Are Vail’s economic recovery plans starting to bear fruit?

Expanding space into public rights of way has helped bring vibrancy to town, Vail chamber director says

Expanding seating at bars and restaurants to outdoor spaces, as seen here at the Big Bear Bistro in Vail Village, helps businesses serve more guests while maintaining social distancing.
Photo courtesy of Big Bear Bistro

When the state’s ski industry shut down after the lifts stopped running on March 14, the valley emptied in a matter of days.

Once-bustling resort areas turned quiet, and the town’s businesses were hit hard. Local officials have been working on economic recovery ideas almost since the day the lifts stopped running.

In Vail, the Town Council quickly approved a $500,000 relief fund. The idea was to distribute the money to nonprofit groups that were helping with rent and food relief, along with other needs.

Town officials have for a few weeks been talking about creating a rent relief fund for local businesses. The Vail Town Council could vote on such a plan as soon as its July 7 meeting.

Town Council members on June 16 talked about what that effort could look like.

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Helping mom and pop

Town economic development director Mia Vlaar told councilmembers that any program will include making sure businesses applying for relief are true “mom and pop” operations. Under the idea under development, the relief would come from both landlords and the town.

“I want to do this on an equitable need basis,” Councilmember Jenn Bruno said. “If you’ve seen a 20% drop (in business), your need isn’t as great as a 50% drop.

Councilmembers also talked about possible exceptions, particularly to the idea of helping businesses with only 35 full-time equivalent employees.

Mayor Dave Chapin, an owner of Vendetta’s restaurant in Vail Village, noted that a number of mom and pop businesses, particularly restaurants, have more than 35 full-time equivalent employees.

Vail Chamber & Business Association Director Alison Wadey sits on a number of town committees and task forces. She said that the idea behind the rent relief plan is to help businesses survive once federal and state aid expires, and get businesses through to the coming ski season.

Wadey said she’s been impressed with the steps taken by the town and its task forces, and the speed with which ideas have been turned into action.

“I’ve seen a collaboration with the small business community, the town and nonprofits as well that most days feels pretty seamless,” Vail Town Manager Scott Robson wrote in an email.

Wadey said she’s particularly impressed with the speed the town has allowed restaurants, bars and shops to expand their spaces out into town right of way in front of their storefronts. That expanded space is needed to bring in customers while still complying with social distancing requirements.

The town also now allows people to enjoy alcoholic drinks purchased from bars and restaurants in designated areas in the resort villages.

“The town looks amazing,” Wadey said. “We’ve created wonderful walk-through experiences.”

Wadey serves on a handful of local boards and commissions, and said “it’s been pretty amazing to see all the brainstorming.”

That brainstorming took a bit of time, though, given that there’s no real precedent for the virtual shutdown of the local economy caused by the COVID-19 virus.

While moving a lot of economic activity into the streets has been good, it’s also difficult to move buses along Meadow Drive.

Councilmember Kevin Foley suggested moving that particular bus route to avoid Meadow Drive, as is the case with the Vail Farmers Market.

Wadey thinks that could be a good idea, since people are used to the Sunday detours.

A temporary boost?

The expanded consumption zones are likely just temporary, though.

Vail Police Chief Dwight Henninger told councilmembers that the state order allowing expanded premises is set to last just 120 days.

When the resort villages are busy, expanded premises could lead to a strain on the department. Henninger said on many busy winter nights, there are often just three officers on duty. That might make enforcement difficult.

Despite the concerns, Wadey said Vail seems to be taking the lead among many mountain towns in its work to help local economies recover.

“The biggest part of all this is how cognizant everyone is of (small businesses’) real struggle,” Wadey said. “The town of Vail is equipped to be hands-on, and they want to see everybody come out of this. It’s been really special.”

And, Robson noted, he’s starting to see positive signs from the efforts.

“I really feel this sense of optimism the last two weeks in particular,” he wrote.

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at

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