Big ideas abound in the Vail Valley
About this series
Vail Daily reporters have taken an admittedly incomplete look at some of the big ideas that have created the valley, and how big thinking may transform the valley in years to come. Here’s a look at the series:
Dec. 26: The valley’s history of big ideas, and how those ideas inform thinking about the future.
Dec. 27: Transportation: How will people get to and from the valley in coming years?
Dec. 28: Housing: Where people live has always been a problem in the Vail Valley. What are some of our future options?
Dec. 29: Technology is transforming the way we work. How will it affect our communities in the future?
Dec. 30: The Vail Valley is all about recreation. But will anything overtake skiing as the top activity?
EAGLE COUNTY — People everywhere talk about big ideas for any number of topics. The Vail Valley was invented by big thinking, and still thrives on the notion of “next big things.”
Vail was the original big idea in the valley, of course. But the spirit of the pioneers who turned the Gore Creek and Eagle River valleys from an area of undeveloped wilderness with more sheep than people into an internationally renowned resort still animates the valley.
Big ideas, both successes and failures, are integral to what makes this place what it is.
It’s easy to focus on the successes, from the resorts to the county airport to perhaps the biggest big idea of the past few years, Vail Resorts’ EpicPass. There’s also a lot of curiosity about what might come of the resort company’s next big ideas, the Epic Discovery suite of summer activities.
But big ideas don’t always work. For proof, drive a few miles up Gypsum Creek to the moribund Brightwater development. Ideas for big developments at Edwards and Wolcott remain on the drawing board, awaiting the right economic conditions or backers.
But that’s what comes from aiming high — sometimes you miss.
“There are risks and concerns with any big idea. If there weren’t those things, everyone else would have already done it,” Vail Resorts CEO Rob Katz said.
Big ideas also involve change, and big change at that. That tends to make people uncomfortable.
In Vail’s early days, a proposal to get cars off the streets of Vail Village was a big idea that eventually resulted in the town’s two parking structures. The structure in Lionshead was built first, and a town proposal for a similar-looking facility for Vail Village was shot down by voters the first time they were asked. It took a second attempt, and a different design, to get the structure financed and built.
“It’s difficult at times. Big ideas shake the core of what people think,” former Avon Mayor Rich Carroll said. “It’s not an evolution, but a revolution.”
Revolutionizing just about anything will, almost inevitably, lead to criticism. Anyone with a big idea needs to be willing to suffer some verbal slings and arrows in name of moving forward.
Harry Frampton knows a thing or two about big ideas. He first came to the valley to lead the then-fledgling Beaver Creek Resort. He’s also led Vail Associates, Vail Resorts’ predecessor, and was a key figure in creating the Vail Valley Foundation. He’s a founder of East West Partners, a development company that has taken on many of the valley’s big ideas, and his name is on the door of every office of the valley’s biggest real estate company, Slifer Smith & Frampton.
Ideas and leadership
As someone who’s taken the lead in the promotion of lots of big ideas, Frampton has also taken much of the heat for the controversial ones — and most big ideas are controversial, sometimes from start to long after they’re established.
In Frampton’s view, big ideas require a champion of sorts, someone who can help drive an idea when a number of other people think that idea could be anywhere from ill-advised to disastrous. In this valley, that champion has to keep one thing in mind, Frampton said: “He has to put himself in the customer’s shoes.”
In a wide-ranging interview, Frampton was quick to credit former Vail Associates owner George Gillett with several big ideas, from putting the first high-speed chairlifts on Vail Mountain to helping lead the drive to modernize what was then the old county airport.
The airport is a classic example of seeing the valley through a customer’s eyes, Frampton said.
“In that case (Gillett) was able to say, ‘A lot of people want to come to Vail, but they don’t want to come through Denver — he was thinking about the customer.”
The Vilar Performing Arts Center at Beaver Creek was another big idea.
“People were coming to Beaver Creek and were bored,” Frampton said. A performing arts center provided a spark to that resort.
Beyond the resorts
Big ideas aren’t always about the resorts. In Avon, Carroll is part of a group advocating a trail system running the length of the valley. The West Avon Preserve, a large piece of open space now crisscrossed with foot and cycling trails, is a key part of that idea.
