Vail’s Cultural Heritage Committee gains recognition for preserving town’s legacy
The new committee is preserving the tangible and intangible artifacts of Vail’s past, earning praise from the Global Sustainable Tourism Network
October is American Archives Month, which makes this the perfect time to celebrate the success of Vail’s recently established Cultural Heritage Committee, a team of locals working to preserve and sustain the cultural and historical legacy of Vail.
Vail is a young town, having only celebrated its 50th birthday in 2016, but in just a few decades it has shaped a distinct culture and identity that residents and visitors alike can recognize and connect with. Vail’s present thriving environment is built on the vision and effort of the pioneering men and women who called this place home before us, and the Cultural Heritage Committee has been established to strategically preserve the cultural artifacts and histories that have made Vail what it is today.
The motivation to form a committee dedicated to cultural heritage started in 2017, when Vail first applied to be certified as an official Sustainable Destination by the Global Sustainable Tourism Network. The word “sustainability” is often exclusively associated with environmental objectives, but the criteria that the Global Sustainable Tourism Network uses embodies a much more comprehensive interpretation of the word.
Beth Markham is the Environmental Sustainability Coordinator for the Town of Vail, and she explained that going green is only one piece of the puzzle.
“Sustainability is the intersection of economics, environment and society,” Markham said. “That whole idea of cultural heritage – it’s the identity of a destination. It helps to create the environment and culture that draws people in to live here, and draws tourists and visitors in to experience it. So when we think about sustainable destinations and sustainable tourism, those really are intertwined.”
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During the 2017 certification audit, Vail was conditionally accepted as a Sustainable Destination for the first time. It had received approval on nearly all criteria, even going above and beyond environmentally to create a new Mountain IDEAL Standard in collaboration with Walking Mountains Science Center to better account for the unique energy and resource needs of a mountain town. But they came up short on a critical component – there was no system in place for protecting and celebrating the town’s cultural heritage.
“They have specific criteria that has to do with how a destination protects their culture, educates about their cultural heritage, and how it protects artifacts, both tangible – like items you might find in the Colorado Snowsports Museum – or intangible, like the stories of our founders that we’re capturing in oral histories,” Markham said. “So they said we’re going to certify you, but you have to show what you’re doing to improve on this.”
In a “Good Practice Story” that was submitted to the Global Sustainable Tourism Network last year, Markham summarized the significance of this missing criteria.
“There is limited awareness surrounding Vail’s history, especially the pre-ski history of the area, by most residents and visitors,” Markham wrote. “Few are aware of the historic significance of some buildings, while others do not know that environmental stewardship was written into the initial town charter to protect the natural beauty and resources that surround Vail.”
Celebrating two years of cultural heritage projects
In response to this need, the Cultural Heritage Committee began meeting monthly, starting in August of 2019, to develop a comprehensive strategy for preserving, enriching and sustaining Vail’s cultural heritage. The committee is comprised of 14 members who work for various culture-related organizations throughout Vail – including the public library, Art in Public Places and the Colorado Snowports Museum – as well as the representatives of numerous Town of Vail departments like sustainability, town planning, communications and others.
Patty McKenny is the Assistant Town Manager of Vail, and she said it has been easy to form the committee because all of the members care so deeply about the mission.
“We as employees just stepped up because we feel very strongly about Vail, and know how important it is to preserve,” McKenny said. “It wasn’t like I had to go pick people, I had people stepping up because they all already had a little piece of it within them. That’s where you get buy-in and ownership – it’s those who care the most, and there’s no doubt that the sustainable destination program set it in motion for us to do this.”
In the two years since its founding, the committee has identified five key areas of focus – Art and Cultural Heritage, Archival Development, History and Legacy, Natural Landscapes, and Community and Local Government – and has been developing programming to support each one.
Some notable projects include the Vail Trail Digitization project – the digitization and storage of the first newspaper in Vail – which was in print from 1965 to 2003. So far, the newspaper from the years 1965-1973 has been digitized and can now be viewed in the online catalog of the Vail Public Library, and the years 1973-1981 are being digitized and stored this year.
The Vail Valley Voices project has recorded 44 oral histories of Vail pioneers and influencers to date. Art in Public Places has worked with the committee to complete thorough identification and documentation of Vail’s public art collection, which is now available online alongside a virtual interactive map.
The committee supported the 50th anniversary celebration of the Summervail Art Workshop, and is working to secure funding and strategies for preserving the archival items currently held by workshop founder Randy Milhoan. They are also developing standards for identifying historical buildings in the village, and are designing signage to demarcate key examples of legacy or historic architecture.
A project that they are looking into for the future is a climate-controlled archival repository in the library to safely store physical artifacts and documents in a central location for generations to come. In addition to planning these projects, the committee is regularly working to identify new streams of funding to support its objectives.
Many of these programs were in motion before the Cultural Heritage Committee came into existence, but bringing them all under one umbrella organization gives added assurance that they will remain a priority moving forward.
“Departments were preserving history and heritage within their own department, so it wasn’t like we weren’t doing the work,” McKenny said. “The thing that’s really cool about it is that there are all these fascinating things about Vail throughout its history – people, places, programs – we didn’t really have an umbrella to put them under. And now, as things come up, we can put them under this umbrella and have a committee take it in and give it context.”
Re-certification is only the beginning
The work has paid off. During the Sustainable Destination re-certification process in 2020, the auditor was impressed with the advances that had been made following the development of the Cultural Heritage Committee, and Vail is now deemed fully compliant with the cultural heritage criteria.
This year, not only was Vail re-certified, but it made the Sustainable Top 100 Destinations of 2021 list, which was announced this past Tuesday. Each destination in the top 100 is asked to submit a “Good Practice Story”, and this year, Vail’s was all about the success of the Cultural Heritage Committee.
While attaining re-certification was the catalyst for the committee’s formation, achieving this goal is only the beginning. The Cultural Heritage Committee continues to meet monthly to support their existing programs and identify new opportunities to introduce Vail’s history to our current community and keep it preserved for generations to come.
“We want people coming to Vail who love Vail, who have a sense of place here, so that when they come they want to take care of it and protect it,” Markham said. “They have the same ownership of it that we residents do. Bringing people in is driving our economy, but we have to make sure that we’re protecting the natural assets and the cultural aspects that attract people here in the first place. We’re recognizing that all of this shaped our environment and all of this shaped our culture, and celebrating and educating about that.”
Community members who have project ideas or elements of Vail’s history that they feel should be commemorated may contact committee organizer Lori Ann Barnes at email@example.com.