Town at odds over a conference center
Supporters says it will single-handedly jump-start Vail’s seasonal economy into a year-round gear; opponents, however, call it an expensive “Trojan Horse” with no significant benefit to the local economy.Councilwoman Diana Donovan, the lone dissenter in Tuesday’s 6-1 vote, says the proposed 20,000-square-foot meeting space could be a failure.”We can’t get the people here to fill it,” she says.A two-hour drive from Denver International Airport and a 30-minute journey from Eagle Regional Airport is a detriment to large conventions in Vail, she explains.”We hear so much about the business lost,” she says in reference to an estimate by the Vail Valley Chamber & Tourism Bureau. “What we don’t talk about is how many conventions we don’t get that we could handle.”Donovan says she opposed asking the voter to approve a half-percent increase in sales taxes and a 1.5-percent increase in lodging taxes because the taxes will compete with the council’s approved plan to ask voters to improve yet another tax hike – a 4 mill increase to the town’s property taxes.Despite a $9 million contribution by Vail Resorts in the form of a land donation for the proposed center at the west end of Lionshead, Donovan says, the town will carry the burden of a financial obligation that benefits the ski company first and foremost.”It’s a convention center for the Marriott,” Donovan says. “It’s the biggest, closest hotel to it.”Vail Resorts purchased the Marriott Hotel in 2001, following a fire that damaged on of its wings.Vail resident Rick Scalpello refers to a financial plan that predicts the center will lose as much as $100,000 annually for the first three years before breaking even – while costing $4 million in debt payments for a gradual annual increase of sales tax revenues of about $1 million.Scalpello says he is not against a convention center, just opposed to “having the people pay” for it.Supporters of the conference center, including council members and Vail business owners, say they stand behind the plan. The tax increase, they says, would be largely shouldered by guests.”This thing is the single most important thing we can do,” says Councilman Greg Moffet. “This isn’t going to be paid for by us unless we check into hotels.”Vail Mayor Ludwig Kurz says despite Vail’s anti-convention hall track record, the newest proposal isn’t automatically doomed.”There is a shift in the thinking,” he says. “Just because we have said “no’ in the past doesn’t mean that we are not beginning to see the light.”Stan Cope, manager of the Lodge Tower, says the center “is a means to an end.” It would even out and enhance Vail’s highly-seasonal economy, he says.Cope, who heads up a group of local lodge managers who say they will campaign for the conference center, says the center is expected to bring in $34 million in gross revenues annually and raise $10 million in additional wages and benefits to employees, who already live here.Plans for a conference center has been on Vail’s communal agenda since 1987, when voters resoundingly rejected the $16 million Congress Hall project. And the $76 to $100 million Vail Center project died at the hands of Vail’s former council last year.Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at email@example.com.