Economic case for Bair Ranch
On Tuesday, June 1, the Eagle County Board of Commissioners has scheduled a final hearing and vote on the Open Space Advisory Committee’s recommendation to commit designated open space funds toward the preservation of Bair Ranch as open space.I believe the commissioners should approve the $2 million funding of the total $5.2 million cost. Now you know where I stand. But if you keep reading, I can guarantee you that no matter which side of this issue you’re on, you’re going to read a very different perspective that’s not been discussed.The Bair Ranch deal makes economic sense two ways: attracting future funding partnership opportunities, and promoting better planned development.As an advocate for smart economic development, I see the future of Eagle County in short-term (0-10 years) and long-term (10-50 years) time frames. In a long-term view, the economic value of preserving Bair Ranch increases in value, but so much of the shrillness of those who argue against it is rooted in short-term, save-a-buck selfishness.Maintaining credibility as a reliable civic partner is very important. Here’s a cautionary tale I witnessed first hand: After nearly a two-decade effort Colorado was awarded the 1976 Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. In 1972 then state legislator, Dick Lamm, led an environmental, no-growth movement to stop the Olympics. A state referendum was carried by a 59 percent vote to withdraw financial support. The IOC scrambled to move the Olympics to Innsbruck, Austria. Dick Lamm’s no-growth campaign won him the governorship. And Colorado’s population doubled by 2000.Fast-forward to 1989, when community leaders decided that it was time for Colorado to get back into the Olympic hunt. I was asked to produced the required theatrical media presentation as part of Colorado’s bid. Against a backdrop of computer-activated banks of slide and video projectors with a custom score recorded by members of the Colorado Symphony, the presentation was interspersed with live remarks from then Gov. Romer, Mayor Pena, George Gillette and Jimmy Huega. The “bake-off” occurred at a meeting of the U.S. Olympic Committee, and Colorado placed second behind Salt Lake, and ahead of Reno-Tahoe and Anchorage.After the presentation, I was outside the ballroom of the hotel where George Steinbrenner, who was a member of the USOC, told several of us that Colorado really put forth a good effort but the weight of history was against us. I believe we had the best technical proposal, better venues and a much stronger presentation. Still, none of that could trump the fact that Colorado was not seen as a reliable partner. The stink of nearly two decades hadn’t worn off.There’s a strong parallel here. Eagle County would be a significant financial participant (40 percent) in the Bair Ranch deal. The other 60 percent is made up of federal (Bureau of Land Management), state (GOCO, lottery money) and private (foundation and individual donors) funding sources. These same entities are the most likely financial partners to help with future open space acquisitions.
We have an extraordinary opportunity to attract and gain future support with these and other partners if we can demonstrate that Eagle County is a reliable partner in return. Continued support from outside funding sources can, like in the Bair Ranch deal, make our limited tax dollars go a lot further. However, like the Olympics, pulling the welcome mat off the front porch leaves a very bad taste for a long, long time. Hard-fought credibility, if lost, can take years to rebuild.The second key economic consideration is thinking about smarter development. Today, the planning department at Eagle County is hard at work revising the county’s master plan. Historically, the master plan has been land-use driven. This time around, the county planners have wisely recognized the importance of economics as part of their comprehensive planning process. Over the past year, as I’ve reviewed numerous studies and data, it’s clear that the demographic and economic trends point to continued development pressure on western Eagle County.Already the Two Rivers housing development is taking shape at Dotsero. Right across from Two Rivers is the “river parcel” of Bair Ranch. This is the land the BLM would acquire outright and would be accessible by the public. At one of the public hearings I attended, someone suggested that the river parcel would be a good site for a golf course. However, that’s not the most economically beneficial use of the land. Because of its proximity to the freeway and the Union Pacific rail line, this land could be much more profitably developed as a distribution center. Frankly, closing that kind of option off, by preserving Bair Ranch, would make sure we focus on development opportunities around the airport at Gypsum where you have freeway, rail and air access. Good land planning that aggregates commercial and industrial businesses makes far better economic sense than stringing a rag-tag mix of development along I-70.Some critics may argue that through restrictive zoning, we can prevent growth in one place and push it toward another. That’s true to a point, but economics and politics change and what seems unthinkable today can appear eminently justifiable in the future. Preserving Bair Ranch today will help keep a long-term focus on commercial land in Gypsum and Eagle that is already designed for such activity and can help provide both towns with a stronger tax base.Geologically, erosion is a powerful force that’s nearly invisible in a generational time frame. We are at a very delicate point in Eagle County where the natural assets that have fueled our communities prosperity are starting to be chipped away at the edges by the pressure of growth. Judicious protection of key land holdings that are adjacent to our valley floors is a good strategy to protect our primary asset of natural beauty. Bair Ranch and future open space investments will help enable us to promote smart growth in areas that are already zoned. The Eagle County commissioners’ support of Bair Ranch would demonstrate enlightened leadership that would be noticed on a statewide and national level. And that’s exactly the kind of positive message that would be good for sustaining the long-term economic health of our business community and all our citizens.Don Cohen, executive director of the Vail Valley Economic Council, can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org