Vail’s renaissance: "A tenuous time’
Vail’s revitalization, known locally as the Vail Renaissance or Vail’s New Dawn, is going to present some of the largest challenges Vail has ever faced, town and business leaders agree.
The problems created by the redevelopment are many but the opportunities are exciting, said Stan Zemler, Vail’s town manager. On Wednesday, he spoke about “Vail’s Focus on the Future,” in a State-of-the-Union-style talk before a gathering of members of the Vail Valley Chamber and Tourism Bureau.
“We’re entering a tenuous period of time from an economic standpoint,” Zemler said. “We have to determine where we are now and where we will end up.”
Zemler’s been in this situation before. He spent half-a-dozen years doing just that as executive director of Boulder’s Chamber of Commerce. He was involved in the revitalization of the city, which included redeveloping several aging building in its core.
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Foremost in the considerations for Vail will be the economics of revitalizing the town. For the last decade it has been dependent on sales taxes for nearly 50 percent of its operating revenue. Those taxes have been flattening or declining since 1993, forcing the town to tighten its belt and trim its operation.
Zemler suggested the town needs to change how it will fund the construction by tapping new tax sources and by considering an increase in property taxes, which, he said, are far too low for the town to operate successfully.
“They’re incredibly low. A person paying taxes on a $500,000 house only pays the town $187,” he said.
About 11 percent of the redevelopment, or $109 million, will come from public coffers and making sure there’s money for that is causing plenty of furrowed brows at Town Hall. For Vail, it’s going to be a case of breaking some eggs to make an omelet. During the redevelopment, Zemler said, sales taxes may drop even lower before they rebound when business floods into the renovated resort.
One of the funding mechanisms the town may investigate is a use tax on construction and other materials. The town may also look at taxing items shipped out of the area, Zemler said.
“We’re doing okay for being flat,” he said. “We have $20 million in reserves. We’re spending 60 percent of our revenue on operations and 40 percent on capital. The slip in sales tax has affected our ability to stay at 50 -50.
“Sales taxes are too volatile,” he added.
One of the hurdles the town will have to overcome is the public perception of redevelopment. “There is cynicism about redevelopment,” Zemler said. “There have been a number of false starts.”
Among the town-funded projects in varying stages of approval and review are a $14 million streetscape project in Vail Village; a $40 million conference center in Lionshead; and $45 million in renovations in Lionshead. Some of those projects will include water, fire or ice features, Zemler said.
Private developers, including Vail Resorts, will undertake the remainder of the renovations, which include redevelopment of several buildings: Manor Vail, the Sonnenalp’s Swiss Haus, the Four Seasons south of the main roundabout, the Crossroads Shopping Center, the Tivoli Lodge and the Lionshead gondola building. Early plans from Vail Resorts show an outdoor ice rink as part of the gondola building’s redevelopment.
The other major project is a redesign of the land and buildings surrounding the Vista Bahn Express lift at the base of Vail Mountain and the top of Bridge Street.
The heaviest construction in Lionshead and Vail Village will occur in 2005-’06, said Russell Forrest, Vail’s community development director. Zemler said coordinating the demolition and redevelopment work – and keeping it from shutting down nearby retail businesses and tourist attractions – will be a “huge” challenge.
For Vail’s streetscape redesign, the work will be done in two-month increments during the spring and fall shoulder seasons when business typically is slower, Zemler said. But it’s taking an enormous amount of meetings to make sure all elements of the redevelopment are considered, he said.
“We have to have a plan to manage all that activity,” Zemler said.
One of the organizations the town is looking at utilizing to help in that arena is a yet-to-be-created urban renewal authority that could be funded by property taxes.
Vail’s conference center, seemingly stuck in what some call “analysis paralysis,” will be funded by a lodging tax approved in 2002 by voters. The project is also driving discussions about the ongoing lack of parking in Vail.
Cars parked along the Frontage Road is “a good problem to have,” Zemler said. “It’s better than them not being there.”
“One of the good things about the conference center is that it’s forcing conversations on parking,” he added, saying he’s providing town staff with a new glossary regarding the conference center.
“Instead of maybe it will happen now, it’s going to happen,” he said. “Vail needs new cachet in its shoulder seasons.”
A conference center, consultants said, will strengthen a year-round economy in Vail, making it less dependent on ski and summer business.
Among other lingering issues the town wants to resolve and fund is a West Vail fire station, first promised to residents more than 20 years ago.
Cliff Thompson can be reached via e-mail at: email@example.com or by calling 949-0555 ext. 450.
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