Truckee: Bigger, but better?
January 12, 2006
Over the last century and a half Truckee has always had a heart ” an industry that also served as the town’s identity.
Whether an ice-exporting center, a railroad hub or a timber town, Truckee was easy to define.
But today, as in no point in its long history, Truckee is a hodgepodge, an amalgamation of industry, citizens and cultures. And slowly but surely, the town’s famously blue-collar heritage is fading to white.
For some holdovers from Truckee’s history of a single overriding blue-collar heritage, the changes are unwelcome. For others, the diversification is progress to be applauded and encouraged.
What’s clear is Truckee is no longer a rail hub nor timber town. It is part ski town, second-home haven, golf Mecca, construction-fueled burg and nonprofit center all rolled into one.
“I don’t think that it’s as interesting in the same way as it used to be,” said Steve Frisch, a longtime Truckee resident. “It’s more generic. But what city hasn’t changed?”
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For Sierra Nevada towns that earned their livelihood by harvesting the range’s natural resources, the changes in culture follow alterations in land use and economy. Railroad engineers and lumber mill managers have given way to telecommuters and second-home owners.
“It’s the story of the West,” Frisch said.
Breeze Cross, a third generation lumberman who owns Truckee Tahoe Lumber Company, has seen the changes in the stalwart Sierra industries of timber and rail transportation firsthand.
“The railroad is not a significant employer and the timber industry is almost gone,” said Cross, noting that the major employers now are government, construction and tourism. “It’s been interesting to see how the economy has evolved.”
The changes have not happened overnight. Perhaps the downtown Truckee lumber mill, which shuttered its doors in November of 1989, was the last piece of the old Truckee to go.
Since the lumber mill closed there have been plenty of blue-collar jobs that have sprung up, mostly in construction. But many of those are less of a cause and more of an effect. They are the product of an increased demand for luxury homes for the well-heeled looking to land in the Sierra Nevada part time or for retirement.
But despite its “progress,” Truckee does not shake its past. In fact, history is very much a part of the present in town.
The weekenders, skiers and tourists who travel downtown to peer through the windows of Commercial Row boutiques would likely have never made the trip to Truckee when it was a rail center or a mill town. But as they eat at an upscale restaurant or by a high-priced memento, they find Truckee’s hard-scrabble past endearing.
“That hard life has changed. It doesn’t exist the way it used to, but it is a part of the persona of the community,” Cross said. “That mystique gets promoted.”
Perhaps outsiders see it best. Some who come into town only occasionally, or happen into town the first time and size Truckee up by its renowned history, lay out the town’s contrasts in stark terms.
A recent Los Angeles Times travel piece on Truckee was headlined “A bit of Aspen in the California Sierra.”
The mountain burg once dominated by a hard-knuckle sawmill, is today a veritable vacation suburb of Silicon Valley, a place of huge second homes, golf courses and dolled-up downtown.
It’s enough to make Truckee locals ” who bristle at the mention of the “city of Truckee” ” cringe.
But the observations are true. The “Town of Truckee” has exploded into a behemoth among Sierra Nevada towns over the last decade and a half. Today the 34-square-mile town, listed at a population of 15,451 by the U.S. Census Bureau, is the second largest population center in the 400-mile-long mountain range behind South Lake Tahoe.
Pat Sutton, a 43-year resident of town and a Nevada County supervisor in the early 1980s, remembers Truckee’s growth in the 1970s that propelled Truckee into the second home market.
Fist the Glenshire subdivision and then the Tahoe Donner subdivision were approved, setting the stage for rapid growth and vacation-oriented homeownership, she said.
“Those were the two major developments that took place,” Sutton said. “The community started changing then because developments were publicized as being for second homeowners.”
While Sutton said she never considered Truckee a true blue-collar town ” since public agencies, hospitals and government employed many workers ” she does agree that the employment in town has shifted, and the community has felt the effects of growth.
During incorporation of the town in 1993, a decision that she opposed, Sutton recalls a strong emphasis on assuring Truckee was referred to as a town.
“There was a feeling among a lot of people here during incorporation that they didn’t want to be a city,” Sutton said.
But whether it has been growth, economic diversification or a new traffic feature, Sutton realizes that the town is always in flux.
“We were here when the first stop sign was put in Truckee and we thought that we were all going to die,” said Sutton. “We thought it was such a horrible thing.”
It may seem ironic that Truckee clings to the “town” moniker, while Sierra towns a fraction of its size have no problem being labeled a city. But Truckee has tried to retain the trappings of a small town community no matter how fast it grows, said Cross.
For Cross, Truckee’s town label has much more to do with its community than its size.
“I think there is a sense that the community wants to retain the small-town character and I think that is a focus of a lot of the debate that revolves around growth,” said Cross. “In my mind growth is an inevitability. The challenge is to retain that small town character.”
But for Frisch the town has lost something through its changes.
“I miss the funkiness of town,” Frisch said. “I miss the blue collar nature.”
To the blue-collar workers who feel they no longer fit into Truckee, Frisch empathizes: “The ground changed under your feet,” he said.
There is still a large number of blue-collar workers in town, but many of the jobs are often filled by workers that come and go, a transient population that often does not become a fixture in the community, Frisch said.
Truckee officials estimate that of the 6,000-plus jobs in Truckee, 930 are filled by truly seasonal workers.
Resort developer Roger Lessman, who oversees the Tahoe-area operations of East West Partners, has capitalized on the white-collar money willing to invest in the Truckee and Tahoe area. Once the largest landowner in Truckee before subdividing and selling high-end parcels in Old Greenwood and Gray’s Crossing, East West Partners has been responsible for large-scale, upscale changes in Truckee.
But the development company has also emphasized affordable housing, trail building, land donations and conservation funding in its developments. It’s a balance that has won them approval from many in the Truckee community.
“The development that we have ongoing in Truckee and Northstar is nothing new,” Lessman said. “All of that land we have bought has always been contemplated for development.”
With Truckee positioned on Interstate 80 just hours from the Bay Area and Sacramento, growth was certain, Lessman said. The key is to have development enhance, not break down, a community.
“Responsible development is OK and managed growth is OK,” Lessman said.
Cross agreed that responsible growth that retains Truckee’s essence is actually necessary to keep the town vibrant.
“That is the risk that we run in not growing and changing; it becomes exclusive rather than inclusive,” Cross said. “If it becomes exclusive that sense of community will die over time.”