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Conference center without controversy?

Dominique Taylor/Vail DailyRob Levine stands in the Lionshead parking structure which he hopes will one day house a conference center.
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VAIL, Colorado ” The question has been debated for more than 20 years: should Vail build a conference center?

The answer has been “no” several times. In 1987, voters resoundingly rejected a $16 million plan for the so-called “Congress Hall.”

In 2000, a $76 million plan for the “Vail Center” ” planned for the Charter Bus lot ” died, never making it to the ballot.



Voters approved money for a $46 million conference center in 2002, only to kill the plan three years later.

Those debates were all accompanied by noisy rhetoric about the merits and drawbacks of a conference center. Chief among the touted merits was bringing more business to Vail during the fall and late spring, which are normally slow times in town.



The conference center question might be quietly answered soon with a proposal to rebuild the Lionshead parking structure, which includes a 44,000-square-foot conference center.

Supporters ” and opponents ” of previous conference center plans says the Lionshead proposal meets the long-sought-after goal of a big conference center for Vail.

Vail Town Council members have expressed enthusiasm for the plan, and they could give conditional approval to it later this month.



Still, Vail Resorts must release a deed restriction for the town-owned land, and CEO Rob Katz said he wouldn’t do that until the planned garage for Ever Vail ” a village the company wants to build in west Lionshead ” is completed.

Greg Moffet, a longtime former Vail councilman , said the Lionshead proposal isn’t quite as good as the 2005 plan, which he supported.

“Not entirely, but it’s close,” he said. “It’s a hell of a deal because it’s not going to require any tax dollars.”

The 2005 proposal would have been a bit bigger, Moffet said. The Lionshead proposal will includes a ballroom of 16,000 square feet.

The conference center would bring needed visitors to Vail in the off-season, Moffet said.

“The only way you get people to come here (in May, June, September and October) is have them required by their employer to come here, and that’s what a conference center does,” Moffet said.

Opponents of the 2005 plan said it was too risky because Vail would have been on the hook for any debt the conference center incurred.

Vail resident Joe Staufer was a vocal opponent of the 2005 proposed conference center. He objected to the use of public funds to build a conference center, which, he said, would only benefit the hotel community.

But a private conference center is a “different story,” he said.

“I’m not against a conference center per se,” he said. “If it ever gets built, I think a conference center is a good thing for the business community, and it may help to offset some of the shoulder period. I’m sure it can’t hurt.”

The new center, proposed by Texas development group Open Hospitality Group/Hillwood Capital, won’t leave the town on the hook for debt, said Mark Masinter, a representative for the developer.

“The town has no financial responsibility for any losses of the conference center,” Masinter said.

The conference center would be part of a $900 million proposal for the redevelopment of the Lionshead parking structure, which would also include public parking, condos, two hotels, timeshares, a transit center, stores and restaurants.

Masinter said his group is not asking for the $9 million conference center fund that is left over from the project that was killed in 2005, or any other public money for the conference center.

Rob LeVine, a longtime supporter of conference center proposals, said he doesn’t mind if that $9 million fund is used for Masinter’s project, as long as it adds some more improvements to the center.

LeVine, general manager of the Antlers lodge in Lionshead, hopes that a conference center will fill up his vacant rooms in the spring and fall.

“It is the single most likely additional attraction to bring people to Vail when we need them ” during the offseason,” he said.

He led the campaign for the conference center in 2005. This new proposal is almost as good, he said.

“That was a nine,” he said. “This is an eight.”

Staff Writer Edward Stoner can be reached at 748-2929 or estoner@vaildaily.com.


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