Villain or erstwhile entrepreneur and developer?
The fans (and grousers) of Discovery’s Edge of Alaska are vocal about their feelings over Massachusetts’ native Neil Darish’s steady 15-year flip of the remote town of McCarthy, Alaska
Now in its last season, the series has become a tense showdown between homesteader Jeremy Keller and Darish, who came out west about 30 years ago, has previously lived off the grid and is now poised to make a tidy profit on his investments.
Darish has spent years buying properties in McCarthy and luring travel media to rate his refurbished ghost town, now prettified by 21st century standards.
In what was once the territory established by the Athabaskan native people who traded copper, Darish accomplished a great deal with two hotels, Ma Johnson’s Historic Hotel and Lancaster’s Hotel, one a traditional museum hotel, the other more like a luxury hostel, that service the tourists seeking entrance to the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve.
This is creating some havoc as Keller and some others are fearful the town’s ambiance and seclusion will be destroyed. Unquestionably, Darish has changed isolated McCarthy forever: he is selling off the entire town for a cool $3.7million.
Solitude or steady income? This is the township’s dilemma.
We spoke to Darish about this upcoming last season, which begins this Sunday, and what the cards have in store for him afterward.
Monsters and Critics: So you’ve done basically a very long 30-year flip, like a flip on a house except the house is the town. Is that correct or incorrect?
Neil Darish: When I first got here…my dad had a junkyard in Chelsea [Massachusetts]. It was a really bad part of town. It was loaded with used plumbing and heating supplies, so as a kid I got to tear out buildings that would be turned into condos.
That was kind of a new thing in the 1970s for the big post offices or other office buildings, and so he got all this old antique stuff along with used toilets and sinks.
I was always fascinated by the cool old stuff. They didn’t have [TV series] Antiques Roadshow as a kid, so [these items] didn’t have any reference for people.
But when I first got to McCarthy, there was this ghost town surrounded by spectacular wilderness, a super important part of Alaska that’s speaking to concepts like hardiness and self-reliance and all the things we like as Alaskans. It really tugged at me — all the old stuff there.
I already love travel, and I knew there were lots of cool places, but this place was different because it had that tug of the old stuff that had been abandoned for decades. When I started seriously acquiring property, you could tell that the place was getting a little bit more tattered and gray.
We knew that while there was a hotel, restaurant, and saloon, there really wasn’t a whole lot of stable infrastructure. All the buildings were in different ways disarrayed.
The electrical project started to just fix my own stuff, and it turned into ‘hey, you know, we can end up being a monopoly for the power in town’, and [before you know] we’re creating this grid so it’s easier for people to move here, or to at least create some viable enterprise during the on-season.
I think the show does a great job of people talking out the side of their head. They complain about all this change that I’m doing, and the fact is that they’re not complaining about what’s done…but about what might be.
And the story of development in the real world…people fear change or no change. I’m all about making the place better, not worse.
M&C: There were already established businesses when you got there?
Neil: There were six employees running those businesses doing everything they could — they got a lot of great joy, they had a great guest experience…but they couldn’t stabilize the business.
This place is so far away from anywhere, relative to other parts of Alaska. We aren’t along the shore, a seven-hour drive from Anchorage. So people have to want to come here.
If you walk into a travel agent in Boston and you want to book anywhere in the world, you don’t get a conversation where they talk about how you have to schlep your bag around.
I love Alaska because it’s a very real kind of tourism. Most travel agents wouldn’t necessarily book a lot of places here because it doesn’t have the level of what people expect. If you’re going to Alaska, you don’t need someone to schlep your bags.
I’m not trying to change that and make it what it’s not. My first goal was financially stabilizing the town, making it so that these businesses could actually sing, they could thrive. To stabilize a business you have to run it as a business.
If you go to TripAdvisor, I’ve got awards of excellence for the businesses that I have.
The reason for that is because of the staff [and] we’ve put into place things that work. They make it happen. That’s not what it was like when I started here in 2001, there were six people on staff. [Now] I’ve got 40 people.
When I had a store back in 2001, it was a shelf in a refrigerator with a half a dozen eggs and a couple of quarter sticks of butter, because some of the locals live here year ’round [and] they might need something.
Now it’s a completely different thing, it’s a store there for the summer-time visitors that are coming in. It’s infrastructure to allow for tourism to happen, there’s more people here and we have a lot more stuff, but it’s not like a Costco in Telluride or Sundance or something.
M&C: Are your employees anxietal that you’ve got the whole McCarthy chockablock for sale for $3.7million?
Neil: No, we are at the point now where I’m breaking things up further. The teams that run it — food and beverage, it’s accommodations, it’s retail — those three legs are very different kinds of businesses. Someone who wants to run a hotel probably doesn’t want to have a grocery store or run a bar and vice versa.
They are very different styles of businesses, with different leadership running them. They know that it was and is about stabilizing McCarthy. And it’s about the velocity of money, it really is.
When you think about how to keep a town stable, it’s how fast do employees get paid and how fast can they spend it somewhere else.
It’s creating the velocity of money so that people that are working here can have a stable life. How quickly does money change hands? And so the role of what I’m doing here is not to piss off my neighbors, that was just one of the things that happened.
People that are visiting here can have authentic experiences, and I don’t want to lose the authentic. That is my argument with Jeremy [Keller]. He doesn’t want to hear it. He just doesn’t want to see anything change. That’s for real.
