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Photo credit: Kristie Wolfe

New West Daily Roundup for June 21, 2016

Today in New West news: Hobbit Hole in eastern Washington, Wyoming Gov. weighs in on wind tax, what Boise can learn from Denver’s transit system, and an update on Chipotle.

No matter whether you’re looking at the Old West or the New West, there is one constant in each: the region’s bevy of mountain ranges. In fact, “mountainous” is just about synonymous with “western,” and the West’s mountains have inspired countless individuals, from writers to builders to people looking to live plainly. Every New West state has mountains to make their neighbors green with envy, though there’s plenty of range to go around.

Indeed, the mountains of Idaho and Washington were one part of the inspiration behind Boise-based tiny-house entrepreneur Kristie Wolfe’s latest project, which has been consistently popular through Airbnb. The other half of Wolfe’s inspiration? Tolkein.

According to the Idaho Statesman, Wolfe (who has been building tiny homes for several years) has hit upon a new concept that combines small living with high fantasy. This spring, Wolfe opened her first Hobbit Hole, a 288 square foot hut built into a hillside in Eastern Washington overlooking the Columbia River. Renters can live just like hobbits—albeit hobbits with running water and off-the-grid solar power. From the Statesman:

Wolfe is 33, “the same age that hobbits come of age,” she notes.

Though she likes the Tolkien stories, it was her two brothers who were obsessed with the Lord of the Rings. That has come in handy “whenever I need to fact-check something,” she says.

Wolfe signed on with HGTV last fall to construct her hobbit hole as a pilot for a reality TV series. The show was not picked up. But the hobbit hole was a success. “This one is permitted — Douglas County was awesome and worked with us,” she says.

Wolfe had done everything herself, with her mother’s help, on her previous two tiny-house builds, but she hired excavators and other experts to help create the hobbit hole. Construction was completed last fall, but the utilities weren’t hooked up; over the winter, the house was surrounded by up to 5 feet of snow, yet it stayed snug and dry inside. That was “a good test,” Wolfe says.

Like her other two tiny houses, the hobbit hole did not include a kitchen. Guests either bring a cooler and camp stove for their meals or head out to eat in Chelan, about 20 minutes away.
But Wolfe is planning a communal, pub-style kitchen for the “Hobbit Inn” village she plans. It will have two other hobbit-hole getaways.

The newly opened one is themed as if a hobbit woodworker lived there. The second will be more feminine and themed for a beekeeper, complete with hives. The third will be the hobbit hole of an adventurer, filled with books and maps. Each will comfortably accommodate a couple.

Over in the Cowboy State, according to the Wyoming Business Report, Governor Matt Mead, speaking to the state Legislature’s Joint Revenue Interim Committee, expressed concern at a potential raise of the state’s wind-generation tax. The Legislature wants to raise the tax to scrounge together more revenue for the year, which has been repeatedly threatened by falling mineral prices and multiple bankruptcies from some of the largest mining companies operating in the Cowboy State. From the Report:

“I supported, several years ago, an increase in the fuel tax of 10 cents. We have been so fortunate in this state because of minerals that we pay incredibly low taxes, but we now have lower mineral prices and are scrambling to see where we can get additional revenue,” Mead told the Daily Times.

“Fuel tax is one thing. It’s sort of a user fee,” he said. “But when you go to increasing taxes on minerals or on wind, we have to be very careful.”

The genesis of the move to raise wind-generation tax came during the committee’s May meeting when staff was directed to draft two bills that would increase taxes on wind.

One bill would seek to increase the current tax of $1 per megawatt hour of wind produced in Wyoming, with the second bill requiring wind companies to provide a portion of the federal Production Tax Credits they receive. Some reports have set this amount at perhaps as much as $12 per megawatt hour.

If passed, such an increase may put the Power Company of Wyoming’s (PCW) 1,000-turbine Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project (CCSM) project in jeopardy.

Though the committee would decide on the exact amount of the increases at a later date, all of the uncertainty, at best, may delay the start of construction on CCSM until 2017; and at worse, force PCW to abandon its $5 billion wind project.

Over in Boise, we previously reported on the city’s debate over whether to go with a bus system or a train system for downtown—over whether to save in the short-term (bus) or try for long-term yields (train). According to the Idaho Statesman, one solution could come from looking at Denver’s Regional Transportation District. We previously reported the RTD had started a new train line between downtown and Denver International Airport, to the evident delight of Denver Mayor Michael Hancock. Indeed, Idaho Statesman Editorial Page Editor Bob Ehlert pointed out additional costs (both time and money) to bus travel, which may nudge favor toward a train system. From the Statesman:

To examine what may lie ahead for Idaho’s public transit system, let’s look east. Denver’s Regional Transportation District Adopted Budget 2016 is a fascinating read for those interested in this topic and willing to digest a 250-page award-winning report. RTD’s vision is to deliver regional, multimodal transportation and infrastructure that increases transit market share “significantly and continually.”

RTD drew a line around the greater Denver area to create a transportation district, with an elected citizen representative from each zone. The district has taxing authority that includes user fees and sales taxes. Federal grants, rider fares and advertising revenue provide additional income. Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights, or TABOR, prohibits the district from incurring unfunded fiscal obligations without prior voter approval.

The RTD system is multimodal and includes buses, light rail, commuter rail, Americans with Disabilities Act access and vanpools. Connectivity, accessibility and convenience are essential elements of its success. The logistics challenge is enormous: Serve 3 million people and cover 2,349 square miles. RTD employs 2,600 workers, but a shortage of heavy-construction commercial contractors did limit infrastructure expansion in 2015.

Public transit is not cheap: RTD’s annual operating budget is $635 million. Interest expense, debt payments and new capital improvements add up to a capital budget of $1.6 billion. Public bonded debt is a large part of the capital structure, and many bonds were approved by a judge, not voters.

Despite slightly flagging ridership (and opposition from “car-friendly think tanks like the Cato Institute”), RTD could provide a model for the rest of the nation—especially as they contemplate daily rush hour.

Finally, over in Colorado, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. has had a dismal six months, and the latest news from the Denver Business Journal only cements it:

After enduring a 2015 replete with reports of food-borne illnesses at its restaurants, Chipotle Mexican Grill Inc. plummeted in a new consumer satisfaction report.

In the latest report released Monday by the American Customer Satisfaction Index (ACSI), Denver-based Chipotle (NYSE: CMG) fell 6 percent in customer satisfaction, the biggest drop in the “limited services restaurant” category.

“Quality issues can be challenging, particularly for food service companies, which could elongate Chipotle’s recovery time,” according to the ACSI report.

“Higher quality drives the improving scores for the industry, but quality issues relating to food-borne illnesses knock down Chipotle,” says ACSI Managing Director David VanAmburg, in a statement.

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