The small Eastern Sierra town of June Lake depends on the spending of anglers… (Brian van der Brug, Los Angeles…)
JUNE LAKE, Calif. — A dark cloud has enveloped this sunny lakeside town in the Eastern Sierra ever since the owner of the nearby June Mountain ski resort announced it would not open this coming season.
This town of about 650 people on the shores of an aspen- and pine-ringed lake depends on the spending of anglers in the summer. But wintertime ski visitors support a much bigger portion of the local economy.
The owner of the resort said it had lost money for decades and declined to give a target date for reopening. Some in the town fear the ski operation may remain dormant for years to come.
"If the mountain closes we are dead," said Don Morton, manager of June Lake Accommodations, a real estate and rental property management company.
But the only way to save June Lake may be to ruin its rural, small-town ambience by building high-density housing for skiers — a move locals have long opposed. And given the weak economy, no one expects developers with fat bank accounts to march into town any time soon.
"We need to find a solution so June Lake can stand on its own," said John Logue, owner of Ernie's Tackle and Ski Shop.
In the meantime, homeowners say their property values have dropped at least 10% since the announcement last month of the resort closure, and some hotel workers are making plans to leave town once the fishing season ends in November.
Jesus Vargas, who does maintenance work at the Boulder Lodge by day and waits tables at the Sierra Inn Steak House by night, said he has already talked to a potential employer about taking a new job in Mammoth Lakes, 20 miles away.
"If the mountain closes, people won't come," he said as he hauled a bed frame between rooms at the lodge.
June Lake is a throwback to ski towns of a quieter era. Locals share news over drinks at the rustic Tiger Bar & Cafe and pick up their mail at the village post office, across the street from Trout Town Joe's, the neighborhood coffee shop.
The local elementary school has an enrollment of 90, and most of the town's shops and hotels are family businesses, passed on from generation to generation. Reliable cellphone service doesn't exist.
"There is no corporate life in June Lake," said Candy Logue, who runs the Sierra Inn Steak House, which she took over from her father years ago. "It's a down-home, family place."
The mountain's closure is only the latest blow to the tourism industry in the Eastern Sierra.
At Mammoth Mountain — the far larger, more popular ski resort — a dearth of snow last winter cut the season short and led to the layoff of nearly 80 workers.
At the base of Mammoth Mountain, the city of Mammoth Lakes filed for bankruptcy recently because city officials said they couldn't afford to pay a $43-million breach-of-contract judgment brought against it by a developer.
Mammoth Mountain and June Mountain are owned by Mammoth Mountain Ski Area, one of the largest employers in Mono County. Its chief executive, Rusty Gregory, said the closure of June Mountain has been a long time coming.
June Mountain, which has about 500 acres of skiable terrain, has lost $500,000 to $2.5 million annually since Mammoth bought it in 1986, Gregory said. The number of visitors has ranged from about 35,000 to 50,000 a year.
To make money, Gregory said the mountain must bring in about 150,000 skiers per year. And though he said he was sympathetic to the residents of June Lake, he believes the mountain can thrive only if the town builds enough lodging at its base to serve that many skiers.
Currently, the handful of hotels in the area have a total of about 370 rooms.
"June Mountain will not reach its potential by being a drive-to, day resort," Gregory said.
Intrawest Corp., a Denver-based resort developer and operator that built several high-end projects in Mammoth Lakes, came to June Lake in 2004 with a plan for a mixed-use development that would build up to 900 condominiums and homes on 90 acres.
But the plan divided the town, with some locals fearing the development would ruin June Lake's small-town atmosphere. Debate over the project pitted friends and family against each other.
"It split the town in two," said Vikki Bauer, a Mono County supervisor who ran on a platform of supporting the development in her last two elections. "I've been here 32 years, and I've never seen anything like this."
After years of community haggling, Intrawest gave up on the project, Bauer said, partly because of a souring economy. Intrawest has put the proposed development property up for sale for $2.9 million. Intrawest declined requests to comment.
Critics of Intrawest's development say they are being blamed for the town's troubles.
"A few negative people in this community are playing a blame game now," said Al Heinrich, president of the June Lake Advocates, a community group that challenged the size and scope of the Intrawest project. "All we were doing was trying to give input on the specific plan."