“We’re trying to make it comparable to the on-mountain experience,” Carroll said of the trail project. While residents will benefit, a top-flight trail system can be an economic driver, too, he added. While trails seem like a fairly non-controversial idea, there are big hurdles to clear, not least because, while no one sees them, the valley is a mishmash of various government boundaries. It’s not just the towns, either. There are more than 70 tax-collecting entities in the valley. Eagle County Schools is the biggest, but most are relatively small, including tax-collecting districts for the cemeteries in Minturn, Eagle and Gypsum.
In Frampton’s view, that’s simply too much government.
“How many towns do we have? How many fire districts? How many metro or recreational districts do we have? This is a small place,” Frampton said.
Jim Lamont first moved to Vail in the late 1960s. He was Vail’s first planning director and is now the director of the Vail Homeowners Association. As a young graduate student in Denver, Lamont saw various town and district governments there form the Denver Regional Council of Governments, an entity that exists to make sure big ideas span the metropolitan area.
Something like that Denver-area council would be a good idea here,” Lamont said.
Just as everything in the state’s biggest metro area is lumped together as “Denver,” people who visit the Vail Valley don’t much care what fire district they’re in, or what entity is getting the sales tax from a recent purchase.
“People don’t care where they are; they just want to have a great experience,” Carroll said.
Will these work?
The valley is working on some big ideas now that haven’t come to fruition yet. The valley-wide trail system is one idea that’s actually making progress.
Progress on an even bigger idea — housing — is harder to see.
While town and county officials continue to talk about the valley’s oldest, most persistent problem — they’re re apparently having productive conversations — there’s nothing in the pipeline right now. That could change in the not-too-distant future, but not without what Lamont called “grassroots awareness” and participation.
“You need to build from there up,” Lamont said. “Once you have that, the next step is identifying the avenues by which political leadership can lead.”
What’s needed, Lamont said, is a means of communicating with people about complex ideas, then giving the public tools to provide their opinions.
Lamont said Vail Resorts has made “great strides” in establishing lines of communication with its customers. Something similar needs to happen in the public and nonprofit sectors.
“Then you may find people who are willing to step forward and lead on a topic,” he said.
Looking forward, there’s no shortage of big ideas for the future of the valley and its continued economic success.
Frampton, who has never shied away from talking about ideas, believes the valley would be well-served by leading the way in discouraging automobile use. Using ride-sharing services such as Uber, increasing the frequency of bus service, starting a bike-rental program and even easing restrictions on pedicabs in and between resort villages would help convince people they don’t need their cars to get around, Frampton said.
“What we’re really lacking is interconnectivity,” Frampton said. That leads to another big idea — a lift connection between Vail Mountain and Beaver Creek.
“That’s been talked about forever,” Frampton said.
Today, though, Vail Resorts has connected its Park City and Canyons resorts in Utah, and there’s a broader effort to lift-connect other resorts as well. Can a connection between Vail and Beaver Creek be that far behind?
Then there’s the idea of how Vail can better live with Interstate 70, the community’s double-edged sword.
While the interstate from Vail to Denver created relatively easy 12-month access to the resort, the highway splits the town. For almost as long as I-70 has run through Vail, people have talked about ways to make it better.
Another long-discussed idea is to either bury the interstate where it is, or tunnel from roughly Dowd Junction to east Vail. Either idea would cost billions.
“But look at the billions Vail has generated just in Eagle County since it began,” Lamont said. “People don’t balance the public expenditure proportional to the amount of profitability that’s been created.”
In the end, most of the valley’s big ideas have been tackled with some sort of profit in mind, whether that’s shareholder return or increased tax revenues. And with profit comes rewards.
At Vail Resorts, Katz said employees who propose big ideas are often rewarded by being in line for the next step up the corporate ladder.
“If you look across our company, a lot of people have been promoted from within,” Katz said. “The people you see in that process are people we think are brave, are willing to put themselves on the line.”
Vail Resorts wants people to think through their ideas as much as possible, but, echoing Frampton, Katz said the ultimate test of an idea is whether guests want it.
The same is true for big ideas away from the resorts. Carroll said the valley has a number of problems that probably require big ideas to solve. Those ideas will ultimately have to past muster with residents.
“On education, the environment, transportation and economy, we need to ask what we can do to make things better,” Carroll said. “But if we don’t worry about who gets the credit, (and instead worry about)what’s the best thing for the county as a whole, we can do it.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.