Though the headline didn’t mention it, the story dealt with town officials’ consideration of an urban renewal district, or URA, which grants specific condemnation powers upon findings of “blight.” While tax incremental financing, or TIF, has been successfully used elsewhere to redevelop economically depressed business districts, the image of a world-class ski resort claiming slum-like conditions as reasons for redevelopment was too much to resist for editors at the “Gray Lady” of newspapers.
If it’s not timely or controversial, a good news story often exposes something odd. Vail and slums fit the bill.
Reporter Michael Janofsky paid a visit to the Lodge at Lionshead, where condominium owners were ready to battle the town on a proposal that would have razed their building. The controversial scenario would have replaced the condominium complex to make room for a community center, with a new Lodge at Lionshead in a slightly different location.
Homeowners, who didn’t like the plan, had hired Denver Attorney Robert Duncan to defend their position against the town. They also contacted the national desk of the America’s foremost newspaper publication.
Vail’s first encounter with TIF didn’t go well. Saddled with the suspicious words “blight” and “condemnation,” the financing mechanism didn’t find many friends in Vail, and it exposed the ski resort to a fair measure of nationwide ridicule.
Not again …
“We don’t want to see that headline again,” says Vail’s director of community development, Russell Forrest, as Vail revisits the TIF option. The catalyst this time around is Vail Resorts’ six-month-old announcement of a $500 million investment in five of its properties in Lionshead, a commercial area of Vail built in the 1970s and described as “tired” and “in need of rejuvenation” in the 1999 Lionshead Master Plan.
To pay for $9 million of a $43-million list of needed public improvements that would complement the ski company’s and other property owners’ plans, the town is once again looking at financing mechanisms. And TIF allows a taxing entity to declare a district in need of redevelopment, freeze the tax base and use estimate future income from redevelopment to finance redevelopment.
After six months of meetings, the Lionshead Redevelopment Task force has recommended TIF as the first venue to raise money for redevelopment. Last week, the Vail Town Council agreed.
Because the language ratifying a URA district and the use of TIF is state-mandated, “we have to talk about this with the word “blight’ in it,” says Forrest.
The 2002 Lionshead Reinvestment Study identified four of seven standards of blight as existing in Vail. According to state law, a district has to be able to show a minimum of four instances of “blight.”
But blight in Vail is different, Forrest says.
“It’s cracked pavement, it’s inadequate fire access; in the context of Lionshead, “blight’ means things that need fixing,” he says.
Mike Flavin, a Lionshead condominium owner who served on redevelopment commission in his hometown of Chesterfield, Mo., says Chesterfield faced the same stigma 10 years ago.
“if it was characterized as an area that is economically underperforming or real estate not used to its highest and best use, there would be no problem,” says Flavin. “But blight conjures up the image of a rat-infested broken-down ghetto housing.”
To avoid negative publicity, town leaders and business interests will have to be on the same page and sing a hymn to TIF’s many perceived advantages.
It’s a tight-rope walk between legalese and interpretation, says Frank Johnson, president of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau, which represents more than 800 Vail businesses.
“I think that message really needs to be very very carefully constructed,” he says. “People Back East seem to love to read dirty stories about resort areas, whether it is Vail or Aspen. The message has to be really specific about what we are talking about in terms of “blight.’ We don’t want to portray Vail as a town that is crumbling,” he says. “But we also don’t want to get reactions like “how can a town with this kind of income be blighted.”
The valley chamber, Johnson says, has not yet formulated a position for its members, some of whom will be affected if TIF comes into play.
The town’s biggest business that could be affected by accounts of blight in Vail, is Vail Resorts. If news of a blighted Vail hit, destination skiers from New York City and as far as Brazil, may think twice before coming back.
“If the time period is brief, less than 18 months, I’m not concerned,” says Bill Jensen, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain. “If it lingers three to five to seven years, then it becomes very problematic.”
Most of all, Jensen says, the message has to be dominated by accounts of the impending redevelopment of Lionshead properties.
“If for some reason the redevelopment is delayed and the ballot issue to form the district gets stuck, it will come back to haunt us,” Jensen predicts.
Editor’s note: With private property owners promising to reinvest more than half a billion dollars in the redevelopment of Vail over the next four years, this story is part of the Vail Daily’s ongoing coverage of the many issues surrounding Vail’s “Renaissance.”
Geraldine Haldner can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at email@example.com.