Vail Daily Year in Review, Part 1: Community and government happenings, warm fuzzies |

Vail Daily Year in Review, Part 1: Community and government happenings, warm fuzzies

John LaConte and Randy Wyrick
Eagle River Fire Protection District Board of Directors Chairman Clint Jannsen speaks to the audience at the Thursday, Oct. 19, grand opening ceremony for a new joint public safety facility in Avon. The fire district and Avon Police Department are sharing space in the new building.
Daily file photo |

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a five-part series reviewing the biggest news in the Vail Valley in 2017. Find additional installments in the paper in coming days and at

As 2017 winds down, you’ve probably already seen a number of year in review pieces elsewhere. Depending on where you look, some will take a downbeat tone. Not here.

Sure, the Denver Broncos have had their worst year since 2011. Sure, our beloved mountains are behind on snowfall. And yes, national politics is … well … let’s not talk about it, OK?

But here in the Vail Valley, we had quite the year. After years of inaction, there’s workforce housing being built. If you own a home, then you have to be happy with the state of the real estate market right now. And our economy is humming along pretty well.

With that in mind, let’s take a look back at 2017’s highs, lows and in-betweens.

Community happenings

• Avon builds a joint public safety facility — In Avon, the area between Nottingham Road, Swift Gulch Road and Buck Creek Road has been transformed from a grassy field into an area offering police services, fire services and 24-hour medical care. In 2017, the police and fire departments were finally able to move into their facility, which the town calls the joint public safety facility.

The deal started with the town manager talking to the Fire Protection District out of concern over wildfire mitigation. Like a wildfire, the discussion quickly spread. The police department was sharing a building with town hall at the time, but expressed that it would rather be sharing a building with the fire department. The town had been preparing to move offices into a different building, as well, and wanted to see the police find a new home.

With so many parties involved, negotiations were intense. The town manager said any negotiator would be impressed with the way each party never lost sight of the end goal.

“We never blew it up,” she said. “We never, during a period of not seeing eye to eye, elevated the debate to something that we couldn’t come back to the table over.”

• School construction — In November 2016, Eagle County voters gave the school district permission to borrow and spend $144 million ($233 million with interest) to build stuff great and small. In January, the school district saved about $4 million by waiting to borrow the money after interest rates dropped. The school district completed almost $30 million worth of construction and renovation projects in the summer of 2017.

• Red Cliff gets high-speed internet — In Red Cliff, bringing broadband speed internet to town has topped the town’s list of goal for much of the decade.

But accomplishing that goal was not easy. With no fiber-optic cable coming into town, a signal needed to be beamed in from the nearest place that had it. Surrounded by mountains on most sides, there were very few places one could imagine — and even fewer one could actually see — finding fiber-optic cable.

But Ski Cooper had an option. Beaming a signal into Red Cliff from Ski Cooper required special permitting from the U.S. Forest Service and also required the town to go through the National Environmental Protection Act process for installing its tower. Also, it had to acquire the land for that tower.

It took years, but it finally wrapped up in 2017 and the town was “lit,” as its internet service provider described the process of bringing high speed internet to town.

• Best. Parks. Ever — You can add a motocross track to Gypsum’s long list of city parks, part of the only open space deal like it anywhere. The motocross park joins Gypsum’s parks, which include a gun range, world championship-caliber horseshoe courts, golf courses, one of Colorado’s largest recreation centers, a sports complex and all kinds of regular parks.

Ski resort upgrades

• Beaver Creek unveils Red Buffalo Express — Vail Resorts has been upgrading its old style of chairlift — where the chair is fixed to the cable — to the newer, faster style of lift called a “detachable,” where the lift can detach from the cable and move faster up the slope.

In 2017, Beaver Creek Resort transformed the old Drink of Water Lift (No. 5) into the Red Buffalo Express detachable. The new lift was named after the signature, beginner Red Buffalo trail, which provides incredible views of the Gore Range and is named after two signature peaks of the Gore Range, Red peak and Buffalo peak. The new lift will reduced ride times by 50 percent, from 8.6 minutes to 4.3 minutes, and increase uphill capacity by 75 percent.

