Jackson’s fight to Save the Block

BY BRIGID MANDER

On August 16, 2019, yet another multimillion-dollar land deal was announced in the heart of Jackson, Wyoming. This deal, however, had a number of peculiarities and was a story far from the ho-hum, just-another-ski-town-developer transaction.

It was the end result of a rapid and massive public fundraising campaign named Save the Block, during which an anonymous local family fronted the entire purchase price—undisclosed, but reportedly in the neighborhood of $25 million—to keep one beloved, historic downtown Jackson block out of developer hands. To help pay for the conservation easement, the community raised more than $7 million through more than 5,700 individual donations ranging from a buck to $1 million—in just under four months.

The object of all the fuss exists quietly, presided over by mature, towering cottonwoods one block from Jackson’s Town Square. The land holds three small historic settler cabins, now home to bustling eateries, two other cabins with local design shops, and one residence. Wide green lawns in between provide spaces where the community meets and socializes. It’s an idyllic space, nearly untouched by time and greed and seemingly protected from the lucrative development crush consuming the rest of the near 11,000-resident town.

But it wasn’t protected. Not only are historic protections nonexistent in the state of Wyoming, this space occupied a zoning area that would allow the block to be leveled and a luxury hotel built, encompassing the entire property. And that almost happened. In August of 2018, the owner at the time Max Chapman, a former Wall Street executive at the now-defunct Kidder, Peabody, and Co., and then Japanese bank Nomura, was ready to cash out, putting the land under contract with a high-end luxury hotel developer.

Chapman then sought even higher density zoning for the buyer using the cabins as leverage, preserving one small cabin onsite and mandating the hotel developer move two others offsite, instead of outright razing. A notice for a planning meeting on September 6, 2018 was posted, serving required public notice. Development-weary locals were both mortified and depressed. The Teton County Historic Preservation Board, which has only advisory powers, supported the deal at first believing it the only way to save some of the cabins.

Widely considered a shame to lose lovely green spaces and little buildings that connected the present to the past, widespread grumblings also focused on over-tourism pressures. Most locals voiced that they didn’t need more hotels, more cars jamming the small-town streets, more majority low-wage service jobs that can’t pay a living wage in a town like Jackson. Destroying a cherished and unique cultural asset for yet another hotel was a profoundly unpopular idea. But legally it could and was, in fact, happening.

Local resident Ryan Nourai was not impressed. He attended the September 6 meeting and found 50-60 people, most speaking in opposition of the zoning change. “I thought we should not be entertaining this kind of offer from a private entity. This is a bad deal,” said Nourai, who works for the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, a wildlife and community advocacy nonprofit. Nourai did some digging on his own time and found a number of influential people in the community who would support a plan for a community buyout, an idea others scoffed at as hopeless.

Historic downtown Jackson block that was once threatened by developers is now a permanent entity. Photo courtesy of Jackson Hole Historical Society
The Harry G. Weston home in 1958 and 2019. Photo by David Swift

Undaunted, Nourai, along with participants in the annual JHCA fellowship program known as the Conservation Leadership Institute, worked to publicize the issue. Local opposition to the zoning change began to swell and the Historic Preservation Board, heartened that a better deal might be reached, pulled its support for the upzone-for- cabin trade. With success unlikely, Chapman’s people pulled the zoning application and by early 2019 the contract with the hotel expired, officially killing the sale. Nourai and his team had effectively stopped the transaction by stopping the rezone.

With the big picture in mind from the get-go, a determined Nourai, the CLI students and community members had already reached out to other nonprofits more suited to running a large-scale fundraiser in order to buy and preserve the land. Best suited to the task was the Jackson Hole Land Trust, with a mission to protect open space, wildlife habitat and community spaces. “The CLI identified this priority, put the word out about the sale contract, attended meetings, got media coverage, and really put it on the community radar,” said Jenny Wolfrom, director of advancement at the Land Trust.

“There is no doubt community uproar can chill a sale, and developers may choose not to touch a property with that kind of public attention. It certainly opened up doors for the community to propose a different outcome,” said Robbin Levy Mommsen, a real estate attorney who became involved with the next transaction, the community buyout idea.

But the campaign still needed a deep-pocketed sponsor willing to take the risk and enter into a legal contract for the reported $25 million sale price. Laurie Andrews, president of the Land Trust, met with an anonymous local family with a vested interest in the community who was willing to put the land under contract for six months and front the money on behalf of the community if needed. Under a complicated legal plan, the involved parties announced the community needed to chip in $8 million to pay for the conservation easement. The seller, Chapman, wanted to close earlier, meaning the community would need to raise $8 million dollars in under four months.

In mid-April the new plan was announced to the public. In an editorial letter published in the Jackson Hole News & Guide, the directors of the Land Trust, JHCA, the Historic Society and the Historic Board informed the community the time had come to step up for their values. They wrote, in part: At a time when many locals feel that the growth of tourism is suffocating the things we love most about town, the block is a refreshing reminder of why so many of us choose to live here. When a dense hotel development was imminent last fall, our community united in opposition to the plan and articulated a desire to see the cultural landscape of the block remain intact. Strong in spirit, that initial effort lacked a mechanism for permanent preservation. Thanks to the community’s action, now we have that mechanism.

Jenny Wolfrom, Director of Advancement at the Jackson Hole Land Trust. Photo by David Swift
Ryan Nourai, of the Jackson Hole Conservation Alliance, a wildlife and community advocacy nonprofit. Photo courtesy of Orijin Media

The project partners have developed a plan that reflects the priorities outlined by the community and preserves the cherished aspects of the block with limited development that makes the plan economically feasible. As a community we must all step up—now—to save the block as we know it today.

It was a lot of money to raise, and in a short timeframe. The Land Trust was concerned, but pressed forward and on the first day of the fundraiser, a donor told the nonprofit if they could get 100 individual donations that day, he would chip in $100,000. “He didn’t care how much was raised, he just wanted to see if the community would show up for this,” said Wolfrom. “And they did. We got 355 donations on the first day, and raised $240,000.”

It set the tone for the entire campaign. Another big donor challenged the community to give 1,000 donations of any size by the end of May, and he would put in $1 million. Nicknamed Million Dollar May, the community again showed up. “It really made people feel even if they only could give $5 they were having an impact, and it was really important to offset the idea that, if we need to raise millions, my $10 won’t help. All donors and every dollar really did count, said Wolfrom, “from ski lift ops to billionaires.”

Charming stories of children with change jars, tourists donating and raft guides bringing all their own tips to the fund proliferated. According to Robbin Levy Mommsen, who became the attorney for the anonymous family who actually purchased the land, that effort was monumental. “[It] demonstrates broad community commitment to the bigger donors, which motivates them to contribute significantly. [The project] was so weighty, so complicated and so important to so many people. It was the most complex project I’ve worked on in my 22-year legal career.”

After Million Dollar May, the next challenge was to raise $4 million over the month of June—by July 4, the goal was met. With one month to go and confidence at an all time high, even the seller joined the effort, cutting the community a break by knocking $1 million from the price. So with over $7 million raised via nearly 6,000 donations, the deal was sealed, the land was bought and the community had saved the block. “The beautiful story is how the community rose to do something about it,” Wolfrom said, a sentiment echoed by Skye Shell, executive director of the JHCA.

“This is a really inspiring, hopeful precedent,” he said. “It shows a community can say no and step up and demand something better.”

Brigid Mander is a writer based in Jackson, Wyoming. Among her top priorities, skiing has taken her around the world including into creaky-floored Wyoming pioneer cabins serving excellent modern coffees, such as can be found on Jackson’s Cafe Genevieve block.