In a former coal mining town just over the mountains from Seattle, residents look to a new local government and an ambitious resort development as keys to an economic turnaround.
ROSLYN, Wash. — We eat lunch in front of a massive wood-burning stove in a bar that opened in 1889, with a fully functioning spittoon running beneath the bar and a giant moose head adorning the wall.
So when city council member and coffee shop owner Karen Flowers tells me, “We’re in a little bit of a time bubble here,” it’s easy to see what she means.
“Here” is Roslyn, a town of just under 900 residents 80 miles east of Seattle. The former coal mining hub is probably best known as the setting for the 1990s television program Northern Exposure. Homages to the cult show are still visible in storefronts on the tiny main drag, including the perfectly preserved set of the show’s KBHR radio station on Pennsylvania Avenue.
Flowers is the proprietor of the Big Moose Coffee Co. at the intersection of 1st and Dakota. Ordinarily she’d be selling espresso on this corner, but on this Saturday she’s running a yard sale instead. Like several other businesses here, she shuttered her little red shack for the season, awaiting the return of the summer tourist influx.
“I had to close this winter for the first time,” Flowers says. “Even if you own your own business, it’s very difficult to keep your head above water here.”
As in so many small towns around the country, signs of the economic downtown are everywhere in Roslyn and in neighboring Cle Elum. There are boarded up storefronts and multiple “For Sale” signs on every block. There are few job opportunities at existing companies, which in turn leads to new small independent businesses — an encouraging sign of entrepreneurship. But those new small businesses face the same challenges as Flowers: low traffic in the winter months, and a struggle to find consistent year-round revenue.
That contrast was evident in every conversation I had in Roslyn last weekend: acknowledgement of the stark economic reality balanced with unfailing optimism that a turnaround is just around the corner.
There was hope that Suncadia, the sprawling resort development a few minutes’ drive from Roslyn, would provide an economic boost when it started selling homesites back in 2004. The golf courses, restaurants, luxury lodge, and 3,500 eventual residences seemed like a sure bet to bring in tourist dollars and jobs to Kittitas County.
But the recession hit the resort hard. Construction on million-dollar second homes stalled. Employees have faced yearly furloughs, and many of the jobs have been minimum wage, usually filled by college students from nearby Central Washington University looking for seasonal positions as bellhops and waiters.
Earlier this year, the city of Cle Elum — which supplies Suncadia with its water — threatened to turn off the resort’s water supply if Suncadia didn’t pay over $60,000 in past due bills. The resort paid the debt, and just recently confirmed that ownership has shifted to a multi-billion dollar management firm and a Los Angeles-based realty firm that has operated Suncadia for the last few years.
“It’s big news whether we’re doing well or not well,” says Nanci Koss, one of the resort’s brokers.
Out of the 1,200 homesites sold, only 250 have houses built upon them. But the main lodge — “like the one in ‘The Shining!'” the Suncadia gatekeeper says helpfully as we drive through the resort’s entrance — sees a steady trickle of business from conventions and weekend travelers.
Steve Talarico, a shuttle driver at Suncadia, says he hasn’t paid too much attention to the rate of development. The descendent of Italian immigrants who came to Roslyn in the 1890s, he’s kept busy this weekend ferrying families and conventioneers between the lodge and the swim and fitness center.
Though he admits he was initially skeptical of Suncadia’s development — “I was afraid they were going to ruin the character of downtown Roslyn,” Talarico says — he loves working at the resort and says he wishes it had come along 15 years earlier. He thinks the employment opportunities the resort offers current local high school graduates is added motivation to stay in the area and not move away, like many of his generation did.
Back in downtown Roslyn, Neal Lockett takes a moment from inspecting used bricks at Karen Flowers’ yard sale to agree that there’s definitely potential for Roslyn to benefit from Suncadia.
Economic revitalization and job creation are especially important to Lockett — he’s the new mayor of Roslyn, taking office January 1. Sweating in a torn red plaid shirt after an afternoon spent changing snow tires, he launches into a list of all the possibilities available despite the depressed economy.
“There are a lot of properties for sale up there,” he says, gesturing in Suncadia’s direction. “We just have to wait until there’s more optimism from buyers, and then we’ll start seeing something.”
In particular, Lockett sees Roslyn as one piece of a larger community that includes Cle Elum, Ronald, and even Easton. To reach Roslyn right now, you drive in on State Route 903, which continues up along Salmon La Sac Road past Cle Elum Lake, where it abruptly ends and drivers have to turn around to get back out to the highway. His vision is to link up the surrounding communities through what he calls the “State Route 903 Scenic Loop” by creating a new road that makes it easier to access the area’s abundant recreational opportunities and provides two-way traffic into Roslyn.
This, he believes, would ultimately bring more tourists and more recreational visitors into the town. According to Lockett, this would spark the economic turnaround the community is looking for.
“Just get us off this dead-end road,” Lockett says, eyes bright with anticipation.