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The growing role of local government

Matt Zalaznick

Cities and counties own football stadiums, so, some Vail leaders argue, what’s wrong with a town renting out its pavilion for weddings and parties, or with owning an affordable apartment complex?

Critics argue that’s not the town’s job – and in the case of the pavilion, the municipal government is even competing with local businesses that provide the majority of the town’s spending money through sales taxes.

Former Vail mayor Rob Ford says the town of Vail deserves a little more scrutiny as it expands its responsibilities and business interests.

“It’s just not being discussed. It’s quietly happening and I’m not sure it’s been fleshed out,” Ford says. “But maybe this is what people want. Maybe they want the role of government to expand.”

The town is in the early stages of designing a conference center in Lionshead that many expect will give a huge economic boost to the economy by filling up hotel rooms and restaurants, particularly during the summer and off-seasons.

The newly dedicated Donovan Park Pavilion is about to open in West Vail. The town has hired a private company to manage and book special events there. Earlier this year, the town also purchased the aging Timber Ridge apartment complex, to keep rents there “affordable.”

“I don’t think the proper role for the Town Council is to be a developer,” Ford says. “I don’t think the proper role is to operate a pavilion that competes with the people who pay their salaries.”

A public facility

Vail Town Councilman Rod Slifer, who was involved in the design of Donovan Park Pavilion, is now the chairman of the committee overseeing the conference center. Both facilities, he says, should benefit the town substantially, though they have different targets. The pavilion was envisioned as a local gathering place while the conference center is strictly aimed at luring more visitors, Slifer says.

“The (conference center) is strictly for commercial purposes. It is specifically designed to attract business from outside the community, and from outside Colorado, to come to Vail and use that facility, to stay in hotel rooms and drink a lot of beer,” Slifer says. “The pavilion was always intended to be available to the public.”

And the public already is interested in the pavilion, says Cindy Clement, co-owner of the firm managing the facility. She says the pavilion, which opens next week, is already reserved for all but three Saturdays next summer, Clement said.

“It’s amazing the amount of bookings we have, and the interest,” Clement says.

The conference center, meanwhile, is expected to cost between $30 million and $40 million. Ford says there a risk of the costs inflating. He says the town already has spent $1.6 million studying the piece of land where the conference center will be built between the Lionshead parking garage and Dobson Ice Arena. The town had considered building a luxury hotel and a recreation center there, Ford says.

“It’s got to be the most expensive quarter-acre of ground in Colorado,” Ford says.

Vail residents, however, are not paying to design or build the conference center. The construction will be funded by an increase in the local tax on hotel rooms that was approved by voters last fall.

“It truly does not cost taxpayers anything, unless they stay in a hotel room and pay that tax,” Slifer says.

Breaking even

Taxpayers may be liable, however, once the center’s open. If the the center’s revenue doesn’t cover expenses, taxpayers would have to make up the difference. But that, of course, is not the idea, Slifer says.

“Hopefully, we’ll operate efficiently enough that we won’t have an operating loss every year and after two or three years, we should break even.” Slifer says. “If it’s built for the correct customers, the customers who want that kind of facility, it should pay for itself.”

Vail has hired a hospitality consulting firm to study the proposal. The consultants will suggest how much the town should spend building the conference center and how big it should be.

Ultimately, Slifer says, the resort town of Vail has responsibilities different from other municipalities.

“A town’s primary function is to provide municipal services – and if you are a resort community, the pavilion is one of the municipal services you need to provide,” Slifer says. “If you’re Silt, Colorado, you probably don’t need one.”

Business boosters

As Slifer has said, both the conference center and the pavilion are expected to generate revenue for town, either directly or indirectly. But this policy of funding revenue generating projects is being questioned by those who believe the local government’s primary job is to fix up the streets, plow snow and man police and fire departments.

Ford says the local economy will recover without the local government spending too much money or energy.

“The role of this government has been that of savior,” Ford says. “But I think Vail is going come back. I don’t think Vail is in as dire a situation as some do.”

Jim Lamont, director of the Vail Village Homeowner’s Association, says the money spent building Donovan Park Pavilion could have been used better – and sooner – supporting businesses in the village, the heart of the town’s economy.

“It’s the public streets and ways that are shabby. A lot of buildings have been fixed up themselves,” Lamont says. “The last entity you would turn to to lead a revival of the community is the municipal government – that’s for the private sector to do.”

Work to improve Bridge Street –which includes installation of a snow-melting system – should begin next spring and continue past the following ski season.

Town Councilman Dick Cleveland, who has sponsored an ongoing economic summit for local merchants to discuss problems seen as interfering with business, says the government has a limited, but useful, role in the economy.

“Nobody is more for the private sector doing their part than I am,” Cleveland says. “One of the biggest complaints is that people look to the town of Vail to solve the problems. We have a role to play in sprucing up the streets, providing parking and working with businesses to make the town vital.”

“A preservation issue’

The town bought the Timber Ridge apartments because they were in danger of being re-developed into a more upscale complex.

“There are cities all over the country that are involved in low-income housing and the only way we were going to preserve 190 units of affordable housing was probably to buy it,” Cleveland says. “For us, this was a preservation issue.”

The complex is old and likely will require renovations and upgrades in coming years Cleveland says, and the town, therefore, has considered either selling the complex or hiring a private company to manage it.

“We’ve also been approached by people who want to take it over and develop it, for a fee,” Cleveland says. “They would operate it and they would rebuild it. When we began this journey that was our original goal.”

Cleveland says Vail has not taken any drastic steps in public facilities, the economy or housing.

“I don’t think we’re doing a lot of things differently,” he says, “but we’re doing a lot of things, even though we get accused of doing nothing.”

Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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