Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler reflects on long career
Over the years
There’s a long list of projects and accomplishments Vail Town Manager Stan Zemler has helped bring to fruition. Here’s a very short, arbitrary list:
• 2004: Zemler is a founding member of the I-70 Coalition, a group of governments and businesses advocating for improvements on, and studying the interstate corridor through the mountains.
• 2005: “Green Action” environmental program initiated.
• 2006: Economic Advisory Council created.
• 2007: Seven construction cranes are operating in town — the crane is named Vail’s official bird.
• 2010: The Ritz-Carlton, Four Seasons and Solaris are complete, the last major projects of the “Vail Renaissance.”
• 2013: Vail’s sales tax collections surpass those of 2008, the previous peak year.
• 2015: Vail approves a cost-sharing agreement for an underpass beneath Interstate 70 to link the north and south frontage roads.
• 2016: The Gore Creek Strategic Action Plan is adopted.
VAIL — Stan Zemler is adamant: He isn’t retiring, simply ready for the next phase in his life. Still, he’s earned a slower pace.
When Vail Mayor Dave Chapin brings down his gavel to adjourn the April 4 meeting of the Vail Town Council, Zemler will be finished with more than 13 years of council meetings. The search goes on for his replacement.
Zemler, the longest-tenured town manager in Vail’s 50-year history, has spent 10 years working for five mayors and dozens of council members. In that time, he’s helped direct those council members and the town’s employees through good times and bad. After some lean years following a national recession that began in 2008, the town is riding high again.
But that’s where we are. It’s important to understand where we were when Zemler took the town manager’s job in October 2003.
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Zemler was the director of the Boulder Chamber in 2003. Before that, he’d spent more than a decade as that community’s deputy city manager, and had the itch to return to public administration. When the job in Vail came up, Zemler applied. It was close to the Front Range, and he’d been a frequent visitor.
Ludwig Kurz, Vail’s Mayor at the time, lobbied hard to hire Zemler. He’s said more than once that was one of the best decisions that council made.
Refreshing the town
When Zemler arrived, the town was thinking about its future. A consultant’s presentation early in his tenure put ski resorts in the Mountain West on a bell curve. Places including Deer Valley were on the good side of the curve — they were young and innovative. Vail and Aspen were on the decline side of the curve.
In addition, the town as an organization was being criticized for being too insular. That’s where Zemler said his chamber experience helped.
In that job, “you’re out there, a big part of the community and having relationships with people,” he said. He wanted to bring that to his new job.
A lot of Vail’s ideas were already in place in its drive to refresh itself.
“Vail was ready for some action, and I was ready for some action. The two lined up,” he said.
That action in some cases meant the town worked with developers, who then brought projects to life.
In the case of the Vail Village streetscape project, the job turned into close management. For the streetscape project, that meant putting employees in charge of various parts of the organization to manage the fine details. There were weekly meetings, and weekly reports to the council and the public about what would happen, and when.
A project in Vail Village that includes big trucks and deep trenches needs that kind of attention.
Facing the down times
As Vail’s “Billion-dollar renewal” was starting to wind down, the national economy went into a trench of its own. Locals hoped this slump would pass by. It didn’t, and both business and town revenues were soon dropping, and quickly.
At the urging of former council member Kent Logan, a veteran of the financial industry, Vail soon spent some of its precious cash reserves on a marketing effort, “Vail All the Love.”
That campaign kept people coming to town, and kept Vail ahead of its competitors.
Still, the town had to cut $4 million out of its operating budget during the darkest days of the slump. Revenues fell for 15 months.
People who were hired for a few months, or a couple of years, weren’t renewed. People who resigned or retired weren’t replaced.
But Vail puts different kinds of demands on those who provide municipal services. Did anyone notice the town had cut backs?
While the rest of the country was still trying to recover, the town paid off all of its long-term debt. The town remains debt-free.
There are lots of nuts and bolts involved in town government. It’s necessary work, but most people aren’t particularly interested. The payoff is what people notice.
“The part I like best is watching what came alive: skating rinks, a movie theater, a bowling alley … just the quality of the experience,” Zemler said.
Working with others
Zemler is proud of what the town has accomplished while he’d been on the job, but he’s also quick to note that he was part of a team.
Town managers serve at the pleasure of elected officials. The average tenure in those jobs is measured in simply a few years.
Staying in a high-pressure job like Zemler’s has required building relationships and trust, from both elected officials and the people the manager manages.
Town of Vail employees tend to stay in their jobs for a long time. That’s been important in building a culture, Zemler said. “We have a phenomenal organization, full of people who work hard and take pride in what they do. I’m not responsible for that,” he said. But, he added, he’s helped guide some staff members.
“Sometimes you have to help them channel (their energies) a little bit,” he said. That includes setting expectations, including responding to any call or email within 24 hours.
Former Vail Town Council member Mark Gordon has worked with Zemler as an elected official, as a citizen of the town, and as a member of the town’s economic development and special events committees.
Gordon said Zemler has been great to work with in all of those roles.
“When we’ve disagreed, I knew his point of view was coming from an honest place, a smart place, and putting Vail first,” Gordon said. “He always made very compelling, very smart arguments … He’s very good at setting up a situation without taking sides.”
That’s important in building relationships. So is a sense of humor. It doesn’t often show up in town meetings, but Zemler’s a pretty funny guy. He smiles easily, and his wisecracks generally find the right audience, even if the general public may not be in on the joke.
Since he’s announced his resignation, Zemler said he’s been surprised by how many relationships he has in the town. Part of that comes from being out and about, although he jokes that “I go to the grocery store at (2 a.m.).”
“I can take a walk down Bridge Street and I’ll be there for an hour,” he said. “I had a really fun hour yesterday with Pepi (Gramshammer), Bill Hanlon and Joe Hanlon.”
What people seem to realize is that Zemler cares about Vail. People want to know that.
Whatever Zemler’s future holds, it’s likely he’ll bring the same passion he brought to Vail. And, he said, he might stick around, for the fun of it.
“I like hiking, slipping up the mountain in the morning, riding my bike,” he said. Whatever’s next, Zemler wants to spend a little time as possible in an office. And, he said, he’d like a radio, like the ones carried by firefighters and public works crews.
He actually has a radio now, given to him at a going-away party.
It doesn’t work, but at least he has a radio.
Vail Daily Business Editor Scott Miller can be reached at 970-748-2930, firstname.lastname@example.org or @scottnmiller.
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.