Hotels hot on a Vail conference center
They say they’re going to come up with a plan that will pay for a conference center in Vail worth as much as $60 million. They’re willing to do the planning, though not all of the paying, they say.
Vail leaders, meanwhile, have been talking about a conference center for the past three decades, and plenty of planning has gone into a variety of large meeting facility proposals in the same time period.
There was “Congress Hall” in the mid-1970s, a re-tooled “culture center” in 1993, and most recently the $78 million-plus “Vail Center” at the Charter Bus Lot.
They either died at the voters’ hands or were laid to rest by past councils unable to come up with financially and politically viable proposals the community would support.
After a decade of stagnant sales tax collections, however, town leaders are focusing on measures that promise to expand Vail’s winter-dominated economy – a task many say could be accomplished with a conference center.
“A conference center is the single most impactful thing we can do to improve the year-round economy,” says Rob LeVine, general manager of the Antlers at Vail, a Lionshead condominium complex. “There is no other thing we could do that would add a piece as big and as effective as a conference center.”
“There is no doubt in my mind that a conference center would attract business in those time periods when we could use it,” adds David Pease, general manager of the Marriott Vail Mountain Resort, Vail’s largest hotel, which was recently acquired by Vail Resorts. “All of us are trying to figure out how to keep business going in the value season, and to me the conference center is just one more piece in that puzzle that makes up the shoulder and summer seasons.”
Steve Hawkins, general manager of the Mountain Haus, agrees.
“The key word here is compression,” Hawkins says. “The more rooms get filled from conferences the more everybody benefits from the overflow that goes to the next place.”
While other conference center proposals began their lives on paper on a town planner’s drawing board, this latest imaginary conference center could make its first steps without the helping hand of the Vail town government. A group of local lodge operators say an offer, made by Vail Resorts in February as part of its $400 plan to revamp Lionshead, is too good to pass up.
“If we don’t examine it to its highest potential, we would only be fools,” says Stan Cope, general manager of the Lodge Tower, of the ski company’s offer to make a Lionshead parcel known as the North Day Lot available to the community for the purpose of a conference center.
Though ski company officials have said little about possible strings attached to the offer, a number of local lodge operators appear ready to pick up the loose ends.
Speaking on behalf of a dozen lodge owners and operators, Cope says they have been meeting on the subject since February.
“We try to see as a committee what makes sense in terms of programming and how much money we could justify putting towards it,” he says. “If the price gets too high, we’ll look at what components need to be cut.”
Intermittently, the committee will take a step back for “reality checks,” Cope says.
“If it’s not something that is better than what everybody else does, and if we can’t come up with a project that is reasonable in terms of cost, we might say “let’s not do it,'” Cope says.
But as a general goal, he says, the committee will attempt to come up with a proposal for a conference center project that everyone can get behind – financially and politically.
“We do want to have something worthy of sitting down with the council by August,” Cope says, adding that a late summer council presentation would leave enough time to get a financing scenario on the fall ballot for voters’ approval.
According to Vail Resorts February presentation of its Lionshead redevelopment plan, the North Day Lot offer room to build a 20,000-square-foot conference center – complete with underground parking. The initial phase could include a top floor of 20,000 square feet of office space, which could be turned into more meeting space if needed.
Financing mechanisms the committee will consider, Cope says, include a “slight increase” of the town’s two-year-old, 1.4 percent lodging tax leveled on short-term accommodation rentals.
“I think the studies that have been done show that a pretty significant number of visitors could be added with a conference center, and I think it is pretty clear that those visitors wouldn’t just benefit us,” Cope says, adding that convention-goers are unlikely to stay put in their hotel rooms. They’ll continue to spend their money in shops and restaurants too.
Judging from the fate of past convention proposals, Cope says, “the only way to get this done is if the lodges accept some amount of this cost burden.”
Beyond that, he says, the financing packet will have to be a fair reflection of who benefits by how much.
“I think the cost burden needs to be spread out among a base of businesses that will benefit from (a convention center),” Cope says. “Realistically that is the only way to get it done politically.”
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at firstname.lastname@example.org