People that are not seen on the show, on Jeremy’s side, who don’t want change, don’t care about the stability. You know they’re here, they don’t want anyone else here. I don’t share that view.
I’m here, I want other people to be here. I don’t want them to wreck it, and they’re not gonna. I can look at all these neighbors…and this town [has] been here for quite a while. There’s no denying there’s been change. But they can’t point to it and say ‘aw I wish this neighbor didn’t get here’ or ‘about those three people that arrived in two years ago’. Nobody’s trying to kick anyone out.
So, go figure. I don’t think I’m being hypocritical, I’m just gonna say it that way.
M&C: Your town is so small. Yet people have social needs, they need to have boyfriends and girlfriends and sexual outlet. People want to have a companion.
Neil: The funny thing about a remote place or small town is people want to change their life, they want to find their significant other or they want to find their definition of happiness or they want to develop something.
They want change in their life. Nobody wants to be stagnant, I wouldn’t think. Maybe [just] the unambitious. But in McCarthy, or any small town, probably more so than in a big town, it’s ‘[well] I’m here and I don’t want anyone else to be here.’
That’s what I hear a lot on TV when I watch the show. That’s not fair, That’s why I get upset about it, and I think, ‘wait a minute that’s just rude’. I hate that kind of comment. It’s wrong.
M&C: Are there children in McCarthy?
Neil: There’s a couple of families. Jenny just had a baby. Speaking of kids, I have to give Jeremy [Keller] this, you can’t see his kids and not recognize that he’s a fantastic parent. That surprises me about the show, I wouldn’t have known it if wasn’t for that show what a great a dad he is.
I don’t know how anyone could deny that when you see his kids. You can’t fake that. They really represent what a great dad he is. I may not agree with him on a lot of stuff, but I don’t mean to take that away from him.
When you ask about families…just watch kids that are homeschooled, in the middle of nowhere. You get kids that know the difference between fighting in the wrong way with their brother, and happy engagement. They know the difference between getting wood, [so that] they’ll stay warm or ignoring a problem. You know they can’t avoid it.
In Alaska, as a remote family, the kids learn. They can’t live in a fantasy world, they can’t just change the channel or go out for fast food. If they don’t get food ready or work with the parents to get food then they’re not gonna eat.
The conclusion for [some] people is that they don’t see great joy, they see that as a hardship. There’s no hardship in chopping wood, it’s actually a great chore.
When I moved to McCarthy, I was [actually] homesteading before McCarthy, I missed not chopping wood, but I had to give it up in order to be more productive.
I’m living in the valley where my neighbors are doing wood-stove stuff, and I used to live like that too and loved it. That’s when I finally realized, ‘okay I can’t retire, I need to go to McCarthy.’ My life is really different.
I respect people living off the grid, but in town…people want to live off the grid or live in the wilderness, great. But in this tiny town that we’re restoring and beefing up for tourism, we’re not doing things wrong and not destroying homesteading or family lives out here.
I think that only people afraid of what other people are doing, and don’t have any dialog, end up being afraid to live out here. There’s nobody that’s afraid to live out here — because we do talk, we do yell.
What’s also interesting, is even with the emotional dynamics involved and as close as people get to fisticuffs, that’s not really what happens out here. As mad as people are with each other, we don’t beat the crap out of each other. There’s a reason for that. We’re still in a small town and have to take care of [our] problems. There’s no 911 out here.
M&C: Are there any surprises or anything we need to know ahead of the fourth season?
Neil: Yes. Tim, and Mark, and Gary, and Jenny…that all of us are still here in McCarthy and they will see us in Season 4. I’m amazed that we have such a great fan-base. I’m hoping that people come out and visit.
We’ve had a lot of people come visit because of this show. It’s wonderful. I know some people are surprised, none of us thought that people would make it out here.
Discovery’s done a fantastic job of giving people a sense of what it’s like to be out here in the winter. I think people lose track that there’s a whole other half of the year. We are doing this winter stuff, but there’s also a summer-time that isn’t a part of the show.
M&C: The show’s wrapping up, you’ve got the town for sale, are you heading someplace warm?
Neil: No. I don’t want to talk too much about what’s my life gonna be, but I can promise you this, I’m never leaving McCarthy. McCarthy’s my life. I can’t keep doing the same things though. The purpose of moving on is moving on with projects. It doesn’t mean moving on from where I’m at.
I think what a shocker will be for a lot of people is that I want to just go back to homesteading.
Neil: We’re working on a couple projects that I can’t talk about because of the narrative in the show. But there are still a lot of big things for me in McCarthy.
But after this past year, I’ve kind of let leadership take a bigger role, this next summer leadership will become a bigger role. Who knows, maybe it will sell…but I’ve got a lot of projects I want to do, and one is that I want to build my cabin and go back to that life, [but] I haven’t decided if I’m going do that.
Right now I’m working towards making sure that as the pieces of this puzzle sell, or if the whole thing sells, that it’s stable. I’ve got to be able to walk down the street and feel good about what’s happened here, that’s where we’re at right now.
Everything’s about as far as I can take it. If somebody owns one of those things and they put their mind and heart into it, they’ll take it to the next level. But now it’s time to go do something else.
M&C: Any last thing you want to tell fans of the show to expect?
Neil: There’s a couple of big shockers this season that I think will come out of left-field. There are quite a few interesting things. None of our fans are gonna be disappointed, I promise!
Edge of Alaska begins this Sunday, October 8, at 10pm ET/PT on Discovery.