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Vail conference center creates buzz

Matt Zalaznick

One hitch is Vail’s worsening parking congestion, particularly on busy ski weekends. The town hopes parking built for the conference center, which is likely to built in or near Lionshead, also could solve both town’s and ski company’s growing traffic problems.

But that hasn’t discouraged groups eager to plan meetings in Vail, says Frank Johnson, president of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau.

“There is a palpable buzz in the industry about Vail’s conference center, and meeting planners are anxious to know when it will be completed,” Johnson says.

“Interest in resort meetings has skyrocketed over the past several years,” he adds, “and we’ve now exceeded the capacity of our “in-hotel’ meeting facilities to handle the demand.”

Before last fall – when voters approved a tax increase to fund construction of a conference center – the Chamber and Tourism Bureau was contacted by approximately 120 groups that wanted to book conferences in Vail in 2001 or 2002, but who could not be accommodated because there was no adequately-sized meeting space, Johnson says.

Almost three quarters of these groups wanted to hold meetings in the summer or fall months, when business slows. The groups could have spent as much as $80 million in the valley, Johnson says.

“We have continued to track business lost, and since the beginning of the year we have seen another 29 substantial meetings go elsewhere because we did not have adequate meeting space,”Johnson says.

Two pieces of land have been proposed for the conference center.

One is Vail Mountain’s maintenance yard, where Sno-Cats, plows and other vehicles are parked just west of Lionshead, between the South Frontage Road and Interstate 70. The other spot is the so-called Charter bus lot, which is near the Lionshead parking garage.

Both spots are OK with the ski company, says Matt Sugar, director of public affairs for Vail Resorts Development Company.

“I think (the conference center) is very likely to get built,” Sugar says. “It is taking some time to get things started.”

At the heart of the discussion is how many parking spots are needed for the conference center and how many of those could be used by skiers and snowboarders in the winter.

Studies have shown Vail needs between 500 and 800 more parking spaces, while early estimates say the conference center would require only 400 spaces.

Vail Resorts’ plan to renovate Lionshead is complicating the problem. That renovation is likely to eliminate some of the parking spots where the company’s employees park.

“One of the problems is the parking issue,” Sugar says. “There’s some negativity out there over the lack of progress and there are some people who never supported it and probably won’t no matter how successful it is, but I think our goal and town’s goal and lodging community’s goal – as well as the goal of tourism interests who’ve supported this – is we want to see it move forward and we want to make sure it’s going in right direction.”

Progress has been made at recent meetings between the town and Vail Resorts, Sugar says.

“I think we’re making some headway,” Sugar says. “We, as a company, don’t want to stall this process.”

Vail planning director Russ Forrest said a pair of “scenarios” will be presented to the Vail Town Council at its meeting May 20. Council members will be told about the pros and cons of building the conference at the two proposed sites.

“Parking is the crux of the issue,” Forrest said. “We’ve told (Vail Resorts) they need to address parking for employees. How they do they do that and continue to provide land for conference center, I don’t have the answer today but that’s answer we’re working toward.”

Meanwhile, the Chamber and Tourism Bureau is keeping a list of more than 100 meeting planners who want to stay informed about conference center’s progress, Johnson says.

And interest should surge when ground is broken on the building and a projected opening date is set, he says.

Chamber and Tourism Bureau Chairman Steve Pope says the merchants’ organization is “firmly committed” to completion of the conference center.

“Our lodging council, board of directors and an overwhelming majority of our members see this as one of the most significant steps the town of Vail can make to insure a sound economic future and workable tax base,” says Pope, who also is the publisher of the Vail Daily. “We hope the parking and site negotiations can be completed expeditiously so that the project’s potential benefits can be achieved as soon as possible.”

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


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