Vail Valley Voices: Time to reinvent ourselves
Vail, CO Colorado
A new year always seems to focus one’s thoughts on both the past and the future. From a valley economic viewpoint, the last couple of years have been less focused on the road ahead than watching the burning wreckage of a smoldering economic landscape in the rear-view mirror. Like fleeing from hulking Skynet helicopters out of a “Terminator” movie, our scorched car has emerged intact, but in shambles with flames dwindling off the rear tires, rubber barely stuck to the rims.
Let us consider 2011 a turning point and believe that, from the song by Florence and the Machine, “The Dog Days Are Over.” Locally, the worst of the layoffs are behind us. Short sales and foreclosures are at or near their peak. Government fiscal belts are tightening with new notches being punched to fit a slimmed-down spending physique. The tempo of the drip of sales tax dollars is more steady and the waterline of the glass is imperceptibly rising past the half-full mark.
Now what? Like towns, after a bad flood, we have to come to grips on how we better insulate ourselves from repeat peril. Build a levy? Relocate to higher ground? An economy that runs on the engine of discretionary dollars is always at risk. That doesn’t make it wrong, but like residents in a flood plain, you need to understand the consequences of where you choose to live.
The absolutely worst thing we can do is rebuild on the same economic flood plain. OK, so let me decouple from the metaphors and be blunt. Our future does not lie in more golf courses, ski slopes and resort hotels. Our future does not lie in another construction bubble where we plan housing for people with no thought to what kinds of jobs (if any) might be available to them. Our future does not lie in creating more lower-paying service sector jobs that once again rekindles affordable housing shortages.
Our future lies in our own abilities to slowly and steadily replace economically volatile jobs with ones that are steady and enduring. We’ve never done that before, but it doesn’t mean we can’t. We have been the handmaiden of developers, some good, some bad, following a tradition that has shaped approval decisions as judgments without economic advocacy. Job quantity has overridden quality and our community schizophrenia pendulums between creating good job opportunities and homebuilding gone wild.
So let’s focus on sustaining the jobs we have and think more aggressively about how we create better, higher-paying jobs.
In the short term, good efforts are now under way to feed core tourism opportunities. The Vail Valley Foundation once again is leading the charge as planning begins in earnest for the 2015 World Alpine Championships. In a closer time frame, Chris Romer is leading the Vail Valley Partnership with some great advocacy in developing more team- and event-oriented sports tourism along with long-overdue outreach and collaboration with our county’s other chambers of commerce and merchant associations. These are efforts that drive critical sales tax streams and keep people employed. However, there are limits in both their impact and scalability.
Several years ago, we lost dozens of good-paying jobs when Vail Resorts decided to relocate to Broomfield. At the time, some of us recognized the “hit” this would have on our economy, but figured that the jobs would slowly be replaced. What none of us ever expected was the implosion of the real estate economy that permanently destroyed many good-paying jobs related to real estate and construction. In the most informed circles within our county, there are no illusions that these jobs will ultimately return.
At this point, our community leaders should be asking a simple, yet critical, question: What’s next? What are the national economic and demographic trends that could shine the light of prosperity in our direction? What employment ideas are out there that make sense and fit with our community infrastructure, norms and aspirations?
There are two broad concepts worth considering. The first is pushing our local educational institutions, both public and private, up to the highest rungs of the achievement ladder. Though we now have more K-12 choices both within our public system and with other private schools, we need to push for making sure we have a high degree of collaboration between all our educational providers and put a high premium on attracting and retaining top teachers. If we move from being in the middle of the pack to the handful of top-tier communities in the state, we’ll inevitably draw entrepreneurial talent with families and better stabilize our transient population. This would go a long way in building a strong and enduring economic platform.
The other big concept is aggressively going out and recruiting new economic entities that complement, not cannibalize, our existing businesses. Top on my list is medical education, but not in the way many think. Imagine more science-driven, year-round programs offered in campus-like facilities by a major research university. Pair that with continuing medical education programs that target small professional groups. Think of having a medical products manufacturers showcase facility (artificial joints, stents, cochlear implants, etc.) with offices, training rooms and lecture hall where doctors and medical techs visit for a couple of days of training with time off for skiing and golf.
This is very, very different from the spa and wellness concepts that have been kicking around the valley for the past several years. Nationally, similar resort communities are chasing the personal wellness market. I don’t think that’s a clear and compelling strategy. On the other hand, if we attract organizations and companies that are built around the business of health, we get high-paying replacement jobs and a true national differentiator.
So let’s get some new tires on the car, turn our eyes forward and set out on a new journey for 2011. It’s time to reinvent ourselves.
Don Cohen is the executive director of the Economic Council of Eagle County. The council’s web site is http://www.economiccouncil.biz.