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Vail conference center inching toward November ballot

Geraldine Haldner

This fall, however, a group of Vail lodge managers is determined to convince voters that support for the town’s newest proposed, $46 million conference center is a vote of confidence in Vail’s future.”This is an exciting time for Vail,” said Rob LeVine, general manager of the Antlers at Vail and a member of a loose group of local lodge managers who want to see a conference center built. “We are poised to build a conference center.”While debates of the merits of such a project have been on Vail’s communal agenda since 1987, when voters resoundingly rejected the $16 million Congress Hall project, actual ballot questions have been scratched in more recent years when price tags boomed and programs ballooned out of control.The $76 million Vail Center project – which included a conference facility, a learning center, a climbing wall, a second ice rink and other community amenities on the Charter Bus lot – died at the hands of Vail’s former council as a ballot deadline neared in 2000.Two years later, the time is right for a conference center, proponents told the Vail Town Council this week during a brief overview of their efforts to get a bonding question for the $46 million project on this fall’s ballot.”It would be foolish not to take advantage of this opportunity,” said Vail businessman Tom Mullen, adding that he would “resoundingly support this proposal” even if it means collecting half a percent more in sales taxes.The opportunity spawning the lodging community’s effort to bring forth a new, simpler and cheaper project was Vail Resorts’ recent offer to the town to set aside the North Day Lot if the town or the business community could come up with a plan to build and pay for a conference facility. The two-acre parcel, next to the Marriott’s Mountain Resort at Vail, in Lionshead, is one of five separate properties the ski company plans to redevelop during a massive $400 “renaissance” of Lionshead over the next six years.The newest proposal, presented by Stan Cope, manager of the Lodge Tower, envisions a combined November ballot question that would ask voters to approve a half-percent increase in the town’s 4 percent sales tax, as well as a 1.5 percent increase of the 1.4 tax on short-term lodging accommodations. The estimated $2 million in additional annual taxes would go towards paying off $46 in bond debt, which would end once the center is paid for.The newest price tag – $30 million cheaper than the Vail Center – has been whittled down from a $60 million price tag.Cope said moving the project across South Frontage Road to the Holy Cross Maintenance Shop site, has allowed for “much simpler construction.” The six-acre lot, which currently houses Vail Resorts’ maintenance equipment, would be more cost-efficient, Cope said, because “it’s easier, it’s flat.”Plans for the North Day Lot, Cope said, made for a “very small, very vertical center” that would have driven up costs for burrowing a 250-space parking structure underground, as well as made it less functional by piling future expansion phases onto a 20,000-square-foot ballroom.”We would maybe get a “B’ or a “B+’ rating,” Cope said of the lodging group’s reasons to consider a different location to accommodate a meeting place with a capacity of nearly 2,000 people.”This was a significantly better site,” Cope said, adding that the new location, though more removed from the commercial core of Vail, wouldn’t “make that much of a difference.” Plus, he said, it would incorporate West Vail businesses – from the Vail Cascade Resort & Spa to businesses in the West Vail Mall.With the blessing of the ski company, the committee, Cope said, has been working off data gathered during the Vail Center planning process and will have a complete convention center proposal back to the council by Aug. 20 – the deadline for ballot question approval.Porter Wharton III, Vail Resorts’ senior vice president of public affairs, said the ski company is open to the change in location and continues to support a convention center with its pledge to donate the land.The North Day Lot “is back in play,” Wharton said, for a transportation center as envisioned in the Lionshead Master Plan.The lone critic in the good cheer for a convention center called $46 million in new debt “irresponsible” considering the town’s current economic woes and long list of unfunded projects.I’m shocked,” said Rick Scalpello, Vail property owner and taxpayer. “We right now have no idea what’s on the capital projects list.”Council members, who earlier seemed to have reservations for a $60 million price tag, had compliments for the change in convention center plans.”Get the answer to all our questions and good job,” said Councilman Greg Moffet, adding that it is encouraging to see the business community drive this project forward “after years of the elected officials achieving absolutely nothing.”LeVine said a passage of a motion to put the conference center on the November ballot on Aug 20 would set the town’s business community in motion.”If you put this on the ballot, you are going to have a very aggressive campaign taking place,” he said.Geraldine Haldner covers Vail, Minturn and Red Cliff. She can be reached at (970) 949-0555, ext. 602 or at ghaldner@vaildaily.com.


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