Vail Valley Voices: A hero for Eagle
Vail, CO, Colorado
I recently had the privilege of honoring Willy Powell for his 28 years of service as Eagle town manager when he was awarded for lifetime achievement by the Colorado City and County Management Association, an organization of public managers.
Willy is the longest-serving public manager of any town in Colorado. I served with Willy during 10 years as an elected town official.
I attribute Willy’s durability to his understanding of town management, and his ability to educate incoming boards with vision, backbone and adaptability.
Willy was a major reason Eagle was prepared for modern growth years. He took on a faltering water and sewer district, instituted a community plan, a fee for open space, impact fees and an affordable housing program, all to help development pay its own way.
He fought off developers not aligned with the town, once wheeling a dolly of documents to the county as testimony. Yet he encouraged other developers aligned with the town vision. Willy was a neighbor, a gatekeeper, and a consummate manager of development details.
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The town grew from 1,000 to 6,000 residents. Most people don’t realize how different the town would be with different leadership — a half-realized gateway ski town or a sprawl of half-baked property owners’ visions.
His mentorship shaped Eagle in ways few understand. Willy’s leadership came thorough many late-night hearings as various boards negotiated the fate of the town.
When the public sector does its job, most accept improvement as status quo. Take a long look at other towns where choosing to live there is a compromise of quality of life, not a choice.
He also shaped my understanding of community.
Coming here, I shopped for unique and authentic places, places with the marks of good decisions.
I learned land use from observing other towns. Some amenities, like a neighborhood park, can came by pulling teeth, at the expense of another 20 homes. In the Terrace, these neighborhood centerpieces become beloved by new residents.
Communities are built with other people’s money. This is a difficult line to walk, steering new growth to fit within a community’s public vision and allow investors to find a path forward. Willy negotiated that ideal.
What I learned in Eagle is trends take years to emerge, and visionary leadership over multiple elected boards bear fruit. It is easy for a board to be held hostage by those with money. Some efforts take a lifetime to achieve.
Not all towns have a single person who has overseen that change, and negotiated hard for it.
Town managers typically are itinerant, with three to five years of service in one place, about one elected board cycle to succeed and move on, or be scapegoated and leave. Many places show the consequences in unsettling ways.
I arrived at an idea when I decided to stop moving from one interesting place to another. Willy embodies the conclusion to which I came when I decided to make Eagle home.
If we are merely a nation of individuals shopping for places in the marketplace, our communities and our social fabric will whither. Property is a commodity, but places are not commodities to be sold and abandoned. The best places emerge from communities created by those who stay and invest, not those who just pass through.
Opportunists in the private sector play a significant part in an emerging place.
Coherent vision, good planning bones attract worthy investors and citizens. Really successful communities achieve a balance of new growth and historic perspective.
If we are to have “society to match our scenery” as Stegner challenged, people must stay, testify, balancing what was good with what could be possible. I believe this about our schools, and I believe this about our towns. Willy stayed put for 28 years-amid storms of opinion.
Today, Eagle is poised for the transportation projects it needs and water-sewer demands as few other places. This positioning took years.
I could not have chosen a better mentor or a better place to learn the public service.
When first thrust on board, suddenly, I had a real live model and actual decisions to make on Tuesdays. This lent credence to my study of community.
As I travelled the West, I saw communities differently, as accretions of choices, and decisions and break points that made history.
Towns are not static. Some redevelop, and others stagnate. Places where development pressure and good leadership align will succeed.
I’ve read a library of planning books and met many visionaries in my continuing study of place. I have continued my public service, now as a county commissioner.
My own community achieved the value of much of that effort. I am proud to have built my home in a development that I reviewed with input as a Town Board member. Each day, I live the good decisions and the forgotten mistakes that few neighbors recognize.
Willy has remained a mentor, and an example of why communities succeed. He has endeavored through an onslaught of opinions. I live the fruits of his leadership.
For the high quality of living in this place where others gravitate I thank Willy. In his honor, others see reason to stay, building this community and investing the time it takes.
Drive around. This place is worth the effort, and investment. It could have been quite different.
Jon Stavney, of Eagle, is an Eagle County commissioner.