SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. - When an extortionist's bomb ripped through Harveys Resort & Casino in 1980, the company found opportunity in the tragedy and rebuilt Tahoe's first high-rise to match the glitter of its newer neighbors on the South Shore.
But no matter how much the gild was burnished on the Nevada side of the state line, the luster remained tarnished on the California side. Just a block away from the modern hotels, South Lake Tahoe quickly gave way to a succession of souvenir stands, fast food joints and dilapidated 1950s-era motels.
Where it wasn't just tacky, South Lake Tahoe was downright seedy.
''There was a definite acknowledgment in the community that we had a deteriorating tourism product,'' former City Manager Kerry Miller said.
It took less than two years to fix Harveys. Two decades later, South Lake Tahoe is finally getting somewhere.
Within five years of the Harveys makeover, the casinos, Heavenly Ski Resort, local governments, environmental groups and other business and civic leaders began planning the reinvention of the south shore.
''The underlying concept was to develop and create for South Lake Tahoe a worldwide image as a premiere resort destination - a unique product that people couldn't find anywhere else,'' Miller told the Tahoe Daily Tribune.
By this summer, backhoes had leveled most of South Lake Tahoe's old image and the new was emerging as the $250 million Park Avenue Redevelopment project. Its centerpiece - the $20 million Heavenly gondola - will be dedicated on the first day of winter, Dec. 21.
It will link more than 5,000 hotel rooms to the ski resort's upper Nevada side 2,875 feet up the mountain in a 12-minute ride. Its length and capacity - 138 eight-passenger cars - make it California's largest.
''It's another step of redevelopment which the area needs,'' said longtime Harrah's Lake Tahoe spokesman John Packer. ''It'll really makes South Lake Tahoe more of a skiing town where you don't have to drive some great distance.
''It's a huge convenience for skiers. They don't have to park and get a lift ticket. The ski lift comes to them.''
The next step in the Park Avenue project will be to surround the gondola's base with a European-style pedestrian village, featuring two chalet-inspired resorts, an ice rink, a theater complex, a parking garage and a shopping mall.
Additional plans foresee a convention center, hotels, shops, restaurants and an art center. An artificial lake will be a scaled-down model of its famous neighbor. Improved mass transit and possibly a monorail lie further down the road.
The area's two natural attractions - the lake and the mountains - dictated caution in planing each step of the project.
After lengthy - and often rancorous - negotiations, parties as diverse as developers, contractors, the League to Save Lake Tahoe and the Tahoe Regional Protection Agency all signed off on a compromise master plan.
The accord that's being seen as a model for similar developments elsewhere, particularly at ski areas, requires catch basins to store rain and snowmelt runoff from paved areas before the water reaches the lake. Landscaping will take the place of some concrete and buildings to be removed.
The gondola's concrete support beams were dug and placed by hand to keep machinery off the fragile mountainside. Trucks that carried supplies ran on temporary roads, which will be returned to their natural state.
''If we had all gotten together and added it up, we probably would not have done it,'' said Dennis Harmon, Heavenly's managing director.
As another part of the deal, the new condos and hotels will result in a reduction in the number of places to stay at the lake. For every new bed added, 1.3 must be removed.
A glut of rooms was blamed for part of the area's decline as the cheap mom-and-pop operations cut rates to lure customers then couldn't afford even basic maintenance, much less improvements.
While the more upscale digs will discourage the souvenir store crowd, their numbers will be replaced by fewer but better-heeled tourists, according to John Wagnon, vice president of marketing at Heavenly.
''I don't think those less expensive rooms are going to be replaced by anyone else so they're pretty much going away,'' he said. ''The entire community is going to take a little bit of an uptick in terms of the clientele.''
And while greater affluence meshes with the financial goals of South Lake Tahoe's rebirth, Wagnon said fewer visitors will ease the impact on the fragile ecology.
''That's basically how the economic model works with the environmental model,'' he said.
While Heavenly is the only ski resort at the South Shore, the area an hour from Reno's airport is a starting point for wintertime skiers headed out to nearby resorts and looking to return to some apres-ski activities, particularly on the Nevada side.
''Over the last 15 years, I think we've really changed the image of Lake Tahoe in the minds of consumers all throughout North America and in Europe,'' Wagnon said, putting the former city manager's vision of the future into present tense.
''The results are starting to really show. We are a world class destination in pretty much every sense of the word.''
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