When Tahoe’s environment, economy and communities work together (opinion)
& Heidi Hill Drum
Close your eyes. Picture Tahoe a few years from now, in a scenario where the best of all future plans have come to life. The lake is clear and blue. The beaches are clean. Our town centers are bustling with activity and thriving businesses. Visitors bike and walk around our communities, thrilled to enjoy the natural wonder of Tahoe without braving gridlock while here. The League to Save Lake Tahoe and Tahoe Prosperity Center share this vision, and with a few steps in the right direction it is not that far from reality.
One obstacle to achieving this vision is urban blight. Dilapidated, decades-old developments aren’t just an eyesore for our visitors and neighboring business owners; they also pose a significant environmental threat. Many sit on sensitive lands, such as former meadows that acted as natural filters keeping pollution out of the lake. Most lack modern stormwater management — BMPs in our region’s planning jargon. Every time it rains on these properties, stormwater runoff carries pollutants into Lake Tahoe, degrading its clarity. And blight is not what one wants to see while vacationing in beautiful Tahoe.
Getting rid of blight is one of the most important things our towns can do to protect the lake, support local residents and improve our economy. Redevelopment — the effort to rebuild and renovate in the already-developed urban centers of each of Tahoe’s communities — can foster the conditions for businesses that provide year-round jobs at better wages and better housing in more attractive neighborhoods. Better jobs and improved housing can help refill our schools with local families who live and work here. By comparison, the status quo is coming up short.
By concentrating redevelopment in town centers, we can provide relief from traffic and the associated tailpipe pollution and make it convenient for visitors to stay within walking distance of restaurants and shopping, or for residents to choose to walk or bike to work rather than commute from off of the hill. Done right, redevelopment benefits our environment by not only relieving pressure on our remaining open spaces, but also requiring BMPs for any new project thereby improving Lake Tahoe’s clarity.
There is a lot at stake. A lake degraded by old buildings does not help the economy. Tahoe relies on tourism to the tune of $3 billion per year. If Tahoe communities are filled with unattractive and polluting buildings, tourists will find other destinations. If visitors go elsewhere, businesses suffer, jobs are lost and families move away.
Fortunately, the reverse is also true; revitalizing our communities strengthens our economy and community. A strong tourism economy can fund further improvements to our communities and the environment on which it all depends. Rejuvenated town centers, while enjoyed by visitors, are nicer for locals too. More housing options in town and close to employment opportunities are more convenient for our local workforce.
We encourage those who oppose redevelopment of any sort to consider that they are, in effect, advocating for the status quo, and the status quo is not working. Tahoe needs progressive change — and soon. Tahoe Prosperity Center and the League to Save Lake Tahoe will continue to collaborate towards our shared vision where Tahoe’s environment, economy and communities all thrive. Our organizations will not agree on every individual project, but we are united in the belief that lake-friendly redevelopment needs to be accelerated. If we remain focused on this vision, which we believe most of us share, then we can get there sooner rather than later. We all know what a Lake Tahoe stuck in the gridlock of the status quo looks like, and it’s not pretty. Embrace progress and join us on our journey to a better Tahoe.
Darcie Goodman Collins, Ph.D., is the executive director of the League to Save Lake Tahoe. The League — also known by the slogan “Keep Tahoe Blue” — is Tahoe’s oldest and largest nonprofit environmental advocacy organization, founded in 1957. Heidi Hill Drum is the executive director of the Tahoe Prosperity Center, whose mission is uniting Tahoe’s communities to strengthen regional prosperity.