Town of Vail seeking its next game changer |

Town of Vail seeking its next game changer

Four big ideas

• Vail: Pete Seibert and Earl Eaton found a great place for a ski area at the base of Vail Pass, then found enough investors and like-minded adventurers to make the place happen.

• Interstate 70: High mountains? Car-busting climbs? An ecological wonder of a canyon? No big deal for a country that put a man on the moon.

• Vail’s renaissance: The town was looking its age in the late 1990s. About a decade later, the resort had been transformed.

• A Vail conference center: This time, the stars — and dollars — didn’t align.

VAIL — Throughout the course of the past 15 years or so, Vail has transformed itself and successfully shaken off most of the effects of a calamitous economic slump. Now what?

Town of Vail council members and other officials gathered recently to talk about the town’s budget for 2016 and beyond. The overall news is good, including the fact that the town is expected to have nearly $38 million in the bank in 2019. That’s nowhere near the all-time high of nearly $73 million in 2011. But the town in the past several years has taken on projects ranging from improvements at Ford Park to paying down virtually all of the town’s long-term debt.

The town should remain in good financial shape for the foreseeable future — snowless years and national and international calamities notwithstanding — with growing sales tax revenues and continued success on Vail Mountain.

There are other big projects on the horizon. The town has committed more than $8 million to pay roughly one-third the cost of a new underpass beneath Interstate 70 between the main and west Vail interchanges to link the town’s North and South Frontage roads. The town will also commit an as-yet-unknown amount of money to create a housing project in West Vail generally north of the first station in that part of town.

As the budget meeting — held in the magnificent Grand View meeting room atop the Lionshead Parking Structure — started to wind down, council members talked about how best to use the town’s still-limited resources. Talk ranged from new bus shelters to bike path lighting and open space acquisition.

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As the discussion continued, Mayor Andy Daly said, “There’s nothing here that will make us a more unique or desirable place in 10 years than we are now.”

Daly added was hoping to hear some big ideas, the kind that have brought Vail to resort-world prominence and kept it there.

The original big idea was Vail itself, of course, a rare combination of inspiration, acumen and plenty of audacity. That set the tone for much of the resort’s life. The big ideas often work — Vail’s “renaissance” of the first decade of this century transformed the town. Sometimes those ideas fall flat — town voters in the early 2000s approved a tax specifically to build a conference center, but after years of planning and debate, the idea simply became too costly.

Don’t Revive Old Ideas?

Former Mayor Bob Armour — who didn’t attend the budget meeting — said the ideas that fell flat, including the conference center and a possible aquatic center, shouldn’t be revived.

“I think we’ve beaten those to death,” Armour said.

That doesn’t mean the ideas themselves have breathed their last.

People in town, including council member Margaret Rogers, are talking about some sort of meeting space for smaller groups. While the words “conference center” still provoke chills from many town residents, people are again talking about finding space for educational presentations, small performances or other uses.

There aren’t even firm ideas about what such a center would look like — much less what it would be called — but meeting space could be part of the program if the town ultimately decides to replace its aging municipal buildings. The current town hall dates to the 1970s, and the office building on the west side of the municipal campus parking lot, the town’s old post office, is even older.

Town officials have looked, in vain, at ideas including joint ventures with Vail Valley Medical Center to redevelop that property. At this point, though, the town may have to tackle that job itself. How to pay that very large bill remains the most persistent question.

Daly asked the group gathered at the meeting whether the town might want to start talking about acquiring the land where the U.S. Forest Service has offices at Dowd Junction. That property, if it could be acquired, could be used for housing or parking. In a similar vein, council member Greg Moffet suggested negotiating with the State Land Board to acquire some of that property in eastern Eagle-Vail.

“Dreaming big could help solve our parking issues, but it’s not going to be easy,” Daly said.

Longtime Vail resident Jim Lamont — who’s also the director of the Vail Homeowners Association — said the town needs to be encouraged to think more closely about transportation and parking.

“We need to find parking for 1,000 cars,” Lamont said. “Once that’s built, the business opportunity needs to be brought in line with that.”

Lamont noted that as Vail becomes virtually booked up on busy weekends. There’s more pressure to build business during the week. That puts further pressure on transportation and parking.

Big Thinking Required

The solutions, Lamont said, require big thinking, and laying the groundwork for future town councils to build upon.

Armour held a different view.

“Let’s get Chamonix and (the underpass) going,” he said. “Then let’s refresh and refine and modernize our existing infrastructure and town hall. We have more people living and visiting here now. Our facilities need capacity and smoothness to handle that increased traffic.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, or @scottnmiller.

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