The biggest little election in New Mexico?

Interest, involvement in politics high in Taos Ski Valley, where residents value mountain village s character amid change


Neal King, the mayor of Taos Ski Valley, jokes that 1 in 10 residents in his town is running for office this year.

While the village might only notch a year-round population of about 70, it has fielded three candidates for mayor. Add in the four candidates vying for two seats on the Village Council, and residents of New Mexico's fourth-smallest town will be participating in what may well be the biggest little election in the state.

Fittingly, there is a ski-in, ski-out polling site in the meeting room of a slopeside condominium. In fact, that is the only polling site.

A British Royal Air Force veteran and retired computer programmer-turned-ski instructor, King, 77, has not faced an opponent in the past few elections. Now he has two.

What exactly does his re-election campaign involve?

"You make certain that you go around and talk to everybody's dogs nicely," King quips in his soft, sunny and accented tone.

In seriousness, there is plenty of retail politicking – and good reason, for all the interest this year.

Taos Ski Valley is a destination for skiers and hikers, an alpine getaway nestled in the shadow of New Mexico's tallest peak. But for the few who live in this thickly wooded, 2-square-mile hamlet that stretches along the ski slopes, it also is a community at a crossroads.

The local family that had founded the village's eponymous ski resort sold it in late 2013 to a billionaire hedge fund manager. The sale brought the promise of investment and new development for a resort many argued was overdue for an upgrade. The move likely saved it from closing, too.

But it also brought a wariness about where all that new investment will flow and what will change about a ski area that many locals and visitors alike love for its rustic character, isolation and, well, Taos-ness.

In just the past few years, a new hotel has sprouted up in the middle of the village and the resort has constructed a new lift to the ski area's highest reaches. Less exciting but no less important, there have been all manner of utility improvements -- a big thing for a community that is connected to the outside world by a single road.

There is talk, too, of new development in an area farther up the mountain and construction of a new wastewater treatment plant. At the same time, the resort is planning new lifts and yet more upgrades.

The mayor describes it as 25 years' worth of development in the course of three years.

"There's a lot of interest to make certain it's done correctly," King says.

He acknowledges, though, that "there's some resistance to change, be it good or bad."

Just over the mountains from Taos Pueblo, which has been inhabited for more than 1,000 years, Taos Ski Valley is itself relatively young.

A few families – including the Blakes, who owned the resort until just a few years ago – began developing the ski area in the 1950s. The village only became a municipality in its own right in 1996. This status allowed the resort and the community that had grown up around it to keep more of the tax revenue it generated and plow that money back into developing the area.

Taos Ski Valley is perhaps the most renowned ski area in New Mexico, but it never became as big or as crowded as Colorado resorts like Vail or Aspen. For many, that is Taos Ski Valley's selling point – and, maybe, its charm.

But charm sometimes has a boomerang effect. Although new investment may transform the community, its fallout has just about overwhelmed many who work and live around the resort. Roadwork and all the noise and dust that comes along with it frustrate some residents.

Then there is the worry that amid all these high-dollar deals, the village will get pushed around and taxpayers will end up paying for improvements that benefit the resort. The community has set up a tax increment development district, which provides refunds for developers building public infrastructure, such as widening roads or constructing a sidewalk.

Plenty, too, have been concerned about plans for building a new water tank. Like many ski towns, water is a touchy subject in a community that relies on snow and snow making.

Pretty much everyone acknowledges that this is a company town that rises and falls with the snowpack.

But if Mother Nature can't be controlled, people here know there are things they can influence. Toward that end, more residents are turning up at Village Council meetings and even meetings for the tax district.

"You can tell politics are pretty important when 10 percent of the population is running," says Mark Fratrick, the village administrator.

The big question seems to be whether the village government can or should serve as more of a check on the resort.

"Absolutely," says Renato Frimm, 36, one of the three candidates for mayor. "There are a lot of members of the community who feel they are not being brought into the fold."

Frimm was born in Brazil, raised in the United States and worked as an economist, most recently for the firm IHS. His family has been skiing in Taos since he was a child. In a story to which many around the ski area can probably relate, he began spending more time in Taos after finding white-collar life paid well but had not left him particularly happy.

In Taos, "I found a sense of purpose," he says.

Frimm jumped into the race for a council seat before deciding, instead, to run for mayor. He contends the village government must do more to balance the concerns of residents and developers.

It's a theme that resonates. Chris Stagg, the vice president for public affairs at Taos Ski Valley Inc., was the town's first mayor. Now, he's a member of the Village Council, up for re-election. He says he knows some voters may go against him this year, wanting more separation between the village government and resort.

Village officials say they've gone head-to-head with the resort plenty of times over issues such as fees owed.

"It doesn't do anybody any good to be too confrontational," Stagg says.

To be sure, Frimm does not expect a fight with the resort's new owner, Louis Bacon. The mayoral hopeful says he expects they could work well together, given a shared interest in conservation. A third candidate, Village Councilor Christof Brownell, also is running for mayor. He did not respond to a voicemail message and email seeking an interview.

Whoever wins will face the same existential issues: If climate change means more dry winters, the community will have to draw in more visitors during the offseason – for hiking, mountain biking, climbing and the like. It also will have to be warier, King says, touting the village's efforts to mitigate the risk of wildfires in the area, which is surrounded on all sides by national forest.

"The winter may be our bread and butter. But the village's success relies on the spring, summer and fall," Frimm says.

King is blunt: This is a company town.

"All we have is a ski area," he says, adding the village is working "hand in hand" with the resort to bring in more visitors year-round.

And so, in a bone-dry March, it's voting season. By noon Friday, 24 residents had cast their ballots early, with more to come Tuesday. Officially, with seasonal residents like second-home owners, the village has 129 registered voters.

High turnout is the norm at Taos Ski Valley, even if that does not add up to a very big number. But as Stagg says, that is better than no one caring.

Contact Andrew Oxford at 505-986-3093 or aoxford@sfnewmexican­.com. Follow him on Twitter @andrewboxford.


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