McLaurin heading back to Jackson
Vail Town Manager Bob McLaurin jokingly says his greatest accomplishment at the helm of America’s preeminent ski town over the past decade was that, “I didn’t get fired.”After more than nine sometimes tumultuous years as Vail’s administrator, McLaurin announced Wednesday, Feb. 5, that he’s returning to his previous position as town manager of Jackson, Wyo., where he still owns a home.McLaurin says he’s been offered his old job back, which he held for three years before coming to Vail in December of 1993, and that he hasn’t officially accepted. Pending working out all the details, he says he fully intends to take the offer.”It’s a lifestyle thing; this to me is about personal choice,” McLaurin says, adding he loves Vail and was not actively seeking other jobs until the previous Jackson town manager resigned. “It was all sort of serendipitous. I always thought I’d wind up back in Wyoming; I just never in my wildest dreams thought I’d be able to get back to my old position.”Previous Jackson Town Manager Michael Parda submitted his resignation Jan. 13 after being left out in the cold by a newly elected town council which did not support him for the position in its first meeting on Jan. 6.McLaurin says he’ll be taking a pay cut from his current salary of $95,000 a year, and use of a town-owned home, to take the job in Jackson.Through several councils and mayors, McLaurin has had a wild ride in Vail, witnessing the fallout from the bankruptcy of the ski resort, its takeover by Wall Street investors, an unprecedented building boom and the nation’s worst act of eco-terrorism. And he is clearly proud of the fact that he survived it all professionally for nearly 10 years.”That’s a pretty long ride for a town administrator; usually they leave like they show up, fired with enthusiasm,” McLaurin says.His first full year on the job was a baptism by fire. In 1994, Vail’s personnel manager shot and killed his wife with a gun he bought from the police chief, the safety director ran over and killed an infant with her car, and the town attorney, who had been drinking, rolled a town-owned Saab into Gore Creek. The string of tragedies and miscues brought the national media spotlight, including headlines in East Coast papers declaring “Trouble in paradise.”Throughout it all, McLaurin maintained his gritty sense of humor, which was sorely tested again in 1998 when the Earth Liberation Front, a radical environmental group, torched a restaurant and several chairlifts on Vail Mountain to protest the controversial Blue Sky Basin expansion.”I think it was the stupidest thing they could have done,” McLaurin says of the $12 million arson attack. “I think the Vail fires moved people together more than they pulled people apart.”Often demonized by a demanding public and scapegoated by an equally mercurial town council, the town manager position in any city is a thankless job. Mclaurin has largely been able to stay out of that fray.Vail Mayor Ludwig Kurz says McLaurin’s impact on the community will be felt for a long time. "I am sad to see him leave," Kurz said in a prepared statement. "His genuine dedication to this town and the town’s organization was and is of the highest standards. I believe Jackson Hole is fortunate to have Bob return, and I wish him well in his new challenges."McLaurin rarely despaired that he was stuck in political circles; in fact, the accomplishment he is most proud of is Vail’s trend-setting traffic circles.”We pioneered traffic engineering with the roundabouts. When we first proposed that, people looked at us like we had three eyes, now they’re all over the state,” McLaurin says, also citing an aggressive affordable housing push that brought more families back into Vail and the unity and high morale of the town staff.His greatest disappointment has been the town’s constant struggle with the budget and the vagaries of a largely sales-tax-dependent local economy.”We’re always swimming upstream against this economy,” he says. “If you look across the resort landscape, none of these communities are going to be able depend on sales taxes to the degree they have in the past. These economies have moved from recreation-based to lifestyle-based.”And because of the TABOR (Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights) Amendment, he says, Colorado resort towns are held hostage and unable to increase taxes such as the real estate transfer tax, which could pay for desperately needed infrastructure improvements without upping property taxes.Still, he says Vail is poised to flourish in coming years, with nearly a half a billion dollars in private capital committed to a “Vail Renaissance” of aging resort amenities.”I think Vail is in a great place moving into the 21st century,” McLaurin says. “We’ve positioned ourselves over the last few years to provide for significant reinvestment in the community, and when it happens, it’s going to greatly improve our competitive advantage.”Does he feel a twinge of regret that he won’t be around the see the fruits of his labor?”It’s a double-edged sword. All the building improvements in Vail Village and Lionshead are going to take a lot of work,” he says. “I’d love to stay here and see some of that, but the timing doesn’t provide for it. I feel like we’ve moved the ball from the 50 yard line and now it’s first and goal at the five.”McLaurin says he’ll stick around 60 to 90 days to trim $500,000 from the town budget, and that the Vail Town Council will hold an executive session during its next regular Tuesday meeting to discuss the situation and likely launch a national search for McLaurin’s replacement.In a release from the Town of Jackson, Mayor Mark Barron says he’ll ask the Jackson Town Council to appoint McLaurin at a special meeting on Monday, Feb. 10.”People on the council, and some of the staff, know Bob, which lends to a smooth transition,” Barron said in the release. “More importantly to the Town Council, Bob provides more than nine years administrative experience in a resort community that has already gone through many of the challenges we face.”From housing, transit and parking to working with various local, county, state and federal representatives, Bob has had significant experience."McLaurin’s move continues a trend of growing Vail influence in Jackson, including the purchase by Vail Resorts of the Grand Teton Lodge Company and the Snake River Lodge and Spa at the base of Jackson Hole ski area, and the ownership of nearby Grand Targhee ski area by former Vail owner George Gillett. The persistent rumors that Vail Resorts will someday purchase Jackson Hole have been repeatedly denied by Jackson officials.For his part, life is coming full circle for the 49-year-old McLaurin, who grew up in North Carolina but quit his first town planner job there right after college in the late ’70s, packed up his climbing gear in the trunk of his car and wound up in Laramie, Wyo.There he met his wife, Julie, who was going to school at the University of Wyoming while he was working as a gandy dancer for the railroad. He returned to school and earned a graduate degree in community and regional planning with an emphasis on decision theory.The couple moved to Jackson in 1985, and McLaurin was the sole planner for several years before moving up to assistant administrator and finally the top spot after his boss was fired.An avid rock jock, McLaurin has climbed the Grand, the highest peak in the Grand Tetons, at least a dozen times he says. Since moving to Vail, he says he’s become just as avid an alpine skier.McLaurin has been married to Julie for 22 years, and she clearly shares his almost fierce sense of self-determination. During a Bob Dylan concert at the Gerald Ford Amphitheater two summers ago, she urged ushers to allow dancing fans to remain standing despite protests from a typically staid and decidedly aging Vail crowd.The McLaurins have three children, a daughter, Molly, who attends Colorado State University in Fort Collins, a 17-year-old son, Tim, and a 10-year-old son, Duncan, whom McLaurin says has always wanted to move back to Jackson.