Pam Boyd

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February 6, 2013
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Sticker shock on Eagle River Center upgrade

The estimated cost for a large expansion at the Eagle River Center has doubled as the firm tasked with presenting a conceptual site plan presented its findings to the Eagle County Commissioners this week

Architect Todd Gralla from Populous, the firm hired by the county to complete the conceptual work, presented his design to the commissioners on Monday. The Populous estimate figures the entire project will cost $11.5 million, but that it can be divided into two phases. Phase I would cost an estimated $7 million while the second phase would come in at around $4 million.

Gralla noted that Phase I includes a new barn building located south of the existing Eagle River Center. The new structure would include 210 horse stalls.

"This would accommodate what our average users tell us they need to host multi-day equestrian events," Gralla said.

The first phase would also reconfigure parking and vehicle entrances at the center site and provide RV parking on the southern side of the bench when the buildings would be located. An outdoor warm-up arena would be constructed on the west side of the building and the Eagle River Center entrance, kitchen and restrooms would be relocated to the east end of the building.

Phase II of the plan would include enclosing the warm-up area. "It is, essentially, an extension to the west of the existing Eagle River Center," said Gralla.

He noted that the concept plan includes architecture mirroring the existing Eagle River Center with masonry walls and a metal roof. But cutting back to an all-metal building, Gralla said the county could trim costs of Phase I from $7 million to $5.7 million.

"I am not surprised by sticker shock any more. That's what happens when you take things to the next level," said Commissioner Jon Stavney when the $7 million price was presented.

However, Stavney noted that it is a big cost jump from the original estimates in the $3 million to $4 million range. Because of the increased costs, Stavney noted that if the county were to proceed, it would likely have to limit the project to the Phase I proposal. "When you look at Phase I ... How much is our highest level of programming diminished?"

Gralla noted that the need for 200 horse stalls is the primary improvement required to convert the facility into an equestrian center for multi-day events. "That was the primary focus that everyone told us was necessary. They liked and appreciated the arena. The problem is they can't use it for more than one-day events."

The move to multi-day equestrian events has been the focus of the Eagle River Center expansion proposal since it was launched back in May 2011. The expansion plan reflects the county's programming concerns for the facility. The commissioners asked staff to review the facility's operations with an eye toward maximizing use and identifying new programs that would help close the gap in its operating cost recovery.

During the Tuesday meeting, Jan Miller of Eagle County Buildings and Grounds noted that on average, over the past three years, the county has only recovered approximately 37 percent of the costs associated with operating the Eagle River Center. Even with the expansion, the center itself is expected to operate at a loss. However, the county believes it would offset those loses by attracting more visitors to the area who will then boost sales tax collections.

"It would not take money from the existing conventions that might be in Vail or Beaver Creek. This is new money, new visitors," said Tom Hyatt, Eagle County controller.

For the potential financial impact of the center, the county has cited a study by the American Quarter Horse Association estimating the economic impact of an average size, two-day horse show to be around $189,000. That figure includes money spent by participants on hotels and meals and assorted needs. It does not include numbers from possible horse show attendees. By applying that model to the Eagle River Center, the county staff noted the total impact of the center expansion could reach as high at $178 million by 2020.

When faced with the higher cost construction estimates, the county commissioners did not dismiss the expansion out of hand. But they noted it will take more consideration and study before they are willing to proceed.

"This wouldn't be a revenue maker for the county, but an economic development project for the community," said Commissioner Jill Ryan. "It's a big chunk of change and I really want to make sure it is worth the investment."

Ryan suggested bringing in representatives from the Vail Valley Partnership to examine the plan and offer suggestions.

Stavney noted that the county may have to spend additional money to complete an in-depth study of the equestrian show market to make sure the center plan is solid. He noted that a $7 million investment from the county's capital improvement fund would represent a major commitment and officials would have to be very confident that the money would be well spent before proceeding.

Commissioner Sara Fisher said it may be a good idea to re-examine all the planning that has gone into the entire fairgrounds property.

"What we are trying to figure out is how we are going to stop losing money there, more than anything," she said.

With the construction cost estimate completed, the commissioners instructed staff to compile additional information from various equestrian groups, explore possible fund-raising options for the center and examine the impact the project would have to the county's capital improvements budget. The commissioners have a capital improvements fund budget work session planned Feb. 19 and a strategic planning session slated for Feb. 26 and they noted the Eagle River Center discussion will be a central topic for both.

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The VailDaily Updated Feb 6, 2013 01:48PM Published Feb 6, 2013 01:46PM Copyright 2013 The VailDaily. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.