How Green Is My Valley

Borrowed from the internet; the building extends well to the north (left) of this.

The rumors, sadly, are true: True Value Hardware is closing its doors, sometime between December and February. It’s not, surprisingly, for a lack of sales, but because the owners have sold the real estate to someone who is not interested in continuing the hardware store.

We have two hardware stores in town — well, had, soon enough — one of which is busy all the time and appears to employ half of Gunnison. The other is rarely busy and yesterday had two employees visibly on duty (perhaps more in the back, although at one point I believe the entire staff consisted of the two owners and Kim Eastman).

Kim was at work yesterday, because she’s always at work, and always cheerful, even when the news isn’t good. First the news that wasn’t good was relatively minor: they had no filter for my refrigerator. The next not-good news was that she couldn’t order one for me because the store is closing.

I had heard this rumor, but then it morphed into a rumor that the building had sold. Since the building itself is immense and houses not only the hardware store but an internet company and Sears, with another internet/TV company in an adjacent building under the same ownership, and the owners had been trying to sell each unit as an individual component, that made sense.

But Kim clarified: yes, the entire building sold, but the new owner wasn’t interested in the hardware store and the owners, Mike and Becky Darnell, want to retire and move to Texas to lend a hand to their single-mom daughter. Since the Darnells also own Sears, it’s likely that’s going away as well.

In the meantime, the purchaser appears to be Gunnison Valley’s mysterious new owner, Mark Walter, billionaire majority partner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and part-time (probably very part-time) resident of the Crested Butte area for at least a few years.

If people knew Mr. Walter maintained a residence in or near Crested Butte, no one said as much. It’s not like the old days, when everyone liked to point out that actor James MacArthur (son of Helen Hayes, who also always seemed to be part of the conversation) had a house here and could be spotted even down in Gunnison at the Steaming Bean. I personally never had a spotting outside televised viewings of Hawaii Five-O, but since people I knew had seen him, the possibility existed.

Anymore, it doesn’t matter who the celebrity might be, no matter how famous: I could wait on them at Pat’s and never realize it. There was a camera crew filming around the airport one winter when I was working there, and when I asked my boss what was going on, he said they were filming “the hills,” which I took to mean the base of W Mountain, for whatever reason. I had to go back to Pat’s to learn that The Hills was the name of a show featuring a woman who had grown up in Crested Butte.

So celebrity is wasted on me these days, probably especially in the sports realm, and since owners are rarely the celebrities, Mr. Walter could probably walk right past all of us and never be noticed.

But his was the biggest name in Crested Butte earlier this year, when he suddenly, without public explanation, went on a buying spree. Through agents and a real estate intermediary, none of whom are talking, he bought six or seven businesses, not a one of which I can recall for you right now.

Except for the one he bought outside of Crested Butte, the Almont Resort. One of Lynn’s postal patrons is the owner of that long-lived establishment, another person looking toward retirement. He told Lynn he was going to continue running the Almont for a year, which is the extent we know of the resort’s future.

Now that we’re half a year down the road, no overt changes appear to have made to any of the other businesses in Crested Butte, whichever ones they were, so Mr. Walter’s motive remains mysterious.

My original assumption, based on my extensively limited knowledge of the man, was that maybe he was just trying to lend a hand to a community he feels great affection toward. But then I thought, if this is all about altruism, why wasn’t one of his purchases the movie theatre?

The theatre closed down during the pandemic with this on its marquee: “You stay classy, CB.” The sentiment is still written there, but too many months of back rent caused the theatre owners, who didn’t own the building, to give up their enterprise. Their employees, the Children of the Popcorn, tried a fund-raiser to come up with the $3.3 million the owner wanted.

[It seems to me, a novice in the field, admittedly, that the owner might have been better off forgiving a few months of lost rent, rent that maybe could have been restored eventually with federal assistance, than to let the building sit idle these many months later. But what do I know?]

If you’re a billionaire scooping up local real estate with no plan to change the place, why not do a real community service and drop what amounts to pocket change on the movie theatre? Now the closest theatres are in Lake City and Montrose.

Which then causes me to wonder, what if these aren’t altruistic purchases? And how worried should we be that the Securities and Exchange Commission spent a year looking into “controversial real estate deals” by Mr. Walter? (No penalty was issued.)

A billion, which as my friend Matt likes to point out is a thousand stacks of one million, goes a long way around here, where most of us would be more comfortable phrasing things in stacks of $100. Mr. Walter, slotted in at #204 on Forbes rich-people list despite his fortune being downgraded by $1 million to only $5.2 billion (as of today, in case you’d like to track your billionaires in real time), may be Crested Butte’s first billionaire.

He may not — heck, I never even saw James MacArthur at the Steaming Bean, so don’t expect me to know — but it seems reasonably clear that he is our first real estate fancier in this realm. And yes, I said “first,” as in: he may not be the last.

Russ, who grew up down the street from me and who has lived in Almont for many years now, pointed out that several of the upvalley people getting uptight about these en-masse purchases did this same thing but only on a smaller scale: they bought up chunks of Crested Butte when you could do so as a thousandaire.

But a billion feels a lot bigger, and as Mr. Walter — reputedly — extends his reach down to Gunnison, buying up a large building without any interest in at least two of the businesses (no word on what might happen to the two internet companies, or even if the adjacent building was included in the purchase) that occupy hardware-sized spaces, it starts to feel like a throwback to the days of Colorado Fuel and Iron, which employed darn near everyone in Crested Butte and owned their shops and housing as well.

Six or seven businesses in Crested Butte, plus one in Almont and now, perhaps, what might be the largest building in Gunnison, is a far cry yet from turning us into a company town, but since Mr. Walter’s not talking and still apparently buying, we don’t know how far a billion –or at least one billionaire — might take us.

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