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Vail merchants seek independence

Matt Zalaznick

A campaign to give Vail merchants more say over how money is spent to promote shops, restaurants and lodges has stumbled over the business owners’ desire to break free from the “iron claw” of local government.Those advocating the formation of a Vail Business Improvement District – which would allow merchants to tax themselves to raise money for marketing and special events – learned this week their proposal to manage their own finances without the town’s help likely violates state law.That finding by the town’s attorney, Matt Mire, however, didn’t drive the business district’s backers to throw in the towel.”What this business community needs is some point to rally around and become more inclusive and less fractionalized,” said Bill Jensen, chief operating officer of Vail Mountain and a Vail Chamber and Business Association board member.Fledgling ideaThe Vail Chamber and Business Association, which is funded by the town, has worked to support local business, though it has some strong critics among local merchants. Forming a business improvement district was suggested by Councilman Greg Moffet shortly after the Town Council, scrambling to save cash, first considered cutting the $1.2 million it has spent each year promoting local businesses.The final decision on the funding has yet to be made. Meanwhile, Mire said this week that the state law governing the formation of business districts doesn’t allow such an organization to have total control over its own budget.The business district proposal drawn up by Vail merchants – and their attorney – does not offer the Town Council final oversight of the organization’s finances.”My opinion is that the submitted proposal is illegal,” said Mire, adding that he was still negotiating the proposal with the merchants’ attorney.Some council members said they hoped the problems could be worked out. Councilman Bill Jewitt, an owner of Bart & Yetti’s bar in Lionshead, said the problem was with state law, not with local merchants insisting on autonomy. People who tax themselves, he said, should have the ultimate say over how the money is spent.”It would be wonderful if the business community could get together and take control of its own destiny,” Jewitt said. “If this is truly an initiative of the business community for the business community, I think the business community needs to have some control.”To make the business improvement district a reality, supporters need to the backing of the owners of 50 percent of the commercial property in the town. But because that backing could come from just a few large landowners -such as Vail Resorts – supporters say they hope many smaller business owners also will back the plan.If enough business owners support the idea, the proposal would then go to the Town Council. Once it’s past the council, members of the district would elect a board that would ask business owners themselves to vote on the level of taxes the improvement district would impose.”This will solve a lot of problems’Moffet said a business improvement district would be a major improvement over the way the town currently doles out funds.”It’s really just insane if you think about it,” Moffet said. “I think this will solve a lot of problems with the way we’re doing things currently.”Town Councilman Dick Cleveland also said the town and local merchants should figure out how to make the district a reality.”I think there’s great potential in the business community to form a (business improvement district) that’s broadly representative,” he said. “I would hate to see it die at this point.”Steve Rosenthal, owner of Colorado Footwear, said the formation of the district will take some work.”This is not a slam-dunk kind of thing,” Rosenthal said. “I think it does take some creative thinking.”Jensen suggested the problems of oversight could be worked out if the Town Council handled its authority with “velvet gloves” instead of an “iron claw.”The business district, Jensen told council members, “is the only opportunity I can see that will bring all the players to the table to have a vote and have a voice.””And,” he added, “provide all of you with the confidence that it’s a community-wide initiative and not the initiative of one group or another.”Matt Zalaznick can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 606, or via e-mail at mzalaznick@vaildaily.com.


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