Build it and they won’t come: Reflections on a tourist town during lockdown

Photo of an abandoned construction project to build a convention center
Sage Alexander/Staff

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Stateline, Nevada without tourists was a church without worshipers. Next to the deserted highway, usually jumbled with traffic, were shuttered knickknack shops and abandoned timeshares, electric signs promising, “The fun will return!” A feeling of unease swept over me last April as I walked the Village Loop, an area usually teeming with folks in Patagonia uniforms and snow boots on heated sidewalks. Standing against the volume of glaring concrete on an unnaturally warm day, I had a hard time imagining a return to normal. In the midst of the lockdown, near the end of April, I took a rare trip outside to understand what the pandemic means for a tourist economy.

The casinos in Stateline have always stuck out from the sprawling forests that surround them and are really the only area in the south shore where buildings reach higher than a couple floors. It’s a little strange to imagine a natural wonder like Tahoe having much of a nightlife, but that has been part of the marketing technique since the construction of casinos on the Nevada side and the Heavenly ski resort. It’s even more jarring to wander this region when nobody’s there to justify the endless concrete. In pre-pandemic conditions, the casinos already existed in a somewhat receding industry. According to the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency, during the first 18 years of the century, gross revenues from gambling have declined by about $150 million dollars.

Across the street, aptly positioned behind some recently developed timeshares, lies a reminder of another bust period in the economy. During the recession in 2008, a multimillion-dollar convention center project was abandoned. This was after a foundation was poured and industrial materials were strewn about. The city ‘block’ is a pit that was converted to a kind of parking garage and a nightmare scenario for developers.

The underside of this conscious prioritization is a semiconstant state of development basinwide.

While walking the village loop, I tried to land on a compelling reason for why this kind of development needed to exist. The marketing of Tahoe as vacation-party-wonderland has set the tone for decades. Adverts of fresh powder next to beautiful people dancing in clubs are typical. The underside of this conscious prioritization is a semiconstant state of development basinwide. This was curbed somewhat by the creation of the Tahoe Regional Planning Agency in the late ’60s. The steady decline of lake clarity can be reasonably linked to the amount of concrete poured. The more impermeable surfaces there are, the more sediment that gets dumped into the lake. Tourism, in this case, has a strikingly clear cost. Motor engines on the lake and roads mean a further reduction in the lake’s clarity. The ecological health of the body of water that allows this industry to exist is continually in jeopardy. An economy that includes principles of ecological inequity has a myriad of issues, but the real contempt locals hold for the casinos comes from the social disparities at play.

Most people in Tahoe are employed in the service industry. Once unemployment benefits ran dry, the choice became work in an environment of dubious safety or leave the basin. In late July, it seemed as if everything had started up again. Restaurants had opened to the public, and tourists (the only people who bother spending time in Stateline) could peruse racks of goods in the open air. Driving through Stateline had once again become the strange dichotomy of pulsing nightlife folded into endless forest. A guitar player crooned for guests dining around fire pits.

Service industry workers were on the frontline once again — not that many were ever really ordered home — pleading with drunken tourists to please put their masks back on. In Heavenly Village, you would be hard-pressed to understand any of these businesses as essential, at least, in any category separate from the jobs they provide or the tax revenue they generate.

The increase in tourists came alongside a surge of cases in the Tahoe region. During peak season, all kinds of infrastructures are pushed to the limit when the population swells with visitors. Roads become gridlocked, hotels fill up and EMTs answer floods of calls for general debauchery. Locals feared the next infrastructure under stress would be ventilators and hospital beds. Sure enough, since testing began, the largest chunk of positive COVID-19 results in El Dorado County have originated from the southern Lake Tahoe region. The first COVID-19-related death was a man who lived here. This is not a situation unique to the United States. In other areas around the world, tourist towns saw an uptick in cases as post-lockdown recreation became possible.

The housing disparity in South Lake, unfortunately, bites harder the longer the pandemic runs. House prices have been steadily climbing as folks buy up the available real estate. Professional-class folks, especially tech bros from the Bay Area, have found that their jobs can be done from anywhere — if one has to endure a pandemic, might as well do so in the mountains. According to Pinnacle Real Estate Group of Lake Tahoe, in May 2020, the average home sale price in South Lake Tahoe was $585,556. By October, it had shot up to $671,367. For renters, the availability of housing has tightened up. The Tahoe Prosperity Center estimates that the long-term inventory of rental housing for locals hovers between zero and two percent.

In April, I saw drained fountains and abandoned businesses — a glimpse into an apocalyptic future where Tahoe doesn’t have gambling or snow tourism.

That being said, most of the houses being bought up by the wealthy were never constructed for people who live here. According to the Tahoe Prosperity Center, a balanced housing market is one in which 50% of households can afford a median-priced home. In South Lake Tahoe, the proportion is currently at 25%. It’s not realistic for folks working minimum wage to buy the seven-room party mansion typical of this region.

In April, I saw drained fountains and abandoned businesses — a glimpse into an apocalyptic future where Tahoe doesn’t have gambling or snow tourism. By the end of the century, our snow load will likely be cut in half (with the remainder coming down as rain). I can’t help but see the bustling Stateline of today as a relic. When there’s no more snow in the basin due to climate change and gambling in outdated casinos has fully gone out of style, what will be left behind? A concrete hull like the one from 2008?

The fickle hand of the tourist economy tends to smother wildness and trap its dependents in “poverty with a view.” Always, but especially during this time of immense social change and economic failure, there is a chance to seize and restructure our value systems. What about an economy that works for all? I see in the future an ethics system that puts conservation and decent employment above the dollar and a tourist economy whose cost doesn’t involve the drastic reduction in lake clarity we’ve seen in the past 60 years. A green economy means employing more people to tend to the land, learning from and reallocating land to the people who’ve lived here for thousands of years. It means making outdoor tourism sustainable.

Contact Sage Alexander at [email protected].