A Fortuitous Dilemma

Travel
Author:
Publish date:
Ski Towns 1001 Pic B

Downtown teems with tourists on this sunny July day in Red Lodge. Many are here for a taste of a genuine Western town, where ranchers in the grocery store wear their cowboy boots for function, not fashion. Others have stopped for a quick lunch before heading up the majestic Beartooth Highway, a breathtaking high-alpine drive that starts just south of Red Lodge, peaks above timberline and descends to the northeast entrance of Yellowstone National Park. Some Montana residents have come for a respite from Billings, which is 60 miles away and, with a population of 92,000, is Montana's largest city. During the day, gift shops bustle and lines snake out the doors of the town's ubiquitous ice-cream parlors. As night falls, country music blares out tavern doors while crowds clamor inside.

Fast-forward six months to mid-January, and it's apparent that Red Lodge is not a typical ski town. In the fall, the Beartooth Highway closes, making Red Lodge literally the end of a lonely, rural road. The vibrancy of summer gives way to the easy peacefulness of winter, during which you're more likely to rub shoulders with one of the 2,300 locals than with a Southern-twanged tourist. Parking is plentiful, and shop owners eagerly turn each time the door swings open. Nightlife? No need to worry, there's always an empty barstool.

While tourists have yet to discover the allure of Red Lodge's sunny winters, locals revel in them. Since 1960, when a group of townsfolk banded together to create Red Lodge's namesake ski area just six miles from downtown, winters have revolved around skiing. Businesses often mysteriously close midday, while workers sneak in a few runs. Jim Kadous, an 18-year Red Lodge resident and owner of Coal Creek Realty (often unmanned between 9 and 11:30 on powder days) says, "We tell people that if they're coming here to work, watch out. Skiing is the downfall of the working man here." Not to mention the student. Through its Ski For Life program-which brings the area's first- through eighth-graders up to the mountain for six consecutive winter Mondays-the ski area works hard to spread the snowsports gospel. Last year, all but six of the town's 345 eligible students participated in the program. The most enthusiastic converts join Silver Run, a race program for kids from Red Lodge, Billings and other nearby towns. Adults get their racing fix each Friday with the Town Series Challenge and at the end of the season with the White Stag citizens race, started 20 years before the ski area opened and fraught with family rivalries.

For locals, however, Red Lodge Mountain is about more than just amusement; it's about survival. With 60 year-round employees and about 140 seasonal workers, the ski area is the second-largest employer in Carbon County, behind only the county itself. Skier traffic allows stores and restaurants to eke out a winter existence until they're once again bolstered by the summer trade. In meager snow years-as the past three have been-the whole community feels the pain. "When the ski area suffers, downtown suffers, too," Kadous says. "But we're resilient around here. We know how to pull our wings in when times get tough."

This fight for survival is a long-standing tradition in Red Lodge. Farmers and ranchers first settled the area in the mid-1800s, but the town boomed in the 1880s when coal mines brought hundreds of Finnish, Irish, Italian, Scottish, Slavic and Scandinavian workers to town. When the mines began to falter in the Twenties, locals looked to tourism to save them. They lobbied for a decade to convince the federal government to build the Beartooth Highway, linking Red Lodge to Yellowstone. The town survived, although its population plummeted from a high of 6,000 in 1915 to around 2,000, where it hovers today.

In a sense, Red Lodge is like a princess in a Montana fairy tale, waiting patiently for that kiss of growth. And the wait is certainly not for lack of beauty. Nestled in a long, narrow valley at the fo of the Beartooth Mountains, Red Lodge exudes authentic Western charm. There's not a single stoplight in all of Carbon County, and the only national-chain marquees are on a few gas stations and a Subway shop. The bulk of the quarter-mile-long business district is on the National Register of Historic Places, and much of it has been meticulously restored. At the north end of town, the 1889 train station now houses an art gallery. In the middle of town stands The Pollard Hotel, Red Lodge's most touted renovation. Built in 1893, The Pollard was the town's first brick structure and a favorite haunt of the likes of Calamity Jane and Buffalo Bill Cody. Refurbished in 1994, it's now one of Red Lodge's only upscale lodging establishments. Other remnants from the mining heydays are the ethnic neighborhoods: "Finn Town" in the northeast, with quaint cottages and large, company boarding houses; "High Bug Town" to the northwest, where stately Victorians housed well-heeled townsfolk; and "Little Italy" to the west. Newer neighborhoods have sprouted near the golf course (which is owned by the ski area) northwest of town and up Rock Creek Canyon to the south, but Red Lodge has yet to experience the ski-town bane of commercial sprawl-perhaps because it has yet to lure enough winter tourists or year-round residents to support expansion.

