skis and Boards with shops in Tahoe City, Kings Beach, Truckee and Squaw Valley. ‘As the local population could no longer afford to live on the North Shore, second homeowners became a bigger part of the marketplace with a different type of pocketbook. As a result you began to see a tenant changeover.’

Wilderotter admits that back when he first began in 1978 he paid less than $300 for his shop space. Today, he pays more than $20,000 a month in rent for his stores.

‘As a business man it’s not always how much you pay in rent, but what percentage of the volume is your rent. Rents become expensive if they are more than 10 percent of your gross. The businesses with staying power are those with good business formulas.’

As Andy Otto, a North Lake Tahoe/Truckee area commercial property agent explains, the cost of commercial rents is often the question that everyone asks. In general, he admits, asking rents in Tahoe City are currently ranging from around $1.30 per square foot, per month to about $3.50 per square foot. This is down from a range of between $2 to $4 per square foot about three and four years ago.

‘Commercial rents tend to adjust slowly downward and quickly upward depending on the business spiral,’ says Otto who has been a leasing agent for 25 years. ‘I don’t see a Vailization going on, but I do see Tahoe City reinventing itself. Tahoe City businesses are trying to crank up their efforts with new businesses and new goods.’

‘The purpose of business is to make money, and this holds true for the commercial property owner as well,’ Otto says.

‘The principle reason they fix up their property is to generate more revenue. Creating sustainable businesses is the challenge; reinvention of the North Shore is an objective to reach the goal of business sustainability and growth.’

Mark McGlauthlin, commercial realtor for Tahoe City’s newly completed Custom’s House, agrees that because of building costs and tax assessments retail space in the 10,000 square foot structure, located across from the Lighthouse Shopping Center, is 40 percent higher across the board than other rental space in Tahoe City.

‘Generally, because of costs, the building can only attract professional and financial services, art galleries and such,’ says McGlauthlin who confides that the structure will be 75 percent occupied by the end of the summer. At present only Starbucks and Chase real estate inhabit the premises.

Dan Hauserman of Tahoe City’s Cobblestone Center agrees.

‘I’ll overhear a conversation at a restaurant about ‘those greedy landlords.’ It just isn’t so. There are so many factors at play,’ says Hauserman a lifelong resident of Tahoe City whose parents built the Cobblestone Center. ‘Anytime you try to upgrade your property the permitting process, new tax assessments, the TRPA and the county are hammering you. It took us five years to get permitting to build an addition to our property. If anyone needs to be scrutinized it’s not landlords, but who they have to work with.’

Originally built in 1966, the Cobblestone Center offers 37,000 square feet and 25 spaces of retail stores. Businesses include Tahoe City’s movie theater. At present there are only three available vacancies. Hauserman admits his company has a philosophy of occupation versus empty space.

‘Greedy landlords don’t negotiate,’ says Hauserman. ‘We’ve bent over backwards to keep our tenants and keep them afloat. We realize these are hard economic times. There is not as much disposable income with shoppers as before. We’re always renegotiating leases, offering concessions and working with our tenants. We’re very pro-active. We need to be as the new villages at ski resorts have made offers enticing former tenants away from Tahoe City with leases and promises they couldn’t refuse.’

The newly completed Village at Northstar offers visitors 154,987 square feet of commercial space. Sixty percent is occupied by retail stores, another 30 percent by dining and ten percent with real estate.

Heath Neilsen, Vice-President of commercial Property and Operations for Booth Creek, Northstar’s parent company, admits that any large commercial development offers tenant improvements, benefits and rent structure to leverage its properties over others.

‘We set up deals according to the business,’ says Neilsen, a former director of retail for Sony. ‘Our tenants are in it here for the long term. I feel Northstar has a very unique long-term edge over other nearby commercial properties. As a result we’ve given concessions during our construction period. We try not to duplicate businesses within the village. We believe in competition not cannibalism.’

Although the Village rents space at a whopping $35 to $40 per square foot per month, a price supposedly lower than commercial real estate in Reno and Sacramento, 97 percent of the resorts shops have been rented with only two remaining retail locations available. New for the upcoming 2008/09 winter season include newly leased restaurants – Baxter’s Bistro Lounge by Moody’s in Truckee and the popular Reno-based Chocolate Bar. Parking should be improved with base lodge spaces being reserved solely for shopping and dining and complemented by night valet on the weekends.

