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Mining Town in Idaho Finds Bavarian 'Oompah' Theme Hard to Play

June 25, 1989|DAVID FOSTER | Associated Press

KELLOGG, Ida. — When local boosters chose a Bavarian theme to turn this depressed mining town into a fairy-tale tourist village, they had in mind a Cinderella transformation.

After four years, what they've got is more like Beauty and the Beast.

A quaint wooden sign proclaiming "Willkommen zu Kellogg" sits near a mile-long heap of mining debris. Downtown, false-fronted shops mimicking old German architecture share Main Street with dumpy, dirty brick buildings.

Kellogg is not the first down-and-out Western town to try to revive itself by dressing up as something it's not. Tourists with a good road map and a willingness to suspend their disbelief can find simulated frontier cowboy towns, Bavarian hamlets and 19th-Century mining villages scattered across the West.

Serious Challenge

But the "theme town" concept, successful in some places, faces a serious challenge in this northern Idaho town. After four years of having its seamier side covered up, painted over or carted away, Kellogg still resembles more the rough mining town it is than the charming village it wants to be.

That does not daunt town fathers, who remember how things were. Grocer Bob Chapman sums it up by describing his cavernous metal warehouse store, now trimmed with stained wood and painted flowers: "It's still ugly, but it's improved a great deal."

Life in Kellogg couldn't have gotten much worse than it was in 1981, when the Bunker Hill silver-lead-zinc mine closed. Unemployment soared to 50%, and $80,000 homes suddenly became $30,000 homes, if a buyer could be found at all.

Legacy of Smoke

It was small comfort that Bunker Hill's two towering smokestacks no longer belched noxious smelter fumes across the valley. Years of smoke had already done their damage, turning once-forested hills into barren, eroded slopes and lacing the yards and gardens of Kellogg with toxic lead, cadmium, arsenic and mercury.

The 1980 census counted 3,417 people in Kellogg. By 1986, that number had fallen 22% to 2,650. As city leaders watched business after business fold, they desperately sought something to keep Kellogg alive.

They found it in Leavenworth, Wash., a little town in the Cascade Range that adopted a Bavarian alpine theme in 1966 when it, too, was on the edge of ruin. Now the thriving village of 1,400 boasts 26 gift shops and 19 restaurants, all meticulously fashioned after the quaint shops and cottages of old Bavaria.

Establishes Design Review

Kellogg set out to copy that success. Civic leaders started a mural-painting, flower-planting campaign. The City Council passed an ordinance to require that all commercial construction or remodeling be done in the Bavarian theme and be approved by a design review committee.

The centerpiece of the town's conversion was to be a 3.1-mile tram ride linking the town's center and a nearby ski area. But no private investor would touch the risky venture. It took a $6.4-million federal grant--assailed by President Ronald Reagan as pork barrel but approved in December, 1987, by Congress--to make the gondola project a reality.

Construction began in April, and boosters say the gondola will kick Kellogg's conversion into high gear.

A kick clearly is needed. Fewer than 25% of the buildings downtown have gone Bavarian--and even those aren't entirely convincing.

Castles and Chalets

On one block, a jewelry store masquerades as a turreted castle, next to a pawn shop with a ski chalet facade, next to a dress store painted like a quaint country cottage, next to a flower shop with a clock tower that chimes tunes from "The Sound of Music."

"People come in and say, 'This isn't really Bavarian.' We say we don't care--it looks nice," said City Clerk Terry Sharp.

There are local critics too, including Dennis Seagraves, owner of Dirty Ernie's tavern. His only concession to Bavaria--at the review committee's insistence--is the Old English lettering on his sign.

"When I was growing up, I thought you had freedom of choice," he said. "With the Bavarian theme, you either do it their way or you don't do it at all."

Consultant Has Doubts

Pauline Watson, a Leavenworth gift shop owner and traveling consultant on theme towns, has doubts about Kellogg's chance of success. She has seen many communities get excited about becoming a theme town, only to lose steam when they realize the financial investment and long-term commitment involved. "People see it as a magic cure, but it's not," she said.

Sometimes it does work: Leavenworth has prospered, and so has Solvang, Calif., drawing tourists with a Danish theme since the 1940s. Winthrop, Wash., has become a convincing Old West town. Kimberley, British Columbia, has gone Bavarian. And just 12 miles from Kellogg, the town of Wallace, Idaho, is trying to build on its silver-mining heritage.

Kellogg is at a disadvantage, Watson said, because it is far from a large population center and its business district is too spread out to concentrate shoppers.

Dwell on the Positive

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