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Conference center cost is rising fast

Scott N. Miller
Special to the DailyA packed Town Hall is expected Tuesday night to watch the Vail Town Council make what could be a do-or-die decision on the controversial conference center voters in 2002 approved building in Lionshead.
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VAIL – The answer is, “Maybe $17 million.”The question, in this case, is, “How much is the Vail conference center project over budget?”Of course, the numbers above, are estimates. The center could only be $7 million over budget. The most likely answer is that town officials probably need to find an extra $10 million to build the center as it’s currently designed.Whatever the amount, the bottom line, says Vail Community Development Director Russell Forrest, is, “We can’t afford to build with the money we have and the way we’ve budgeted.”How to, or whether to, cover that shortfall is the problem the Vail Town Council will wrestle with tomorrow evening in front of what’s expected to be a packed town hall. The council has scheduled three hours for an everything-on-the-table hash-out of all the current information about the costs, who might build the center and what firms might run it. The meeting could end with a decision: The council could kill the center, try to get the price tag down, or seeking more tax money to cover the shortfalls, among other alternatives. Whatever the council ultimately decides, expect a good number of opponents and supporters at Tuesday’s meeting, and don’t expect many minds to be changed.Bob Fritch, owner of the Sitzmark Lodge and a member of a petition committee working to force another election on the center, said he is eager to see all the facts laid out in one place. But he doesn’t really expect to see anything that would change his mind. “There’s always something that could come up that would change my opinion,” he said, “but I don’t feel the town is set up to accommodate that kind of convention business.”Risky business

Perhaps the biggest concern for opponents, though, is the financial risk to town taxpayers.One of the main points opponents have been hammering on is the cost of operating a conference center. The most recent estimates from HVS Convention, Sports & Entertainment Facilities Consulting – the firm the town hired to draft a business plan for the project – indicate the center will lose nearly $1 million per year in 2012, when the facility is expected to operate as well as it ever will.Two firms bidding on operating the center estimate a smaller loss in 2012, but the fact remains the center will cost more to run than it takes in. Opponents worry the taxes dedicated to the center wouldn’t be able to cover those operating losses, which would leave the town on the hook to make up the difference. Extreme operating costs might change one supporter’s mind.”If someone showed me statistics where conference centers lose money nationwide, I’d have to think about it,” said Loren Gifford, owner of Vail Valley Ace Hardware. But, Gifford said, he hasn’t seen information like that.”Everything I’ve seen shows that convention centers lose money and conference centers make money,” Gifford said. The difference between “convention” and “conference” seems subtle. But, Forrest said, it’s important. “There’s a major difference between convention centers in metropolitan areas and conference centers in resorts,” Forrest said. “The conference centers seem to perform better.”Numbers that matterBut whether conference centers make money probably has less to do with any decision made Tuesday than the numbers that really matter: the ones that add up to a multi-million-dollar shortfall.On Friday, town council members had just received the thick, three-ring notebooks packed with five pounds or more of facts and figures. “That’s my Saturday, Sunday and Monday,” Vail Town Councilman Farrow Hitt said.Contacted before he’d had a chance to dive into the material, Hitt was reluctant to say much. But he did have a few thoughts. “If the costs are just too far out, and it just isn’t going to work, we’re going to have to take other steps,” Hitt said.

What those steps are, though, isn’t clear.”To shrink it to fit the budget isn’t the way to go,” he said. No matter what the council does Tuesday, Gifford thinks a conference center in Vail might be inevitable. “I think it’s going to happen one way or another,” Gifford said. “We have everything else here to make it happen. All we need now is the space.”Fritch and other opponents disagree. “I’d like to see this be successful,” Fritch said. “But I don’t think it can be.”Staff Writer Scott N. Miller can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 613, or smiller@vaildaily.com.================Timeline:November, 2002: Vail voters approve sales tax increase and lodging tax to finance conference center.

Summer, 2003: Vail Town Council creates a conference center oversight committee. That group has supervised feasibility studies, hiring a design team and similar work.May, 2004: Committee brings the council its first extensive look at the project, including cost estimates for construction and operating the center. Initial estimates showed center income wouldn’t cover operating costs. August, 2004: Fentress Bradburn Architects of Denver chosen to design the center and do architectural work, cost estimates and other work.Fall, 2004: Council chooses design for center that featured controversial “mushroom” roof.Winter, 2004: Revised design released, contractors asked to provide firm estimates of construction costs.April, 2005: Group of Vail residents forms petition committee to hold another vote or kill the project.May 17: Vail council schedules meeting that may result in either going forward or killing the project.===============Vail Daily, Vail Colorado


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