That's not for lack of effort on the part of the ski area, which aggressively markets itself both regionally and nationally.

Regardless, it draws 70 percent of its 120,000 skier visits from within a 100-mile radius. Much of the other 30 percent travels from North and South Dakota, Minnesota and other Midwest states-mostly by car. Some fly into Billings, the closest major airport, but in general, air travel to Montana can be expensive.

In addition to spendy flights, the ski area's terrain-previously 900 acres of mostly moderate runs-had long held it back from being a desirable destination. But in 1996, the ski area added two high-speed quads, opening up 700 challenging acres of glades, chutes and steeps in the Cole Creek area, formerly the secret domain of rope-ducking locals. The ski area also boosted snowmaking to cover 40 percent of the 70 trails. Most of those trails are on 9,416-foot Grizzly Peak, with an even mix of blacks and blues, a terrain park and the Miami Beach learning area. Next on tap in the expansion plans is a renovation of the Sixties-style base facilities-a two-story day lodge and cafeteria, the popular Bierstube with its sunny slopeside deck, and a skier-services building. A slopeside hotel is also in the plans, but for now, all development is on hold until the ski area expunges debts it incurred in the '96 expansion.

Until then, Red Lodge Mountain will rely on the town's 400-plus warm beds to house guests-perpetuating its chicken-or-the-egg dilemma: The small bed base limits the number of visitors, while the dearth of visitors hampers growth. Knowing that, the town's business community is working vigorously to tip the scales by attracting more tourists. "In the past, we've had trouble because every little business has a different view of what Red Lodge is," says ski-area spokeswoman Marcella Manuel. "To some, it's all about history; to others, it's about outdoor recreation. We need to come together on this." To that end, business owners-together with the city-have anted up $45,000 to hire an outside firm to devise a cohesive marketing campaign to draw tourists.

While anxious shop owners hope that such a campaign will ease their economic woes, many long-time residents bristle at the merest hint of growth. To them, Red Lodge is already losing its small-town Western feel. Consequently, newcomers have to learn to speak softly and leave their sticks where they came from. "People come who want big growth or major changes, but they leave pretty quickly. They meet with too much resistance," says Peter Christ, owner of one of Red Lodge's newest restaurants, Bridge Creek Backcountry Kitchen & Wine Bar.

Christ, who moved to Red Lodge in 1995 to run the dining room at The Pollard's upscale Greenlee's restaurant, is a study in how to do it right. He spent two years getting to know people in the community before opening his business. Three successful years later, when he expanded to a new location on Broadway (the town's Main Street), he worked hard to build a structure that looks like it's been there a century. "It's a seasonal town, but we're a year-round operation," Christ says. "I wouldn't make it if I just catered to tourists or just to locals. Trying to do both is a delicate balance."

It's a tightrope that most of the business community is trying to walk: growing economically while maintaining the character that attracted them in the first place. In that, they have an advantage over many ski towns: They're preparing for the growth monster before it comes barging in, rather than trying to contain it after the damage is done. In 1986, the town outlined a revitalization master plan to maintain the business district's historical integrity, and a master plan for the county is now in the works. "There's a strong sense of community here," Christ says. "Growth in any form isn't worth seeing that vanish."Kitchen & Wine Bar.

Christ, who moved to Red Lodge in 1995 to run the dining room at The Pollard's upscale Greenlee's restaurant, is a study in how to do it right. He spent two years getting to know people in the community before opening his business. Three successful years later, when he expanded to a new location on Broadway (the town's Main Street), he worked hard to build a structure that looks like it's been there a century. "It's a seasonal town, but we're a year-round operation," Christ says. "I wouldn't make it if I just catered to tourists or just to locals. Trying to do both is a delicate balance."

It's a tightrope that most of the business community is trying to walk: growing economically while maintaining the character that attracted them in the first place. In that, they have an advantage over many ski towns: They're preparing for the growth monster before it comes barging in, rather than trying to contain it after the damage is done. In 1986, the town outlined a revitalization master plan to maintain the business district's historical integrity, and a master plan for the county is now in the works. "There's a strong sense of community here," Christ says. "Growth in any form isn't worth seeing that vanish."

Related