Rallying "round revitalization
While the resort has seen its shares of improvements and expansions over the last decade – culminating in the completion of Category III, now known as Blue Sky Basin, in 1999 – the town has seen little in commercial redevelopment.
Vail Village essentially was practically completed in the late 1960s, followed by Lionshead in the 1980s. Decades of wear and tear, despite fixes here and there, have drained the town’s two commercial centers of the vibrancy needed to remain competitive in the ever-evolving world of tourism, some people say.
Reasons for a “Renaissance’
“Physically the town is aging. There are aspects to it that are tired-looking and we are in need of some major sprucing up,” says Vail Mayor Ludwig Kurz, who for the past four months has doubled as the chairman of the Lionshead Task Force, a council-appointed subcommittee dedicated to the monumental task of synchronizing as much as half a billion dollars in private and public projects contemplated for Lionshead in the next five years.
“In a large sense, I think we are beginning to be at a competitive disadvantage,” Kurz says, “specifically as it relates to the town, not the mountain.”
“Vail has always been No. 1 or close to it,” adds Porter Wharton III, senior vice president of public affairs for Vail Resorts, a catalyst of the renewal movement.
“We felt for the last couple of years that it is time to make a major re-investment in our flagship resort,” Wharton says of the company’s off-the-mountain plans for a new “ski yard” at the bottom of the Vista Bahn, along with several brand-new hotels and retail spaces centering around the Eagle Bahn Gondola in Lionshead. It’s all meant to complement Ski Magazine’s once again naming Vail Mountain North America’s premier winter playground.
“I think people still find Vail charming and beautiful,” Wharton says. “We do enough research with our guests to know that, but there are areas that need some attention. We see what our competitors are doing.”
Ready for a redo
With skier numbers stagnant and the national economy depressed, luring tourists to Vail isn’t as easy as it used to be, says Bob Lazier, one of a dozen commercial property owners poised to rebuild. What worked great in the 1960s, however, may not be the recipe for resort success in 2002 and beyond, they say.
“We’d be foolish if we don’t look at our business plan every 20, 30 or 40 years,” says Lazier, who owns the the Tivoli Lodge and has lived in Vail since 1962.
“I think Vail has kept very nice, but we have been sliding just a touch and we need to gain that ground back,” he says. “We can’t rest on our laurels or our previous reputation, we have to make sure we make it better and better.”
Ski visitors nowadays, Lazier says, spend less time on the mountain and expect more conveniences and comforts than they did in 1965.
“Our bathrooms are small; we really need an elevator,” he says of some of the modern-day luxuries he plans to provide when he demolishes the 48-room Tivoli and replaces it with a 65-room new hotel.
“If you get a week off in this world, as hectic as it is, you really expect something special,” he says. “People used to be fine walking up outside staircases, carrying their own luggage. That’s not so anymore.”
The do-nothing option, Wharton adds, “is frightening.”
“We cannot afford to stand still,” he says. “I think any resort or community that stands still ultimately starts slipping backwards. If you slip too much the ramifications to the community are severe. Stores close, restaurants shut down, people lose their jobs because the guests stop coming.”
A renewal of the town’s commercial properties and public plazas will also give Vail a shot at becoming a true, year-round resort destination, Lazier says.
“I plan on putting in an air-conditioning system so I can finally treat my summer guests like first-class citizens,” he says. “Vail is great in the winter, but there are so many times throughout the rest of the year when this place is just gorgeous and no one is here to see it.”
“We need a level of activity on a much more even pace throughout the year rather than the dead spots that we still experience,” says Kurz. “New hotels, new plazas, new venues where events can take place, could do that for us.”
Spelling out Renaissance
The cost estimates accompanying the contemplated renaissance are awe-inspiring, the schedule is ambitious, the logistics are hair-raising and the funding certainly is challenging. Selling the renaissance to the Vail public, however, may be the biggest hurdle.
“To me the renaissance is a feeling and an approach and a general direction towards the future,” says Kurz. “It is more than just sprucing up a facade of a building. It’s a vision we all need to get behind.”
Kurz and his six-member council will attempt a first look at today’s big picture deciding what path to pursue to fund close to $60 million in new streets, sidewalks and plazas the town wants while private redevelopment brings cranes and construction crews.
“One thing we as a community need to understand is there is nothing to fear. The renaissance is nothing more than taking a look at how we can utilize each piece of ground to its best potential – not just for the guest, but also for our employees and locals,” says Lazier, who says he is not intimidated but “thrilled” at the chance to invest several million dollars in Vail’s future. “There will be some hassles and changes, but that’s evolution. Everybody should want to be part of it,” he says.
The overall timetable calls for approving of most of the announced new hotels and commercial upgrades in 2003, moving ahead in 2004 and 2005 and wrapping things up five years from now.
One trick is to schedule construction crews and cranes well so as not to have to do anything twice. The bigger trick is to come up with $60 million in funds for heated sidewalks, landscaped plazas, fountains and other public embellishments to complement the privately-funded projects.
Today the council is scheduled to look at tax increment financing, better known as TIF. Often called “free money without new taxes,” TIF generates money by freezing tax bases within a specified district. Once redevelopment takes place, the higher assessments in property taxes and increased revenues from sales taxes can be used toward financing public improvements within the same district.
TIF wasn’t welcomed with open arms in Vail last time it was on the council’s table two years ago. Property owners opposed an urban renewal district, which requires a finding of blight – the odd combination of “blight” and “Vail” made the front page of the New York Times – and give the town the authority to condemn private property in the course of redevelopment.
A second districting type, known as downtown development authority, would require a vote by all property owners who would have more of a say but make the process likely more tedious and time-consuming.
Other financing mechanisms could range from future ballot questions for higher taxes to business-improvement districts. The town is also looking to make the dozen or so private developers pay at least a third of the $60 million in exchange for leniency in approvals of expansions that push close to public property lines.
Spending money in times when nobody has any to spare – the town is currently cutting $1 million out of its operating fund and hoping voters will approve a property tax increase – makes perfect sense to those in favor of the renaissance.
“It takes vision and courage to do something that might sound a little bit uncomfortable right now,” says Kurz. “I believe we will have to take on a certain, reasonable risk to get this done. We need to consider the next 40 years, not the next two or three.”
The pay-off will be fabulous, says Wharton, and not at the cost of Vail’s character.
“After the renaissance this place is just going to be gorgeous; it is going to be exciting; it is going to be alive,” he says. “We can do this in such a way that it keeps and honors the character of Vail. We are not changing the essence of the community, we are just shining it up and getting it ready for the next 30 years.”
Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 602, or at email@example.com.