Vail sees the blight
Lionshead will never be mistaken for South Central Los Angeles, but Vail officials are once again bandying about the “urban blight” term in pursuing ways to finance public improvements in the rundown commercial area.The Town Council at a special meeting on Tuesday, Feb. 4, told staff to pursue a redevelopment district for Lionshead funded by tax increment financing (TIF), a controversial mechanism that requires the town to declare it’s eliminating blight and also carries the power of condemnation.When the TIF idea was first floated several years ago, it fueled stories in The New York Times and other major publications because of the seeming incongruity of declaring urban blight in an ultra-upscale ski town.There was also considerable opposition from homeowners who feared condemnation proceedings and a loss of property values because of the blight designation. Those fears seem to have been somewhat allayed. Only two private citizens addressed the issue Tuesday.”This is the only viable means by which we can underwrite these hardcore infrastructure needs these aren’t just baubles,” says Jim Lamont, executive director of the Vail Village Homeowners Association.The town estimates it will cost between $34.5 million and $44.5 million to redo South Frontage Road though the area, make streetscape improvements and build a transportation facility on the North Day Lot.Planners would like to make all of these upgrades concurrent with $400 million in redevelopment by Vail Resorts of several privately-owned parcels in Lionshead, including two new hotels.”If Vail Resorts is able to financially make their redevelopment parcels work then we really have made a major step forward,” Lamont says of the vast amounts of private capital being committed to what’s been dubbed the Vail Renaissance. “That sends a loud and clear message that Vail is not in decline and re-stimulates our standing as a destination resort, not just as a day skier resort.”Vail has struggled with lagging sales tax revenues as a result of declining destination skier visits, which typically infuse more cash into the local economy than the boom in Front Range skiers stemming from the discount season pass wars of the last few years.TIF allows Vail to freeze the tax base in the redevelopment district at current levels, then bond against the increased property and sales taxes as the area begins to enjoy increased commercial success and residential appeal.It’s estimated TIF would only capture less than half the town funds necessary for all the improvements (about $9.1 million). The town hopes to pay up to $16 million of the overall tab, with the rest coming from private development and the Colorado Department of Transportation. A use tax, special improvements district or a property tax increase are three ideas being floated to make up that $7 million difference.The Town Council directed staff to pursue TIF using an urban renewal authority (URA) rather than a downtown development authority (DDA), which would have required a vote by property owners and tenants. A URA merely requires a petition signed by 25 registered Vail voters.Another difference is URAs can be administered by the Town Council, which then has condemnation powers. A DDA requires a separate board, with only one council member.Lamont, whose organization was extremely skeptical of the TIF concept when it was first discussed, says the association won’t challenge it now, under certain circumstances.”Were willing to take a hard, serious look at a URA if the condemnation with third-party flip is eliminated and there’s neighborhood representation and there’s a bulletproof financial plan that shows how all of this will be paid for, with a binding commitment that those costs will be covered,” Lamont says.”Jim’s worried that we would acquire a piece of land (by condemning it) and flip it to a private developer,” says community development director Russell Forrest. “We’ve never wanted those powers; we don’t need those powers.”Forrest says the town will commit to waiving its condemnation powers and will also set up more of a DDA-style neighborhood board.”This is basically to appease Jim Lamont and his association,” says town spokeswoman Suzanne Silverthorn. “He’s come a long way (in now supporting this), where I think a year ago he would have said over my dead body.”Forrest adds that the fear factor associated with TIF does not appear to be there, at least now, in the ranks of Vail homeowners. “We’re hearing some of the same things Jim is saying from the other associations,” Forrest says.Clearly, the town is more worried about opposition from other local governments, such as Eagle County or the school district, which would not “receive the incremental growth in property and sales tax as a result of the redevelopment,” according to town documents. “This can lead to conflict and litigation which can delay the use of TIF.”Forrest is confident Lionshead meets seven of 14 state criteria for blight, and that TIF is legally defensible.”The county would be acting irresponsibly if they choose to challenge TIF in Vail,” Lamont says.County administrator Jack Ingstad says that since no formal proposal has been made to the county, which he adds is legally required, it’s premature to take a stance on Vail’s TIF plan.”We certainly would support Vail in any effort to redevelop; we’re all for Vail doing well,” Ingstad says. “I think we have a pretty good idea of what they’re doing and we’ve done our homework on these types of financing, but as far as this is concerned, I don’t think that it would be correct to assume we’ve even considered a move to block Vail’s redevelopment. There are options, though, if the county doesn’t like it.”Once a petition is submitted, the Town Council’s next step is to pass a resolution authorizing the URA, approve a specific plan for public improvements and form the URA board.All of this, barring legal challenge, could occur within the next several months, though town officials don’t want to pull the trigger too soon because the TIF clock starts ticking right away and Vail Resorts likely won’t turn dirt in Lionshead until the summer of 2004.
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