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Soldier's Idaho hometown accustomed to attention

Published: Thursday, June 5, 2014 4:00 p.m. CDT
A sign celebrating the release from captivity of Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl stands on a street in the soldier's hometown of Hailey, Idaho, Wednesday, June 4, 2014. The exchange for five Taliban detainees from Guantanamo and the still-murky circumstances of how Bergdahl came to be captured nearly five years ago have prompted a fierce debate in Washington and across the country. (AP Photo/Brian Skoloff)

HAILEY, Idaho (AP) — Bowe Bergdahl's hometown is accustomed to celebrity and the attention it brings.

Singer-songwriter Carole King owns a ranch nearby. Bruce Willis has been trying to sell his 20-acre Hailey estate for years. Ernest Hemingway shot himself to death in neighboring Ketchum, and his granddaughter, Mariel Hemingway, is a local.

But the release of the American soldier in a prisoner swap with the Taliban has drawn a less savory form of attention, surprising some townspeople who are more used to entertaining happy tourists than being part of a national debate. The community canceled a planned welcome-home celebration rather than become ground zero for criticism of the deal that freed its native son.

"I think so many people have come into this area where they can just lead with their heart," said Sue Martin, owner of Zaney's Coffee Shop, who described Hailey as the sort of place where locals care about each other.

Martin said she has closed her coffee shop for nearly a week to serve as a spokeswoman for the Bergdahl family. She said she's losing money, but she felt it was her duty.

"This is the right thing to do, and that's just what we do around here," Martin said Thursday.

She said her customers have told her, "You're doing the right thing, Sue. We'll be back."

A day earlier, Martin and other organizers decided because of security concerns to call off the party celebrating Berdgahl's expected return home from five years in Taliban captivity. The town has been flooded with an influx of hate mail and angry phone calls from people who believed the planned celebration condoned Bergdahl's actions.

"We're a diverse culture here, but we all come together: weather, fires, personal tragedies, people in this town and in this valley are there for each other," Martin said.

Like many resort towns in the picturesque region between the Rockies and the Cascade Mountains, Hailey is somewhat insulated from the rest of the state.

Blaine County's high property values and cost of living make it difficult for low- and middle-income families to afford homes, and the wealthy second-home owners are often gone for half the year or more. The county's median family income is $74,000 — about $30,000 more than the statewide average.

The region is also one of the few Democratic strongholds in vastly Republican Idaho. Still, most Hailey residents consider themselves more like working-class country mice compared to Ketchum's rich-and-famous city types.

Lee Ann Ferris, Bergdahl's neighbor in Hailey and a longtime resident, said "it's just a real small town" that welcomes newcomers attracted by the scenery.

"We're all accepting of new people," Ferris said.

The town boasts an annual sheep-herding festival that usually draws about 19,000 visitors over a four-day weekend each fall. Residents mark the Fourth of July with the Days of the Old West Rodeo. The ebb and flow of the tourism seasons gives locals plenty of breathing room because the population shrinks each spring and fall.

"Somebody once referred to Hailey as a village," Martin recalled. "Then he corrected himself and called it a town. And I said, 'No, no, no. Village captures it much better.'"

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