Lanning smiling after six years in Minturn
When he arrived in Minturn to be town manager nearly six years ago and took a first look at the ailing town budget, Alan Lanning didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
Ultimately, he did both -and the laugh helped.
“When I arrived the town had a $900,000 annual budget,” he says. “It was on life support. It was so bad any sane person would have pulled the plug.”
He didn’t, but shortly thereafter, the poker-faced Lanning, 46, who has a weightlifter’s physique, nearly hurt himself laughing about another situation caused by Minturn’s lack of money.
“The town had one snow plow and it didn’t have reverse. I remember belly-laughing and saying ‘How can you plow snow when you can’t back up?’ That’s how bad things were,” he said.
Lanning left Minturn last week to return to his home state of South Dakota where he will be the town manager of Brookings in the southeast part of the state. He called it his “dream job.”
Water fight drained budget
Minturn in 1998 had a population of 1,100 and was in a David-and-Goliath legal donnybrook against a consortium of local water users that included Vail Resorts and the Eagle River Water and Sanitation District. That battle over Minturn’s unused water rights cost the town $25,000 a month in legal expenses. Eventually it lost a portion of its water rights and plenty of money fighting the consortium. Minturn had to sue for peace and relinquish its water.
At that point Lanning’s job was clear: He and the town’s leaders had to figure out a way to keep the town solvent long enough to let it work its way out of its financial crater.
“We just stopped spending altogether” he says. “We just paid salaries and the light bills and gas for the vehicles and just kept the town running.”
Compounding matters was the fact that Minturn’s economy was in transition. It was recovering from the mid-1980s closure of the Eagle Mine at Red Cliff and the mid-1990s closure of the rail yard – and the jobs those created. The only thing left was tourism, but the town had little to attract visitors.
Slowly, Lanning says, the town began to function with some federal and state grants and by controlling spending.
“It was a slow and methodical approach,” he says. “We had leases that people weren’t paying and businesses that weren’t collecting sales tax. We started keeping good records.”
Not all pleasantness
But not everything he experienced will find its way onto his resume. Being an agent of change in a small town that’s set in its ways means you make some enemies. He did and some of those made their attacks very personal.
He had the tires on his truck slashed; his new car was egged and someone set off fireworks outside his young daughter’s bedroom window during the wee hours one morning. He was also attacked in print in this newspaper and the shed behind his home was spray-painted with “Lanning sucks.”
Those incidents hurt, he said and were difficult to explain to his young children and wife.
“I don’t care what people say about me. My wife and kids are innocent. They have done nothing,” he says. “That’s been the toughest thing for me.
“People don’t realize the amount of work people put into a community trying to make it better,” he says. “It’s too easy to complain instead of getting involved and becoming part of the solution. There are some real mean and spiteful people here, too.”
Despite that, Lanning says, he loved the job.
“I’ve had more fun here than a person should have working,” he says. “I’ve been able to work with some of the best people I’ve ever worked with here. They’re supportive. Their life’s the job. It’s been such a pleasure to work with these folks.”
A group he singled out for praise is the town’s visioning committee, which helps develop planning strategies.
$5 million later
As this is written, Minturn has received $5 million in improvements ranging from a new fire station, a public works facility, a new town hall and renovated riverbanks through town. Minturn has only has to pay $85,000 a year, Lanning says.
The $2.8 million town hall was funded with certificates of participation using a private company. Those certificates are paid by the leases to the town and post office that occupy the building. In three years that annual payment will drop to $70,000 and by 2021 the building will revert to town ownership and will generate $141,000 a year for the town.
One of the most ironic situations he’s ever encountered was when a small gold deposit was discovered during the excavation of the new Town Hall.
“All this gold and we couldn’t spend it,” he says.
But Minturn now is beginning to mine the tourist trade and it is more frequently on the itinerary of visitors to the Vail Valley. The town government now has a $1.25 million budget and 10 employees and while it isn’t rolling in cash, it is on a sound financial footing, Lanning says.
One of the changes Lanning spearheaded was the controversial consolidation of the town’s tiny fire department into the Eagle River Fire Protection District, which covers eastern Eagle County. Regardless of how controversial it was, Lanning says he felt it was the right thing to do. Town voters last year agreed and approved the consolidation.
“I took a lot of bullets on that one,” he says.
One of the most successful things the town helped create was the Minturn Market. The summertime farmer’s market on Saturdays and its winter counterpart attract nearly 20,000 people to town each year.
“It’s become such a valleywide event that everybody looks forward to it,” he says.
It also drops sales tax dollars into the town.
“He has been the most productive town manager we’ve had,” said friend and Minturn Mayor Earl Bidez. “Coming in it was bit of a mess. He was extremely productive and skillful.”
The next decision for the town is the long-discussed recreational vehicle park south of town. It, too, has been controversial.
“Most of the people who oppose it believe they stand to lose short-term rentals,” Lanning says. “It will not compete with the short-term rental market. That RV park will be the saving grace financially for many, many years.”
Lanning’s new job is in a much larger town. Brookings is a college town with 11,000 South Dakota State University students and 18,000 residents. It also has a base of light manufacturing that includes a 3M medical products plant; Larsen Door, a door component manufacturer; and Dektronics, which makes scoreboards for sporting events. It also is surrounded by acres and acres of corn and soybeans.
“Brookings is such a nice town. I could foresee spending the rest of my career there,” he says. “It’s that kind of place.”
It’s about four hours north of Omaha and it’s a town that Lanning spent nearly seven years living in during college. Presumably it has snowplows that have reverse gears.
Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.