Vail Valley Foundation takes silver |

Vail Valley Foundation takes silver

Scott N. Miller
Nathan Abbott/Special to the DailyThe Session is one of the events that helped the Vail Valley Foundation become known.

AVON ” It was an audacious idea.

In 1981, the local ski company, then called Vail Associates, and a group of local residents decided the valley needed a nonprofit group to help make life a little more pleasant. From that idea the Vail Valley Foundation was born.

Since its birth, the foundation has put on the 1989 and 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships, world mountain bike championships, concerts galore and the annual World Forum at Beaver Creek. It was also the driving force behind the purchase of a large piece of open space in Edwards.

From the start, the foundation has pledged to help the valley in athletics, culture and education. It has also been deeply involved with former President Gerald Ford.

“One of our first events was the World Forum in 1981,” foundation director Ceil Folz said. “It really makes the Vail Valley special. But it might be the least known, because it’s all private and off the record.”

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The forum, which brings together political and corporate leaders from around the world for behind-closed-doors conversations, was created as a way to get Ford involved in Beaver Creek, because he had bought one of the first homes there. Ford has always been the event’s host, and his presence has pulled in some of the world’s most influential people over the years.

“It’s possibly the most humbling event we do,” said John Dakin, the foundation’s vice president of communications. “If you’re there, you realize how little you understand about the world.”

The championships

The World Forum remains an annual event. But the foundation is more closely associated with ski racing, and particularly the 1989 and 1999 World Alpine Ski Championships.

“That was an out-of-the-park home run,” said John Horan-Kates, one of the organization’s founders. “We got world-wide exposure, we got a sales tax revenue increase, and we got a lot of infrastructure improvements.”

The road to the 1989 championships began with a celebrity ski race, the Jerry Ford Celebrity Cup. That ski race, a winter companion to the summer Jerry Ford Invitational golf tournament, brought athletes and top-tier celebrities to Beaver Creek to raise money for local charities and scholarships, he said.

“Our first year we had Tom Brokaw from the ‘Today’ show and, I think, Peter Jennings from ‘Good Morning America,'” Horan-Kates said. “Both shows ran pieces on it.”

With the success of the celebrity race, and then a legends race sponsored by Pepi Gramshammer ” a ski great from Austria who opened one of Vail’s first lodges ” the fledgling foundation set its sights on a world cup event, a women’s race. That 1983 race put Vail into the national spotlight again, earning an hour of coverage on NBC.

In the months after the world cup race, Horan-Kates and others from the foundation were at an international ski federation meeting in Interlochen, Switzerland. It was there they learned that Aspen was going to bid for the 1987 world championships.

Horan-Kates asked a contact in the federation to call if anything happened to Aspen’s bid. That call came within a few weeks. Aspen dropped its bid, and the foundation was asked to submit a bid instead.

“We had 16 or 18 days to prepare a bid, in five languages, and get it to Sydney (Australia),” Horan-Kates said. “We did it, and flew to Sydney, and lost by one vote.”

When the next bid came along, for the 1989 championships, the lords of international skiing were waiting.

“They knew we put on good races,” Horan-Kates said.

A big, big bounce

Vail felt the effects of the 1989 event for years.

“That was a special event,” said George Gillett, former owner of Vail Associates. “It was a defining moment in the development of Vail.

“We had tremendous snow that year,” Gillett said. “We had to postpone races because of snow, and that was covered worldwide. In 1990, our international skier days went from 2 percent in 1989 to 13 percent.”

The championships also got the attention of other sports organizing groups. Mountain biking, for instance. The ski event led to the 1994 World Mountain Bike Championships, and, of course, the bid for the 1999 ski championships. That event was a success, too, although Horan-Kates called it “good, if not great.”

The world cup continues to come to Vail and Beaver Creek, and the foundation continues to organize those races. But that’s not all the group does.

Saving the amphitheater

The foundation was set up from the start to focus on athletics, culture and education. The culture part includes sponsorship of everything from shows at the Vilar Center to sponsorship of the Bravo! Vail Valley Music Festival season to the popular, and free Hot Summer Nights concerts in Vail and ShowDownTown concerts in Eagle in the summer.

But one of the foundation’s biggest successes was essentially saving the Gerald R. Ford Amphitheater in Vail. The amphitheater project had started, but stalled in the early 1980s.

“You could see the orange seats out there,” Horan-Kates said. “John Dobson asked us to take over the fundraising.

“It was gratifying,” Horan-Kates said. “We raised $2.5 million to build it, and raised it in six or nine months.”

The foundation also raised several million to build the Vilar Center for the Arts in Beaver Creek. The group runs and does much of the scheduling at both facilities.

One of the secrets of the foundation’s success has been its ability to raise money, which it does very well. When board members decided the foundation should raise money to buy a part of the Eaton Ranch at Edwards ” now called the Eagle River Preserve ” the group was able to raise $12 million ” half of which came from Eagle County ” in less than a year.

But fundraising is a never-ending job at the foundation.

“We’re not endowed,” Folz said. “We start at zero every year, and from the start we’ve had a philosophy that we only spend what we raise. We’ve never lost money, and whatever surpluses we have at the end of the year are plowed back into the community.”

Besides its own fundraising, the foundation also relies on corporate and government sponsors to pay for events. The end result is an organization a lot of people may not know about.

“I don’t think the valley was designed to get accolades,” Gillett said. “It’s been a great frustration. I don’t think the valley has understood the foundation’s contributions to the community.”

For the kiddies

A lot of the money the foundation raises goes to athletics and culture. But a lot goes to local kids. The foundation sponsors the Magic Book Bus, a summer reading program that takes books to kids who might have trouble getting to local libraries.

And, starting this school year, the foundation started writing checks for the “Success at Six” program. That program provides money for full-day kindergarten ” only half-day kindergarten is free to parents in most of Colorado ” to families that couldn’t otherwise afford it.

Education is the part of the foundation’s mission that’s lagged behind the others. “Four or five years ago we really put an emphasis on it,” Dakin said.

“We should have done more with that,” Horan-Kates said. “There should be more conferences and seminars. We have great culture, recreation, and facilities; we deserve great education and leadership. But the educational side will get more attention.

The future

There are already plans for more educational programs. “We have a new program along the lines of the Magic Book Bus coming that focuses more on early education,” Dakin said.

And, of course, more athletic events coming. “We can’t talk about some of it yet,” Dakin said. “But we’ll be dipping our toes into road biking in 2007.”

It’s all part of a continuing success story. “It was really the right idea at the right time,” Folz said.

“We’ve heard from other resorts that are working on foundations of their own. They’ve started them, and they’ve been very different from what we are,” she said. “We came to this so early. In a lot of ways the community grew up around us.”

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