Vail Recreation District director Mike Ortiz honored by state special district group |

Vail Recreation District director Mike Ortiz honored by state special district group

To be clear

The Vail Recreation District runs programs in Vail. The town of Vail owns the facilities, from the Vail Golf Club to the playing fields at Ford Park to Dobson Ice Arena.

VAIL — Mike Ortiz is quick to share credit for success at the Vail Recreation District. Still, the Special District Association of Colorado only hands out three Manager of the Year trophies every year, and they go to individuals.

Ortiz earned the award earlier this year, topping nominees from hundreds of other districts around the state.

“Just being nominated was excellent. To win was wonderful,” district board member Tom Saalfeld told the Vail Town Council at that board’s meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 18.

In fact, the board Ortiz works for nominated him.

“I’m grateful they’d see fit to do that,” Ortiz said.

But Ortiz is quick to add it’s the district staff that deserves the credit for his award.

The district is on firm financial footing these days, but it wasn’t always that way. Ortiz, who’s worked for the district since 1993, recalled that the district’s finances were in tough shape in 2005. In fact, Ortiz said to make payroll at the time, the district had to issue “tax anticipation notes” — essentially loans to be repaid with tax collections.

The staff worked to help right the district’s finances. Five positions were eliminated, which required everyone else to do more work. The district also hired Marchetti & Weaver, an Edwards-based firm that does accounting and administrative work for special districts.

When the turnaround plan began, the district only had a few thousand dollars in the bank. These days, there’s about $3 million in reserves.

“I’m the benefactor” of that work, Ortiz said.

In the fun business

But Ortiz also leads a district that provides a lot of fun for Vail and valley residents. That’s the real award-winning work, he said.

The district provides golf, kids programs, running and mountain bike races, winter events, a whitewater series and more.

More recently, the district — with financial help from the town of Vail — has picked up on the burgeoning popularity of pickleball.

Whitewater and pickleball point to an attitude within the district: Don’t be afraid to try something new.

“We’re always looking” for those new things, Ortiz said.

In looking for new events and programs, it’s important to understand who the participants are. In the case of pickleball, players range from school children to grandparents. Sometimes, grandparents play with those kids on the same court.

There aren’t many activities like that, Ortiz said.

In the case of the whitewater series, the recreation district took over operations from the business that created it.

“They were doing a good job,” he said. “But it’s hard to run a series and run your business.”

That’s why recreation districts are so important, he said. When a staff member or volunteer leaves, those people can be replaced.

We count on them

Putting on programs is a point of pride for the district.

“The public comes to trust that,” Ortiz said.

The public also comes to trust the passion the full-time and seasonal staffers bring to their work.

Like so much else in Vail, part of that passion stems from the surrounding environment. The mountain bike series is a prime example, Ortiz said.

When the district picked up the series from Highline Sports and Entertainment, Ortiz and his staff refined an already-popular series into something bigger.

Now, “it’s something a couple hundred people come out for every other Wednesday,” Ortiz said. That program, like others, is something that appeals to the entire valley.

Popular programs don’t just happen, though. The Kids Adventure Games started with an idea and has grown over the years from the first year’s field of just 50 teams.

Then there’s Dobson Ice Arena.

While popular with youth and adult hockey programs — with occasional visits from college and pro teams — the district isn’t afraid to try other events at the arena.

“Where else do you have an arena that’s had a rodeo, that’s had (mixed martial arts) fights … all kinds of things,” Ortiz said. “We’re not afraid to try.”

That’s why Ortiz is so quick to share his award.

“Everybody does their part — that’s the cool thing,” he said. “I’m so fortunate.”

Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at or 970-748-2930.

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