“Red Buffalo Park is all about more time skiing with your family in an area that focuses on beginners and intermediate skiers and riders. Upgrading Red Buffalo Express Lift will provide high-speed lift access to the amazing beginner terrain at the top of Beaver Creek, resulting in less time riding the lift and more time skiing,” said Beth Howard, chief operating officer of Beaver Creek Resort.

• Vail upgrades Chair 11 — Vail Mountain has also taken on 10 chairlift upgrades in the past 11 years. Transforming fixed-grip lifts to detachable, high-speed lifts was the first round of upgrades, and once that was complete, several of the four-person lifts became six-person lifts for even more efficiency. In 2017, the popular Northwoods Express (No. 11) was the latest to become a six-pack.

“Vail Mountain doesn’t ski the same way it did 10 years ago,” said Doug Lovell, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain. “Vail has made tremendous efforts in the last 11 years to make improvements that directly benefit our guests. The amount of lifts we have built in the time frame we have built them doesn’t happen at other resorts.”

Government and politics

• Hardscrabble Ranch — Toby Sprunk, at the time the head of Eagle County’s open space department, hammered together a massive open space acquisition, the 1,540-acre Hardscrabble Ranch south of Eagle in the Brush Creek Valley. Open space is a far cry from the hundreds of homes proposed when the land was part of the Adam’s Rib Ranch project, a residential and ski resort proposal that had kicked around Eagle since the early 1970s. The Hardscrabble deal means no homes will ever be built on the land.

• Donovan dollars — Sen. Kerry Donovan worked three years to get state funding for rural broadband. Three years she ran a bill, and three years it was killed in some nondescript Senate committee. This year, Donovan managed to stash a $9.45 million line item into the state budget for the Rural Broadband Support Fund.

• Marijuana tax — With the possible exception of pot, nothing this year grew as fast as the number of Eagle County voters approving a countywide marijuana tax, one of the few things Eagle County did not have. The county had depended upon its share of money from state taxes, which added up to only about $250,000 per year.

The new tax will bring in significantly more revenue to county coffers. The first $1.2 million collected annually is to be spent on mental health programs, which was the major selling point for the measure.

Warm fuzzies

• Vail Trailblazer awards — Vi and Byron Brown were this year’s Vail Trailblazers, which gives us the opportunity to tell this story again: There was the time in the early 1970s Vi Brown was volunteering in the Vail information center when a young guy came in with a question: “Do you have any gay hotels?” he asked.

“Oh, they’re all fun!” Vi Brown said excitedly. It wasn’t until later that she realized he might have been asking about something else.

“We could be a little isolated up here,” Vi Brown said.

• Have a heart; have another — Vail Valley native Jennifer Ortiz spent most of her winter in Los Angeles to have her second heart transplant. She was in a hurry to heal. She wanted to make it back to the Vail Valley by summer so she could volunteer again at Roundup River Ranch, a camp for kids with life-threatening medical conditions — like hers. She made it, and is doing fine. Jennifer was just 12 years old when a viral infection set about destroying the heart she was born with.

• Our Kilimanjaro climbers — The Vail Valley is home to the youngest and oldest climbers to scale Mount Kilimanjaro unassisted. Two days before 9-year-old Zach Meltz summited Kilimanjaro, retired Vail orthodontist Dr. Fred Distelhorst, 88, became the oldest. Zach was a fourth-grader at Vail Mountain School at the time and has been at VMS since kindergarten. Distelhorst’s children and grandchildren went to VMS.

• An angel takes wing — Cheryl Jensen founded the Vail Veterans Program in 2004 on hopes, prayers and a fire pole. A guy named Heath Calhoun approached her on the final night, a banquet in the Vail fire station, and told her she had to keep the program going … she had to.

So she did. Jensen will no longer run the program she started, but will still serve on the board. Like any well-run organization, the Vail Veterans Program has a new CEO and is doing fine.

• Piano-playing bear — A bear climbed through an open kitchen window in Vail and, while foraging for food, also feasted on the arts.

A Vail woman returned home to find her home had been broken into. She suspected a burglary and called the Vail Police Department. Police showed up moments later to investigate, and the responding officer looked around and determined their burglar was a bear. The woman checked her security system, which captured the whole thing on video.

The bear wandered around the apartment and at one point went to a piano, put its paws on the keys and banged out a few notes.

“The chords captured on video were unbearable, and the tune was equally grizzly,” Vail police said in a statement.

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