Vail Nature Center building needs urgent repairs to reopen this summer
A bit of confusion
The Vail Nature Center is owned by the town of Vail but is the responsibility of the Vail Recreation District. Walking Mountains Science Center operates and manages the facility.
VAIL — The Vail Nature Center is one of the town’s quiet gems, a piece of largely untrammeled mountain terrain in the middle of a busy resort. But the nature center is in trouble.
The biggest trouble was revealed during a study in September 2017. The building that houses the exhibits and offices dates back to the 1940s. A couple of subsequent renovations were finished in the 1970s. Today, the building needs a new roof, the walls are substandard and the place has a rodent problem. It’s essentially unusable for the coming summer season.
The evaluation was part of a broader look at the center by the Hopkins Architecture Team.
Speaking to the Vail Town Council at its Tuesday, March 20, afternoon meeting, Whitney Hopkins detailed a broad examination of what people like, don’t like and would like to see at the facility.
Quoting longtime resident Diana Donovan, Vail Capital Projects Manager told the council, “We’ve really come to a ‘Y’ in the road. … We can’t continue on the path we’ve come from.”
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Oppenheimer said one option is to spruce up the existing facilities but essentially leave the center as it.
The second option is to significantly upgrade the center.
What people want
If the town chooses the upgrade option, the Hopkins Architecture Team took a broad look at what people would like to see, collecting surveys and conducting interviews with about 80 people.
The results of those surveys included a “love list” and a “bug list.”
People say they love the center’s character, educational opportunities and the site itself. Survey respondents don’t like the lack of water, outdated exhibits and inaccessibility.
Accessibility — particularly compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act — is a big deal, Hopkins said. Hopkins told council members about a story she was told about a disabled person’s visit to the Downtown Aquarium in Denver. Staff not only helped that person but then defended the person’s use of a wheelchair to another guest.
“She must have told that story three times when she was talking to us,” Hopkins said.
Beyond accessibility, Hopkins said the center should be more inclusive, catering to people from other countries. Surveys showed the center should be welcoming, easy to find and, if possible, better integrated into other uses at Ford Park.
Surveys also indicate that visitors want to see the nature center include a combination of modern elements with acknowledgment of the valley’s history.
Education is also a key element of what people want to see at the nature center. Hopkins said people who participated in the evaluation want to see a place for education, a kind of library and a place for people to “protect and live gracefully with nature.”
The immediate need
Oppenheimer said there are two recommendations to the council.
One is what possible improvements could be funded. That will require meeting more with the council, as well as talking to community members about possible improvements to the facility.
The more immediate need is fixing the existing building so it can be used this summer.
Council members unanimously supported those short-term fixes.
“We clearly need to fix the structure,” council member Jenn Bruno said. But, she added, the town also needs to create a clear management plan, particularly given its jumbled ownership and management.
“The nature center is just kind of there,” Bruno said. “It’s falling through the cracks.”
Mayor Dave Chapin agreed, saying it’s essential that the town, the Vail Recreation District and Walking Mountains Science Center need to figure out which entity is responsible for what parts of an improvement program.
Outside the meeting room, Oppenheimer and Vail Recreation District Director Mike Ortiz were talking with the Hopkins team.
Asked if it’s possible to get the nature center building usable by this summer, Ortiz and Oppenheimer answered together: “Yes.”
“This is a great opportunity for us,” Bruno said inside the meeting room. “There’s so much passion and love for the nature center. … There are challenges … but there’s a great opportunity to create something that’s a gem for our community.”
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org and @scottnmiller.