Sunday, October 14, 2007

WSJ takes on Tahoe

Tahoe's Next Gamble
The lake's South Shore tries for some Vegas glam
October 13, 2007; Page W3

Along Highway 50 on Lake Tahoe's South Shore, bulldozers eat away at the cinder-block skeletons of T-shirt shops and 1960-era motels to make room for luxury condos and a giant spa. Across the street at the old, garish Caesars Tahoe -- rechristened last year as the Montbleu Resort Casino and Spa -- the Imperial Roman motifs have fallen. In their place are blue LED bulbs and a Party Pit, where blackjack is dealt by women in backless shirts and hip huggers.

High Stakes: Resorts on the shore of Lake Tahoe
Massive redevelopment and an influx of wealth in recent years have all but wiped out the old kitschy charm of Tahoe's southern shore. As the transformation proceeds, the area is trying to become all things to all people: an upscale resort town as well as a draw for the younger set looking for all-night clubs and tequila shots.

It's a similar formula playing out in vacation spots across the country, from Atlantic City, N.J., to Aspen, Colo. And while it means new draws for visitors, not all locals are happy about the changes. In Tahoe, ski bums are becoming an endangered species, with many migrating to cheaper slopes in areas such as Bear Valley near California's Gold Country. As many locals relocate to flee rising house prices, congestion is snarling roads. Recently spotted: a "Keep Tahoe Blue Collar" bumper sticker, playing off the old "Keep Tahoe Blue" environmental sticker.

Now, development is beginning to spread to the sleepier North Shore, long a more laid-back alternative to the South. A luxury condo-hotel is in the works at Frank Sinatra's old haunt, the Cal Neva Resort. Analysts say that developers have learned from the South Shore's projects about how to work within Tahoe's rigid restrictions, instituted in the 1970s when the lake's celebrated clarity began to suffer from overdevelopment.

Anyone wondering what the North Shore could look like in a few years should spend a weekend on the South Shore, where the tourism industry is gearing up for the winter ski season.

Ski Run Boulevard, running from Heavenly Ski Resort virtually to the lake, was once a rundown street with old toilets discarded in front yards. Now, it's lined with boutique lodges and Italian restaurants. The old Dream Inn -- where the wallpaper was crushed velvet and the ceiling sparkled with gold-veined mirrors -- reopened last summer as the Deerfield Lodge, a 12-suite hotel with fireplaces in every room and a car port illuminated by a chandelier.

A familiar sight of the old South Shore was the senior-citizen slot player who hopped a bus from the Sacramento, Calif., area. Today, more high rollers are pouring in, including Asian players from the Bay Area. Harrah's spent more than $5 million to expand and renovate its high-limit gaming area and open a Cantonese restaurant with $100 desserts.

In contrast, the Block hotel caters to the younger crowd. Resembling a teenage boy's version of a bachelor pad (there's a PlayStation 2 in every room), the hotel hosts snowboarders and others looking for cheaper digs. Upon check-in, guests are handed a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon and a couple of energy drinks. Jeremy Choffel, a hotel guest, recounts his plans for the evening: a toga party at a nearby nightclub. "I've already got my sheet," he says, pointing to his hotel room's bed.

But locals say that those coming to party are missing out on the best of what Tahoe has to offer: its natural beauty, showcasing the 10th-deepest lake in the world, surrounded by soaring peaks of pine and fir trees.

Tahoe is a year-round destination, but with ski season approaching, some businesses are jittery. Last year produced one of the paltriest snowfalls in decades -- just 40% of usual levels. Then, just before July 4, the Angora fire struck, burning 3,100 acres, destroying more than 250 homes and driving away tourists.

The area has about 15 ski resorts, including Squaw Valley, known for its difficult runs, and Heavenly, known for its long ones. The slopes of Homewood, one of the area's smallest ski resorts, make you feel as though you will plunge right into the lake's icy water.

Nearly 30 years ago, Whit Hickman, a salesman in Portland, Ore., was yet another Tahoe ski bum, working the slopes at Heavenly. Now he brings his wife and kids every couple of years in the summer to bike and hike. "So many of the old fun places seem to have disappeared," he says. "There's a lot more to do now. But I still miss the old stuff."

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