Although the Village at Northstar has only lost one tenant since its inception, not all businesses remain smitten in their new location.

‘Moving to Northstar’s village from Tahoe City was the worst move I’ve ever made,’ says one storeowner who wishes to remain anonymous. ‘I was enticed to come here by their real estate people, but they’ve kept few, if any, of their promises. They refuse to listen to complaints, nor renegotiate. It’s a horrible situation. I’ve been in business since 1978. I used to make money. Now I make one-third as before. I can’t wait for my lease to run out.’

Some storekeepers, such as Earthly Delights, once a mainstay business in the downtown Truckee area, aren’t as strongly voiced, yet their tone strikes a similar chord.

‘The reason we left downtown Truckee wasn’t about rising rents or anything to do with our landlord. West River Street, where we were located since 1997, simply wasn’t happening. We couldn’t do the numbers we wanted. In fact we pay more per square foot than before,’ says the restaurant’s Kelly Bailey who owns the eatery with Laura Sweeney. Earthly Delights monthly rent is reportedly $16,000 per month.

Although Bailey confides that when ‘busy it’s very busy,’ she hopes business improves once the Ritz Carlton is completed. She also admits there are issues with landlords, but would rather not comment in hopes problems can be worked out.

Although the five-phase Village at Squaw Valley was halted indefinitely after only two phases, the resort’s new pedestrian village, highlighted by cobblestone walkways, rough timbers and store accents that create a charming mountain village ambiance, still offers a needed development at the base of Olympic.

Contemporary comforts are discovered within the Village’s 286 luxury condos while a collection of shops, boutiques, eateries and entertainment fill the walkways.

Unfortunately, in the few years since its opening, village shops and eateries have disappeared in alarming numbers. From brand stores such as Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory to Truckee’s Mountain Hardware’s sister store to even the well-regarded Balboa Café, owners of PlumpJack, several businesses have left for greener pastures.

Some of these village retail spaces have yet to be replaced, other vacancies have yet to be filled. It’s hard to say what the Village’s outlook is (representatives from the Village refused to be interviewed for this story).

Elsa Corrigan, owner of Mamasake, arguably the Village’s most successful and popular restaurant, tried to negotiate a lease to move her business into Balboa’s better located and bigger vacated space.

‘After talking with them I crunched the numbers based on their rent. I would have had to gross $4 million annually, something I can’t do in a seasonal resort,’ says Corrigan who remains in her original location at the Village Fountain Court.

‘They were unbending in what they were asking.’

Rumor has it new tenants are set to move into the Balboa space which has remained unoccupied since spring 2007.

All this brouhaha about commercial rents along the North Shore of Lake Tahoe is merely a reminder that there is more than one way to measure the value of space. It is also a reminder that there is a profound importance in confronting class conflicts when progress is measured by a combination of greed, glut and well-meaning efforts to keep things improving. How can North Shore communities embrace change and still hang onto its character? The answer is being formed little by little every day as local businesses open their doors to a changing economy.

In the meantime, surviving merchants of Truckee-Tahoe’s Monopoly Board might just keep feeding their nickels into downtown parking meters until the coins run out and their time at Tahoe expires, to be left out in the cold.

Author

  • Robert Frohlich

    Former writer

    1955 – 2010

    “If Lake Tahoe ain’t heaven, then heaven can wait.”
    ~ Fro fighting for his life

    “The next morning I arose early to watch the setting moon. The sun hadn’t quite broken out of the dreamy foliage of morning, and all was still: the blanketed dells, ridges, and granite domes. No sound. Something almost creepy hovered over the motionless surroundings. The landscape had a fierceness that made the Alps look tame.

    “There is a small stone fortress built in the 1920s that guards the actual point lookout. I noticed the fellow who’d bragged about skating the 11 miles in two hours. He was probably doing yoga, but he looked more like he was praying. Maybe he was praying not for his deliverance alone, but for mine, too, for our mutual enlightenment. Maybe he embodied the form that transcendent figures assume these days. I felt unaccountably cheered that this guy was a sort of postmodern angel, complete with a caption for people too dense like me to know a vision when they see one. How could it be otherwise? Many people wilt when their lives have been gutted. I’d refused to wilt. I’d been given a second life. In my first life I tried to do everything expected of me and had failed somewhat. Now in my second life I’d try to attempt things not expected of me.”

    ~ “Seeking Mojo at Glacier Point,” published in Moonshine Ink, March 8, 2010

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