Tom Stone: Eight years in office
Tom Stone never aspired to be a politician. Really. When his wife, Henri, came home eight years ago from a local Republican party meeting and dropped the bombshell that she had nominated him to run for Eagle County commissioner, he was flabbergasted.Eight years and two terms later, as he prepares to turn his office over to incoming commissioner Sara Fisher, he insists that he still has no political ambitions.”I believe really firmly in our system of government,” he says. When elected by the consent of the populace, he explains, it is a politician’s responsibility to be a good representative, a good steward. “People put a lot of trust in their elected officials,” Stone says.Looking back, he says he has been just that – a good steward. In his campaign brochure eight years ago, Stone’s platform included four main goals: create affordable housing for the county’s work force; create greater educational opportunities; embrace the county’s economic diversity; and create more recreational opportunities. Stone says he has kept those four campaign promises.”I was really blessed to be in the right place at the right time, and to be able to identify the needs of the people,” says Stone.
Stone came to the board of commissioners with a 22-year background in real estate, having worked as a broker with Slifer, Smith and Frampton Real Estate and in his own business. Shortly after he took office in 1999, local developer Fred Green put the Riverview Apartment apartments up for sale. The county bought the complex with a government subsidy for very low income renters. “Some people paid only $10-$15 a month, Stone says. Shortly thereafter, the county became involved in the Lakeview Apartments, an housing project in Edwards.When the 110-acre Berry Creek 5th property – sitting undeveloped right smack in the middle of the county – became available in early 1999, he worked with fellow commissioners Johnnette Phillips and James Johnson to purchase the property for $2 million from the town of Vail and the Eagle County Recreational Authority. The Eagle County School District purchased the adjoining 110 acres at Miller Ranch.It took more than a year, and a couple different boards of commissioners, but eventually the county and the school district came up with a plan for the entire 220 acres that included schools, recreation areas, open space and affordable housing. Stone points to the affordable housing at Miller Ranch as a success that should be modeled. The county donated the land, and the developer, ASW Reality, provided the expertise and work force. To keep home sales affordable, profits were limited to 12 percent of the sale price. The county and the developer split the profits.”Sales (of Miller Ranch homes) show we did a great job,” Stone says. “At any given time, there are 10 to 20 people trying to buy residences there.”Miller Ranch also highlighted a philosophy Stone has tried to follow throughout his two terms: “It’s not what we did, but how we did it.” The county stipulated that all the proceeds from Miller Ranch be put back into the property. He estimates the county has made roughly $3 million on sales in excess of $500 million. That money been used to help build Miller Ranch Road and Miller Ranch Bridge, as well as the pond and skatepark at Freedom Park, two baseball fields and four soccer fields. One of the soccer fields has artificial grass, so teams can practice there all winter long.”I’ve always said what we do best in Eagle County is recreation,” says Stone.Stone says there have also been educational benefits from the Miller Ranch project. The school district built Berry Creek Middle School and set aside land for a future high school at Miller Ranch. The county and the school also set aside eight acres for the Colorado Mountain College campus. In exchange for a 50-year basically free lease, the county and school district received free educational credits for their employees.”Really the theme behind all of this is that I don’t want just to try to build buildings; what I want to really try to build is a community,” Stone says.
Stone helped negotiate a deal with the Vail Valley Jet Center to take over the commercial airlines operations. That was followed by the $10.5 million expansion of the Eagle County Regional Airport. Stone also petitioned former senator Ben Nighthorse Campbell for money to pay for an instrument landing system. And, with the help of former county commissioner Dick Gustafson, lobbying efforts also came up with funds for a new tower and radar to help planes land more safely. Work on a 1,000-foot extension to the runway is under way. The airport brings in some $14 million in annual revenues, and has become the second busiest terminal in Colorado during the winter months, Stone says. Stone also helped create the Eagle County Youth Conservation Corps in 2000. The program pays local youth groups for work on forest restoration and other outdoor projects. “It’s something I hope will be continued after I leave office,” says Stone.Stone and his fellow commissioners bought the Golden Eagle Senior Apartments 2002, created subsidized rents for senior citizens. The county is now expanding the senior center. “I really have a special spot in my heart for our seniors,” Stone says. Too often, he adds, the community focuses only on children and young working couples. “I try to treat them (seniors) the way I would want to be treated,” he says. Stone also has served on boards that created the Resource Center for Eagle County and approved a new grandstand, arena and pavilion at the Eagle County Fairgrounds.
Stone is the first to admit that he did not always conduct himself in a manner he was proud of while in office. He has had a contentious, often heated relationship with fellow Commissioner Arn Menconi. “I could have been – I should have been – more of a statesman about how I represented some of my positions,” he says.In fact, he wrote a letter to local newspapers stating, “When passion takes over reason, bad results often occur. I have learned a valuable lesson through this process, but I am ashamed that I did it at the expense of another valuable human being. Unfortunately, Arn was not the only victim of my actions. The county as a whole has suffered.”He insists the angst is not politically instigated. He points out that he was in the political minority six of the eight years he has served as county commissioner. “If you look at the four boards I have served on, I have gotten along with every commissioner but one,” he says. “It was not party affiliated, not political.”He and Menconi personally rubbed each other the wrong way, Stone saysWith his term at an end, Stone says he hasn’t decided what to do next. For now, he says, he’s happy to be going back to being a citizen. He looks forward to putting more energy into his real estate business, which he admits was somewhat neglected during his tenure. He wants to spend more time with friends and family – including his three children, Brittney-Aspen, Jeremiah and Lance.”The one thing that I regret is not having completed a long-term care facility for our seniors,” he says. “Even though I’m not in office, I might even be more effective as a citizen.”Stone says he’ll never forget, when being sworn in by Judge Richard Hart for this first term, someone asked him what he wanted to do, now that he was a commissioner. “I said, ‘I just hope I leave the county in better condition than what I found it,'” he says. “I believe I’ve done that.”This article first appeared in the Eagle Valley Enterprise.